When it comes to the world’s most majestic train stations, New York’s Grand Central Station almost always makes the list. Built in 1913, the Beaux Arts depot is the world’s largest in terms of platforms—there are 44 of them serving 63 tracks—and it’s famed for its elaborate details, such as the magnificent celestial ceiling mural and the iconic four-faced clock (worth an estimated $10 to 20 million) in the main hall. But despite being an architectural gem, Grand Central was almost lost to the wrecking ball, like its competitor Penn Station, in the 1970s. Thanks to a push by preservationists and architecture enthusiasts, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, that captivated the nation, the terminal was saved in a landmark Supreme Court case about landmarks (pun intended)—a ruling that celebrates its 45th anniversary in 2023. This year also sees the 25th anniversary of the massive restoration that brought Grand Central back to its former glory. To celebrate these occasions, we’re taking a walk down memory lane and diving into the history of this legendary railway terminal.
At the turn of the 20th century, rail travel represented the peak of a modern, connected society. However, it also meant pollution—and lots of it. At the time, city laws prohibited steam engines south of 42nd street since the hub of the vibrant metropolis was downtown. Coincidentally, New Yorkers were keen to solidify their city as a cultural and economic capital with a majestic landmark. The complimentary occurrences meant one thing: New York City deserved a grand train depot, and 42nd street would be an ideal location for the structure. “People who come to New York should enter a palace on the end of their ride, and not a shed,” read the June 5, 1869, edition of the Real Estate Record and Guide.
Still, officials quickly determined that one depot wouldn’t be enough, and it was decided that two stations would serve the city. Pennsylvania Station, operated by Pennsylvania Railroad, would be located on the west side of the city while Grand Central Station, operated by the competing New York Central Railroad, would cover the east side of the island. Work on Penn Station began first, with the railroad hiring popular architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White, which also designed the Brooklyn Museum, to create a great Beaux Arts structure. Not to be outdone, the New York Central Railroad hosted a design competition for its own depot—two firms, Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore, were chosen as winners, and they (rather contemptuously) brought their two individual proposals together to create the Grand Central Terminal we see today, a masterpiece with a sculptural stone façade and a sumptuous baroque interior.