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Grand Central: Grand by Design

Jeffrey Syken

“In a New York Minute” / “Like Grand Central Station” / “Rolling out the Red Carpet”

All of these terms, now integral to the modern English language, have their origin in New York City’s “Gateway to a Continent” – Grand Central. A “New York Minute” can be measured from without on the beautiful Tiffany clock at the base of “Transportation” – the heroic sculptural group atop the 42nd Street facade or from within, on the four-faced opalescent “Ball Clock” crowning the Main Concourse’s information kiosk. In its heyday, the equivalent of the entire population of the United States passed through its doors and up and down its gently sloping ramps in the course of a year thus was the crowded, busy place – no matter where in the world, “like Grand Central Station.” “Rolling out the red carpet” meant only one thing at Grand Central, quite literally. From Track 28, an overnight journey to Chicago on the Central’s flagship 20th Century Limited began with rolling out a specially woven, platform-length embroidered red carpet for the rich and famous to tread upon before boarding the legendary train.

The story of Grand Central began as a result of a ban against steam locomotives running on the streets of New York City which was concentrated on the southern-end of Manhattan Island in the early 19th Century. After “assimilating” three railroads into the New York & Hudson River Railroad (later renamed the New York Central Lines) during the Civil War, “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt consolidated his Manhattan operations on an expanded parcel of land he had initially purchased as a yard and maintenance facility at 42nd Street – the southernmost extent to which the city fathers would allow his steam locomotives to operate. In 1871, the first incarnation of “Grand Central” opened in a French Empire style, three-story L-shaped “Head House” with an adjoining train yard/shed: Grand Central Depot. Horse-drawn trolleys would take passengers to points further south on the island since the steam engines were permitted to go no further. The 600-foot wide train yard extending well north of the depot and grade level tracks proved both dangerous and at odds with the city’s well thought-out grid plan. A clarion call of opposition forced the Commodore to sink the tracks below Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) and bridges would permit an unimpeded flow of cross-town traffic.

By the end of the century, the volume of passenger traffic to/from Grand Central had increased by 400%. In 1885, an Annex added several much needed tracks and platforms, but by the 1890s, it was insufficient to handle the ever increasing traffic. From 1898 to 1900, the original three-story, dysfunctional depot was transformed into a six-story state-of-the-art Station, thus its second incarnation as Grand Central Station. Even so, insufficient capacity and steam locomotives remained the two main long-term problems facing Grand Central and the railroads serving it. The Central’s Chief Engineer – William J. Wigus, would solve both problems simultaneously. The new technology of electric traction would allow trains to travel below ground with no harmful effect thus eliminating the need for steam-powered locomotives. The sale of “air-rights” would pay for electrification of the Central’s lines, modernization of equipment, yard expansion and a new terminal featuring underground levels using a “loop” track layout and separate local/long-distance concourses. The result was the third and final incarnation: Grand Central Terminal. It would face decline and neglect in the post-WWII years and nearly met the fate of its cross-town rival – Pennsylvania Station, but an heroic effort to both save and revitalize the great edifice bore fruit by the end of the 1990s. As such, Grand Central remains the pulsing heart of the great city it has served so well for over a century.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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