Yesterday I reviewed Sam Roberts’ Grand Central: How a Station Transformed America and it was so filled with fun facts about the station and its preservation that I couldn’t resist sharing a few of my favorites!
- Winston Churchill’s maternal grandfather, Leonard Jerome, was Cornelius Vanderbilt’s stockbroker.
- The English language didn’t include the word ramp until Grand Central was built. The station was the first to be virtually stair-less. The ramps in the station were perfectly calculated to speed travelers (from the elderly to toddlers and their baggage) along. The use of the word ramp, probably comes from rampart.
- It is home to the largest Tiffany stained glass clock in the world.
- The number IV on the clock is a door that overlooks Park Avenue when opened.
- The constellations painted on the ceiling of the grand concourse are backward. Station officials cover the blunder by claiming the celestial mural represents God’s view.
- There is a five-inch-diameter hole dating to 1957 in the ceiling of the Main Concourse just above the constellation Pisces. It was cut to accommodate a cable installed to keep a five-ton Redstone missile displayed during the Cold War from tipping over. It was preserved during the restoration.
- In the northwest corner of the Main Concourse ceiling there is a symmetrical dark patch. Until the 1990s, the entire ceiling was darkened from decades of tobacco and nicotine residue. During the renovation, the patch was left as a “before and after.” The ceiling was in such good condition after the cleaning, only a few gallons of paint were needed to get it in tip-top shape.
- It is home to the largest sculptural grouping in the world.
- You can say, “It’s like Grand Central Station in here” anywhere in the world and everyone will know you mean that its chaotic and frenetic scene.
- In an act of irony (or hypocrisy?) an East Staircase that had been nixed from the original station plan was constructed, even though the decade long court battle won by preservationists in the 70s centered around the addition of an office tower atop the station – even though one had initially been planned for the station (supports for the tower were incorporated in the building during construction, but were ultimately not needed when the plan was abandoned).
- To clean dirt from the walls of the terminal, they were painted with plastic. The plastic was then carefully peeled away, taking the the dirt and grime with it.
- There is a secret platform known by station employees as Track 61 that is used by VIPs and presidents (including FDR and George W. Bush).
- Acorns and oak leaves are Vanderbilt family emblems. They decorate some of the terminal’s light fixtures and friezes.
- The civil rights movement was nurtured at Grand Central, through A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
- The original quarry in Tennessee was located and reopened specifically to provide matching stone to replace damaged stone and for the new East Staircase during restoration. Each piece of new stone is labeled with its installation date and the fact that it was not a part of the original Terminal building.
Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Where and how we build something tells a story of time and place, but how the building is used and its effect on people and development tells another story. Such is the case with New York City’s iconic Grand Central Station, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In the book Grand Central: How a Terminal Transformed America, popular historian Sam Roberts recounts the amalgam of events and powerful people that shaped the station and how the station has effected New York City, the United States and the millions of travelers who have crisscrossed the vast terminal over the last century. Making this station come alive through the story of the people who built it, use(d) it, and saved it from the wrecking ball is what Roberts excels at in this celebratory volume.
Grand Central Station solved a problem. A depot existed on the site decades before the Grand Central we now know. Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ruthless industrialist and railroad tycoon, it was envisioned as a single station for all three of his railroads in a central location. He chose not the city’s center but the bucolic outskirts predicting that the city’s growth and the station’s capacity for development would make it central in time. It had a messy open train yard that made the streets surrounding the station incredibly dangerous and its train tunnels were equally as hazardous. They were filled with smoke, cinders and heat, created by the steam-powered locomotives, conditions which precipitated a catastrophic crash in 1902. The accident galvanized the public. When politicians and lawmakers began clamoring for change, the station was redesigned.
The redesign was revolutionary. An innovative two-level station for incoming and outgoing trains made it the largest train station by number of tracks and platforms in the world. The trains were all electric which eliminated hazardous tunnel conditions. It was also the first train station to be all electric, which was advertised by leaving hundreds of light bulbs uncovered throughout the structure. Outside the station, viaducts safely sped motorists around the terminal, which would have otherwise obstructed traffic. And the dangerous open train yard was decked over, creating some of the most valuable real estate in the world, Park Avenue. Decking over the train yard and leasing the property above also created one of modern real estate’s most important principals – air rights. William J. Wilgus the engineer who was responsible for the station’s design and construction coined the term “taking wealth from the air” and used the idea to help finance the station. Though Wilgus has been largely forgotten by history, Roberts argues that it was his innovative ideas that made Grand Central so spectacular, profitable, and influential.
Grand Central Station contributed to a geographical and cultural shift in New York City and the US, according to Roberts. When the station opened, the New York Times complained it was too far uptown to be central, but eventually development around the station created mid-town Manhattan (just as Vanderbilt predicted). It fostered the nation’s westward expansion and growth via the railroad. It also changed the American family; reliable trains allowed families to move to leafy suburbs, while bread-winners traveled to and from the city to work each day. In fact, the word commuter didn’t exist before Grand Central Station. An employee noticed a lot of people were taking the train twice a day, five days a week and decided that instead of charging these folks full fare, the station would commute it – the same way a prisoner’s sentence can be commuted – as a part of a marketing scheme!
Grand Central was the subject of an unprecedented Supreme Court decision and multimillion dollar restoration effort. Predictably, my favorite chapter of the book centered around the station’s preservation! Roberts did not disappoint. He laid out the facts surrounding its preservation and renovation in delightfully positive terms. By the 1960s, Grand Central was in decline. Faced with mounting financial woes, Penn Central proposed a large office tower to be built over the designated historic landmark. (Ironically, it was Wilgus’ brilliance that almost doomed the station. He’d planned for the world’s tallest building atop the terminal and though the plans were abandoned, the structural supports were built.) The proposal drew an enormous amount of opposition, most notably from Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis. The preservation battle eventually found its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld a city’s legal right to preserve a privately-owned historic landmark for the first time EVER. The legal precedent set in the case is essential to preservation today! The preservation triumph was followed up by a mid-1990s restoration effort that cost $800 million and took 12 years to complete.
Grand Central: How a Terminal Transformed America is POPULAR history, not an academic work. If you are looking for a definitive text or critical analysis of the station’s history, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you are a railroad aficionado, a history buff, a lover of old buildings, or just a lover of Grand Central Station then this is the ticket. It is informative, but also light and fun. And it’s chock full of interesting facts and trivia (so much so that it sometimes feels like a list of amazing but somewhat disjointed tidbits and anecdotes). Throughout the book, Roberts’ tone is conversational – little wonder given that he is a veteran journalist. He has worked as the New York Times‘ urban affairs correspondent, as deputy editor of the Times‘ Week in Review section, urban affairs columnist, et cetera. Thanks to his tone, journalist style, and skillful story-telling Grand Central is entertaining, easy to read and accomplishes Roberts’ goal to share the story of the station and its success on its 100th anniversary.
Though not exhaustive, Roberts’ history is inspiring and brings the station to life in a new way. His narrative is laced with anecdotes about the people who shaped the station from inception to preservation and the people whose lives were subsequently shaped by the palatial Beaux Arts beauty. These stories bring heart to the 35,000 square feet of marble, shops, waiting rooms, restaurants, etc. that make up the station. This book also celebrates pioneering efforts in engineering, architecture, urban planning and preservation, which created and reshaped Grand Central Station. It pays due credit to a building that re-shaped NYC, the United States and made such an indelible imprint in US pop culture. Again, this is not a definitive work, but if you are looking for a celebration of this remarkable piece of architecture and history, this is it. Churchill, ever eloquent, could not have been more right.
Grand Central Publishing/$30
Check back at Bricks + Mortar later in the week for some Fun Facts about Grand Central! Who knows, maybe it will help you win pub trivia!
A special thanks to Kevin Henry for letting me borrow his copy of Grand Central (and for letting me hold it hostage for so long)!