Grand Central Terminal Turns 100
Equal parts transit hub and tourist destination, Grand Central Terminal celebrates its 100th birthday on Friday.
The iconic station has experienced its share of difficulties over the years, most notably when it fell into disrepair and was nearly wrecked to make way for a skyscraper.
But with the help of renovations, it has reemerged as a beloved architectural gem, visited by roughly 750,000 people each day.
“The design is impeccable,” said MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Anders. “The feeling that you get when you walk into the main concourse with its soaring arched ceiling and its magnificent monumental windows and the stars coming down, it has a visceral effect on people.”
Most visitors to the terminal ride the subway or Metro-North trains, check out the 35 eating establishments or 68 shops, take a walking tour or self-guided audio tour, or just pass through to avoid bad weather outside.
Others are content simply to gawk up at the ceiling in wonder, much the same way people did when Grand Central Terminal first opened in 1913.
In fact, shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt completed the first Grand Central, called Grand Central Depot, even earlier.
“When he built the original one (in 1871), it was far out of town,” said Anthony W. Robins, co-author of “Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark.” “The city was concentrated much further south.”
In 1900, the depot was renamed Grand Central Station following a large expansion effort. Two years later, however, a train collision in a smoke-filled tunnel killed 15 and injured 38, prompting demands for electric trains to replace steam-powered ones.
That’s exactly what the station’s owners decided to do. During the construction of Grand Central Terminal from 1903 to 1913, they electrified and buried the tracks, which used to look somewhat like Sunnyside Yards in Queens.
“It really created East Midtown,” Robins said in reference to the new buildings that popped up on site.
People originally flocked there in droves. In addition to the train tracks, a movie theater, an art school, CBS’ television studios and tennis courts could all be found there at various points.
Nonetheless, it eventually began to deteriorate as focus shifted from train to car and air travel.
“It was dangerous, it was filthy and there was a huge homeless population,” Robins said.
In the 1970s, the city – with the help of celebrities like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – narrowly averted an attempt to essentially replace the structure with a 55-story skyscraper.
Renovations have since restored its former splendor.
“It’s come through all of these hard times,” Robins said. “In a way it’s mirrored the progress of the city over the last 40 years.”
Grand Central Timeline
-1903: Construction begins on Grand Central Terminal. Three churches, an orphan asylum, 120 houses and a number of other structures are demolished to clear space.
-1913: The station, which cost over $2 billion in today’s dollars, opens to the public at midnight on Feb. 1. The first train leaves 20 minutes later.
-1967: New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which formed soon after the destruction of nearby Pennsylvania Station, designates Grand Central as a landmark.
-1976: Croatian nationalists plant a bomb in a Grand Central locker, which kills a police officer during a botched disarming operation.
-1978: The U.S. Supreme Court upholds Grand Central’s landmark status, thereby thwarting efforts to replace it with a skyscraper.
-1991: Amtrak moves its operations from Grand Central to Penn Station.
-1998: A major renovation to restore the station’s former splendor is (mostly) completed.
Nooks and crannies of Grand Central
-The world’s largest clock made with Tiffany glass, measuring 14 feet in diameter, stands near Grand Central’s 42nd Street entrance next to statues of Minerva, Hercules and Mercury.
-Carved acorns and oak leaves found throughout the terminal are the family symbol of the Vanderbilts, who played a major role in the station’s development.
-A hidden spiral staircase connects the main concourse information booth with a lower level information booth.
-A whispering gallery, located near the Oyster Bar & Restaurant, carries the tiniest bit of sound from one corner of a 50-foot-wide domed chamber across the ceiling to another corner.