The City that was Built Around Grand Central Terminal

How a New York City Train Station Changed Midtown East

The February 2, 1913 opening of the Grand Central Terminal building showed the world a great work of engineering. Many people don't realize, however, that the railway terminal was just one part of a much larger plan. William John Wilgus, chief engineer of the project, worked with architects Reed & Stem from St. Paul and Warren & Wetmore of New York to develop not only a modern rail system, but also a city—Terminal City—to support the railroad's activities.

Architecture for a New Century

The 1929 New York Central Building in the shadow of the 1963 Pan Am / Met Life Building
The 1929 New York Central Building in the shadow of the 1963 Pan Am / Met Life Building. Photo by George Rose/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

The top of the 1929 New York Central building against the 1963 Met Life Building vividly tells the story of architectural change in the twentieth century. Both of these buildings neighbor Grand Central Terminal.

The railroad's design for its new terminal in 1913 included plans for hotels, clubs, and office buildings that would surround and support the booming rail business. Wilgus convinced railroad officials for the first time to sell air rights—to build over the new underground electric rails. Architecture has at least three dimensions, and the rights to build up in the air has proven to be an important aspect of real estate development and zoning regulations. Many have argued that William Wilgus' Terminal City plan modernized the legal concept of air rights in architecture.

The Terminal City idea, inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, was a grand experiment in urban planning, and it began with the opening of the iconic Biltmore Hotel.

Learn More:
The book The City Beautiful Movement by William H. Wilson (1994)

1913 - Biltmore and the Rise of Terminal City

The luxury Biltmore Hotel, west of Grand Central Terminal, was completed in 1913.
The Biltmore Hotel, completed in 1913, was west of the new terminal. Biltmore Hotel by Museum of the City of New York/Byron Co. Collection/Getty Images

The luxury Biltmore Hotel at 335 Madison Avenue was the first hotel to be built in Terminal City. Designed by Warren & Wetmore, architects of Grand Central Terminal, the Biltmore opened in January 1913—a month before the train station.

The Jazz Age hotel connected to a subterranean Biltmore Room in Grand Central, which became known as "the kissing room." Underground passageways linked many of the buildings within Terminal City. The well-heeled could even pamper their elegant automobiles in an indoor garage shared with the Hotel Commodore.

The Biltmore remained a grand hotel until its sale in 1981. The building was gutted to its steel frame structure and rebuilt as Bank of America Plaza.

1919 - Hotel Commodore

The Commodore Hotel on Lexington Avenue at 42nd Street, New York, 1927.
The Commodore Hotel on Lexington Avenue at 42nd Street, New York, 1927. Hotel Commodore by Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection / Getty Images ©2005 Getty Images

Cornelius Vanderbilt, who first envisioned a railroad empire rising from his New York Central Railroad System, was known as Commodore. The Commodore Hotel, directly east of Grand Central Terminal, opened on January 28, 1919. Warren & Wetmore, architects of the terminal, designed the Commodore Hotel, the Biltmore, and the Ritz-Carlton (1917-1951) to be interconnected with the Grand Central Terminal—all part of William Wilgus' Terminal City plan.

Warren & Wetmore also designed the Belmont, Vanderbilt, Linnard, and Ambassador Hotels—in addition to the post office near Grand Central and various Park Avenue apartments, offices, and commercial buildings. In 1987, the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that "the eminently gifted, if opportunistic, Warren & Wetmore" designed and built "at least 92 buildings and building additions in New York."

In 1980, Donald Trump and Grand Hyatt Hotels renovated the Commodore Hotel while preserving its history. Architects designed a modern glass skin to be installed over the original brick exterior.

Learn More:
The Architecture of Warren & Wetmore by Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker, Norton, 2006

1921 - Pershing Square

Pen and ink illustration of four hotels surrounding Grand Central Terminal in 1921
Pershing Square Hotels, 42nd St & Park Ave, New York, New York, 1921, showing Murray Hill Hotel, Belmont Hotel, Biltmore Hotel, Grand Central Station, and Commodore Hotel. Pershing Square Hotels by Museum of the City of New York/Byron Co. Collection / Getty Images

Over the years, the area occupied by the Park Avenue viaduct (an important connector to Grand Central Terminal's architecture) became known as Pershing Square. Pershing Square Hotels included the Murray Hill Hotel, the Belmont Hotel, the Biltmore (sometimes associated with the area), and the Commodore Hotel (to the right of Grand Central Terminal). The Park Avenue area south of Grand Central Terminal remains a vital part of the community as part of the Pershing Square Plaza Grand Central Partnership.

One more hotel was initially built around and connected to the new Grand Central Terminal: The Roosevelt Hotel, north of Pershing Square at 45 East 45th Street. Designed by George B. Post, the Roosevelt opened on September 22, 1924 and is still operating as a hotel. Post's other designs include the New World Building and the 1903 New York Stock Exchange Building.

1927 - Graybar Building

Photo of entrance to Grand Central Terminal through the Graybar Building.
Graybar Building, 1927, Entrance to Grand Central Terminal. Graybar Building © Jackie Craven

The Graybar Building was the first office building in the immediate Grand Central Terminal City area. The entrance to the building is also an entrance to Grand Central Terminal.

Architects Sloan & Robertson designed many of New York's Art Deco structures, including Graybar and the Chanin Building. In 1927, the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, founded by Elisha Gray and Enos Barton, moved into their new building.

1929 - Chanin Building

Art Deco gold sign for the Chanin Building at 122 East 42nd Street, NYC
Art Deco sign for the Chanin Building at 122 East 42nd Street, NYC. Art Deco sign for the Chanin Building at 122 East 42nd Street, NYC © S. Carroll Jewell

Architects Sloan & Robertson surrounded the Beaux Arts style Grand Central Terminal with the Art Deco architecture of the adjacent Graybar Building and the nearby Chanin Building, reportedly connected to Grand Central Terminal by underground tunnels. Built for and with Irwin S. Chanin, the 56-story Chanin Building is still one of the tallest skyscrapers in New York City. In a 1988 obituary, The New York Times called Chanin "an architect and builder whose skyline signature was formed of jazzy Art Deco towers."

Both Graybar and Chanin were trumped in size and Art Deco grandeur in 1930 when the Chrysler Building opened a few blocks down 42nd Street.

1929 - New York Central Building

Top of the 1929 New York Central Building, near Grand Central Terminal
New York Central Building, aka Helmsley, opened in 1929. Top of the 1929 New York Central Building © Jackie Craven

The New York Central Railroad and its New York City architects, Warren & Wetmore, saved their most challenging project until the end. In December 1926, they began building over the covered rail yard north of the new Grand Central Terminal. With trains passing every 1 1/2 minutes, they constructed the foundation and a "cleverly staggered skeletal steel frame."

The ornate Beaux-Arts style tower that sat atop the 35-story railroad headquarters became symbolic of Terminal City. The Landmarks Preservation Commission called the tower "a conspicuous symbol of the railroad's might." Railroad executives "made proud comparisons with the Washington Monument, noting with considerable pleasure that their building was 5-6 feet taller."

The New York Central Building was completed the year the Stock Market crashed and America's Great Depression began. Park Avenue street traffic continues to flow through the base of the building, even as it became the Helmsley Hotel in 1977 and a Westin Hotel in 2012.

1963 - Pan Am Building

Helicopter landing on roof of tall building named Pan Am in New York City
A helicopter landing on the roof of the Pan Am building (now Met Life building), designed by Walter Gropius and opened in 1963. A helicopter lands on the Pan Am Building c. 1960s. Photo by F Roy Kemp/Getty Images

In 1963, the now defunct Pan American airlines brought modern architecture and a helipad to nearby Grand Central Terminal. Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi designed the International style corporate headquarters to stand between Grand Central Terminal and the old New York Central Building. The rooftop helicopter landing pad brought the modern airport closer to the city railroad by way of a short helicopter ride. A fatal 1997 accident, however, ended the service.

The name atop the building was changed from Pan Am to MetLife after Metropolitan Life Insurance Company bought the building in 1981.

Learn More:
The Pan Am Building And The Shattering Of The Modernist Dream by Meredith L. Clausen, MIT Press, 2004

2012 - Grand Central Terminal City

NYC past 101 Park Ave. toward the iconic top of the Chrysler Building, Grand Central obscured
In 2012, Grand Central Terminal is obscured as one looks up past 101 Park Ave. toward the iconic top of the Chrysler Building. Pershing Square in 2012, Looking North Toward an Obscured Grand Central © S. Carroll Jewell

As grand as the architecture is, the 1913 Grand Central Terminal soon was physically overshadowed by many, many taller buildings. Looking north on Park Avenue toward the terminal, the plan for Terminal City appears more successful than the building that began it all.

Architects, town planners, and urban designers constantly struggle with competing interests. Building livable, sustainable communities is balanced with business growth and prosperity. Terminal City was designed as a mixed-use community and became a prototype for other neighborhoods, such as the Rockefeller Center area. Today, architects such as Renzo Piano design entire buildings as mixed-use communities—London's 2012 Shard is called a vertical city of office space, restaurants, hotels, and condominiums all in one.

The structures above and around the tracks of Grand Central Terminal remind us of how a single building—or an architectural idea—can change the face of an entire neighborhood. Perhaps some day is will be your house in your neighborhood that will make a difference.

Sources for This Article:
Grand Central Terminal History, Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated; William J. Wilgus papers, New York Public Library; Reed and Stem papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, Manuscripts Division, University of Minnesota Libraries ; Guide to the Warren and Wetmore Architectural Photographs and Records, Columbia University; New York Central Building Now Helmsley Building, Landmarks Preservation Commission, March 31, 1987, online at .pdf; "Irwin Chanin, Builder of Theaters And Art Deco Towers, Dies at 96" by David W. Dunlap, February 26, 1988, NYTimes Online Obituary [websites accessed January 7-8, 2013].