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Grand Central Terminal marks centennial in grand style

Updated 8:49 am, Saturday, February 2, 2013

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  • Martin Jezl takes a photo of himself and girlfriend, Ricki Weiss, inside Grand Central Terminal, New York City, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. The couple, from Austria, was visiting New York City and wanted to see the landmark terminal that is celebrating its 100th birthday on Febuary 1st. Photo: Bob Luckey / Greenwich Time
    Martin Jezl takes a photo of himself and girlfriend, Ricki Weiss, inside Grand Central Terminal, New York City, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. The couple, from Austria, was visiting New York City and wanted to see the landmark terminal that is celebrating its 100th birthday on Febuary 1st. Photo: Bob Luckey

 

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When its doors opened at midnight on Feb. 2, 1913, more than 150,000 people flocked to Grand Central Terminal to marvel at the kind of opulence and grandeur usually reserved for grand European palaces or opera houses.

Grand marble staircases, the opal-faced, four-sided clock, sloping ramps to the lower level and the jaw-dropping gold-leafed fresco of the Mediterranean night sky soaring across the vaulted 125-foot ceiling.

One hundred years later, nearly 750,000 commuters a day whiz through the buildings' halls and catacombs, often dodging tourists who continue to marvel at one of New York's most recognized and revered landmarks.

On Friday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began a year-long celebration of the centennial of Grand Central Terminal with a day of ceremonies, performances and other events, spanning the building's history, legacy and future.

"The fact that it is still there is quite amazing and a thrill," said Anthony W. Robins, a historian , lecturer and former member of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission. "It's an amazing space that represents the history of the city."

Preserving the past

As railroads declined, so did Grand Central. It very nearly met the same fate as its Beaux Arts cousin Pennsylvania Station just a few blocks away.

In 1968, the city's Landmarks Commission denied a developer permission to demolish much of the upper level concourse and the Vanderbilt Room to enable the construction of a 55-story tower designed by modern architect Marcel Breuer. The commission was formed in 1965 after the demolition of Penn Station, which featured many of the same elegant designs as Grand Central.

With the assistance of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Grand Central was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld New York City's right to preserve historic buildings even if that preservation can be argued to have reduced the rights of private owners to develop those properties.

"The destruction of Pennsylvania Station led the city to pass the Landmarks Preservation Law and Grand Central was the second building designated as a landmark at that time," Robins said.

"Across the country cities were watching that ruling because of course they had also passed their own landmark preservation laws and if New York had lost, all of their laws would be invalid."

Among those appearing on Friday will be Onassis' daughter Caroline Kennedy, along with descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad tycoon who purchased the New York Central Railroad and went on to spend $71 million -- about $1.7 billion when adjusted for inflation to today's dollars -- to build Grand Central.

A grand plan

The impetus behind Grand Central came as a means to quell the chaos as steam trains competed with horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians on midtown Manhattan's increasingly crowded, dangerous and dirty streets.

In January 1902, a train from White Plains, N.Y., rear-ended a train from Danbury in the Park Avenue Tunnel, killing 17 people, galvanizing concerted political and community pressure on the Vanderbilt family and the railroad to eliminate the noisy, coal- powered trains.

William J. Wilgus, chief engineer of the New York Central Railroad, devised a plan in 1903 and won approval from Vanderbilt to demolish the train sheds and original station above ground and place it all below grade under Park Avenue by harnessing the latest technological advancement of electic-powered trains.

"There just wasn't enough space anymore between Madison and Lexington to fit tracks, so it was his vision to go underground," said Kurt Schlichting, a Fairfield University professor and author of "Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering & The Architecture of New York City."

"It also couldn't have happened unless they were able to make electric trains work, so it was an immensely technological project," he said.

In addition to crafting a vision for the infrastructure to operate electric trains, Wilgus wanted to assure the most efficient and user-friendly experience for riders using the terminal. For the first time, retail and office space would be interconnected with the terminal to provide a greater level of amenities for riders, Schlichting said.

Schlichting said Wilgus realized the substitution of electricity for steam-powered trains would allow a greater volume of trains at higher speeds underground and boost shorter haul commuter service on a daily basis.

Wilgus' idea that the two central concourses atop one another should serve different purposes -- an upper level for long-distance trains with their wealthier clientele and a lower one to accommodate the burgeoning surburban commuter service, proved prescient, Schlichting said.

Separating the twice-daily commuter rush made sense to prevent the two separate groups from conflicting, Schlichting said.

"The city was growing and suburbanization had begun and while the suburbs were initially for the wealthy, not the middle class, Wilgus certainly knew that daily rail travel was growing rapidly," he said. "It's a different kind of rail travel, and he knew they should devote an entire level to the commuter service."

Wilgus is also credited for the substitution of a network of gently graded ramps for staircases, making Grand Central Terminal the world's first "stairless" rail depot, Schlichting said. As intended by Wilgus, harried rush-hour commuters swiftly found the walkways a quicker, less painful way than stairs to head underground and reach their platform, according to an article in the New York Times on Feb. 2, 1913.

From that time forward they could enter the terminal without crossing the main concourse.

"Some of the passengers who have been using the gentle incline that leads to the already populous suburban concourse have been heard exclaiming over the novelty and ingeniousness of the arrangement," the New York Times reported.

Changes, but still central

The decision to electrify Grand Central Terminal completed the electrification of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroads rail lines from Woodlawn to Stamford in 1907, enabling improved and more frequent service to outlying areas.

In Greenwich, the new technology resulted in an influx of younger financial executives who commuted daily and built stately homes on subdivided land from larger estates in local hamlets such as Deer Park, Milbank, and Khakum Wood, said Davidde Strackbein, a trustee of the Greenwich Historical Society.

"In the earlier era, the people coming out from New York City were the sugar kings and copper kings, but then you saw them replaced with people who were more the up and coming group of young executives," Strackbein said.

Following the end of World War II began a gradual decline in long-distance rail travel due to the ascendance of the automobile for Americans, putting a tight financial squeeze on the New York Central Railroad, which merged with its former nemesis the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.

Today, the appearance of the terminal remains defined by the renowned Beaux Arts architectural design created by chief architect Whitney Warren in 1907. The terminal building itself also represented a symbolic edifice to New York City's sense of importance as the world's largest city at that time, said Robins, author of the new book "Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark."

Aspects such as the Corinthian columns and the sprawling cavern-like grand concourse, were in keeping with the Beaux Arts precept of designing a public building around a central area, Robins said, a school of architecture which leaned heavily on the monumental elements of Greek and Roman architecture.

From the beginning, one of the terminal's defining features was the ceiling fresco on the vaulted cavern-like ceiling of the main concourse which pictured the zodiac in the Mediterranean night sky between October and March.

"The idea was this is too important, our railroad is too important, and the city is too important because this is the center of the world," Robins said. "The Beaux Arts architects had studied the monuments of the Roman Empire and felt America would be the next great empire and needed appropriately grand buildings."