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Monday, September 17, 2018

A Tale of Two Terminals

Grand Central Station--designed (and redesigned) for busy.
"It's like Grand Central Station around here." That's a phrase my mother sometimes used when friends or relatives came calling or during other stressful moments when it seemed to her that the whole world had invaded our otherwise quiet, small-town home. I know for a fact she never passed through the famed New York City landmark and probably had only the vaguest idea of what it looked like. I know I certainly didn't. In all likelihood she knew only that it was a very hectic busy place. I was a senior, about to graduate from high school before I ever laid eyes on the early 20th-century Beaux-Arts architectural masterpiece trying to impart the same graceful French stylings of the Orsay Train Station in Paris  (now a museum), to the rapidly expanding transportation needs of a modern, bustling, hectic, busy city. That was 1963. I was quite unaware of the fact that New York City's other major rail hub, nearby Penn Station, was about to give up its structural "life" in what would become an historic, landmark case of greed and architectural desecration. The controversy resulting from the demolition of Penn Station was the catalyst for New York City's Landmark Preservation Commission which would, just a few years later, save Grand Central Station from a similar fate.
  
Penn Station main concourse, circa 1956.
Both terminals were architectural relics of a bygone era of grand palaces and hotels almost before they were built. Grand Central Station began rising from the huge mass of limestone bedrock undergirding the Manhattan "concrete jungle" in 1903. The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroad all came together on 42nd Street to facilitate rail traffic in and out of the city. The present-day building, designed by Bradford Gilbert, was erected to replace the former Grand Central Depot (below-upper image), built on the site in 1871. No one protested when it was torn down. By today's standards, and even those of the time, it was one of the ugliest buildings in city.
 
The old Grand Central Depot was designed for steam locomotives. Its 1903 replacement handled only electric.
 
From the advent of mass rail transportation during the second half of the 19th-century, architects struggled mightily to adapt antique styles to the new and demanding requirements of bringing people, and the "rolling stock" to move them about, together without disrupting the social niceties of the time. Starting in England, but equally perplexing in big cities like New York, for the most part these architects and engineers failed miserably as the concentrated as much (or more) on style than they did function. Grand Central and Penn Station terminals were among the monolithic battlegrounds where this conflict can best be seen. Penn Station died in this war. Grand Central Station suffered numerous architectural "wounds."

In that both stations had much of their "guts" underground, the massive excavations needed to construct the all-important passenger platforms could only have been accomplished through the arrival of the William Otis steam shovel in 1839.
Most of the station's 49 acres is underground. Beside the Metro North trains, you can get subway trains 4, 5 to the Bronx or Brooklyn, the 6 train north to the Bronx, the 7 train to Queens, or S train to Times Square (I always take a cab). There's also a special underground line, which is no longer used nor available for public view, from Grand Central to the Waldorf Astoria. This was so that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not be seen by the public as he traveled to and from the hotel and was helped in and out of the train due to his physical disabilities.


By the early years of the 20th-century, the automobile had come to dictate the layout, if not the facade, of Grand Central Station as much as the unseen "electric trains" below.
For the rest of us, there are several entrances to Grand Central Station. From the east, you pass through a market filled with fresh loaves of bread, cheese, jams, caviar, fruits and vegetables arrayed like fine jewelry. From Vanderbilt Avenue on the west side, there are restaurants and shops. The north entrance may seem the least interesting, but has some of the finest restaurants in New York. However, the best way to enter the station is from 42nd Street, where you'll see the old Pan Am Building (now the home of MetLife) rising behind the station like a backdrop (below).

The 42nd Street (at Park Avenue) entrance to Grand Central Station today.
The four-faced clock can be
read from any angle.
Above the main entrance is the Tiffany clock surrounded by Roman gods. There you'll pass through heavy oak and glass doors into a room that houses the photography and art exhibitions whenever they are held. Just beyond that, the main terminal with its ceiling, vaulted, and exalted, painted with the constel-lations of the zodiac (below). The old ticket windows are still there along the wall along with the four-faced clock (right) above the information booth. Across the way are the numbered entrances for the tracks for the trains heading out of town.


The ceiling of the Grand Central Station main concourse featuring the art of Paul C├ęsar Helleu.
The original Penn Station, designed by the Beaux Arts architects McKim, Mead & White, opened in 1910. It was one of New York's grandest structures. In this day and age, it's hard to believe the Pennsylvania Railroad got away with demolishing this Neo-classical white beauty. If they needed a big parcel of land, why didn’t they tear down the Port Authority Bus Terminal instead? Few would have protested that. Penn Station’s destruction subsequently ushered in an era of historic preservation. The building was demolished in October of 1963 to create the current facility. The ensuing controversy helped fuel the preservation movement in New York and the passage of the Landmarks Law in 1965.
New York City's Penn Station was named for the Pennsylvania Railroad, it's builder and original tenant.
About ten block and 55 years now
separate the two transportation
landmarks. A tail of two terminals
unites them.
Penn Station occupied an eight-acre plot bounded east and west by Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and north and south by 31st and 33rd Streets in Mid-Town Manhattan. The original Pennsylvania Station head house (for passengers) and train shed (for trains) were considered a masterpiece of the Neo-Classical style and one of the great arch-itectural works of New York City. Penn Station maintained its arch-itectural grandeur until World War II, when rail usage started to decline. In the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Rail-road sold the air rights to the prop-erty and downsized the railroad sta-tion. The above ground head house and train shed of the station were demolished and replaced by Madi-son Square Garden and Pennsyl-vania Plaza between 1963 and 1969. Today, the site is also occu-pied by a hotel and an office build-ing. Below ground, the concourses and waiting areas were heavily renovated during this time. However, the platforms at the station's lowest level were not significantly modified, and evidence of the original station still exists at platform level.
 
New York City's Penn Station today (or what's left of it).
 
"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can archi-tecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."
--"Farewell to Penn Station,"
New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963 


































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