Grand Central Terminal’s Centennial

Today (February 2, 2013) marks the centennial of the opening of New York City’s magnificent Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street. [1]

Whenever I am in the Terminal, I marvel at its beautiful details and overwhelming presence.

Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal

 

 

 

 

 

W. C. Brown
W. C. Brown

 

Being in the Terminal also reminds me of an ancestor who played a significant role in managing its construction for the New York Central Railroad: William Carlos Brown, who was a Railroad Vice President, 1902-1906; Senior Vice President, 1906-1909; and President, 1909-1913. He was the son of my maternal second great-grandfather, Rev. Charles E. Brown, and hence was my second great-uncle. [2]

William J. Wilgus
William J. Wilgus

The idea for the Terminal was suggested in December 1902 by William J. Wilgus, the Chief Engineer of the New York Central Railroad.

Wilgus was responding to the crash earlier that year (January) of two steam-powered trains in the Park Avenue Tunnel at 58th Street in Manhattan. Because of the steam, cinders, heat, fog and snow, the engineer of one of the trains could not see the other train and failed to stop. Fifteen passengers were killed instantly, and many others were injured.

As he pondered that year over the crash, Wilgus became convinced that it was no longer possible to run a massive railroad yard at the heart of the nation’s largest city and that electric locomotives would be much safer and more efficient to operate in cities. Therefore, he suggested demolishing the existing Grand Central Depot, replacing steam locomotives with electric ones and constructing Grand Central Terminal.

The New York Central’s board of directors in January 1903 approved this suggestion and committed to a massive demolition and construction project while not interrupting train service to and from the City.

The demolition phase was the largest in the City’s history at the time: 120 houses, three churches, two hospitals, an orphan asylum, stables, warehouses and other buildings on 17 acres were torn down.

On May 1, 1904, ground was broken for the new building. Upon completion it covered 70 acres with 32 miles of rails that converged into 46 tracks serving 11 platforms. The Terminal alone cost $43 million to build ($1 billion in today’s dollars).

N.Y. Times, Feb. 1913
N.Y. Times, Feb. 1913

When it opened, the New York Times called it the “greatest railway terminal in the world.” Another observer at the time said it “is not only a station; it is a monument, a civic center or, if one will, a city.”

Even more effusive in 1975 was the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division in rejecting a challenge to the designation of the Terminal as a “landmark” thereby restricting its redevelopment:

  • “Grand Central Terminal is unquestionably one of New York City’s best known buildings. Along with the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, the image of its façade symbolizes [the] City for millions of visitors and residents. The Terminal as a whole includes a variety of architectural and engineering elements: railroad tracks and platforms; space and facilities for marshaling and handling railroad equipment; passage-ways and ramps affording access to adjacent streets, office buildings and subway stations; and concourses for the use of passengers and pedestrians passing through the Terminal. The Main Concourse . . . is a large room, 120 x 375 feet, with a ceiling 125 feet high at its apex. “
  • “From its formal opening to the public in 1913 . . . the Terminal has been recognized not only for its architecture, but as a superb example of comprehensive urban design. The complete submergence of all the tracks and a double track system not only resulted in the accommodation of more trains without the acquisition of more land, but permitted construction of revenue-producing buildings on the air rights over the railroad tracks and the development of Park Avenue as one this nation’s most prestigious residential communities . . . . Today . . . [the] Terminal still remains a splendid edifice and a major part of the cultural and architectural heritage of New York City.”[3]

[1] To celebrate the centennial, Sam Roberts, the urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times, published a wonderful article and video in the Times about the Terminal and its construction. The article was excerpted from his book, Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, which was just published by Grand Central Publishing. The Times also has re-published its February 2, 1913, special section about the Terminal’s opening. Photographs of yesterday’s centennial celebration are online as is a collection of vintage photographs of the Terminal. This post is based upon these Times articles and upon Kurt Schlichting, Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press; Baltimore 2001).

[2] Prior posts have recounted tales of Rev. Charles E. Brown. Subsequent posts will review W.C. Brown’s amazing railroad career.

[3] Penn Central Transp. Co. v. City of New York, 50 A.D.2d 265, 377 N.Y.S.2d 20, 24-25 (App.Div. 1975), aff’d, 42 N.Y.2d 1271, 366 N.E.2d 1271 (1977), aff’d, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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