Grand Central Terminal in NYC - A Short History

How New York Built Their Great Train Terminal

With high marble walls, majestic sculptures, and lofty domed ceiling, New York's Grand Central Terminal awes and inspires visitors from around the world. Who designed this grand structure, and how did it get built? Let's look back in time.

New York Grand Central Today

Night view of New York City's Grand Central Terminal
New York City's Grand Central Terminal. Photo by Tim Clayton / Corbis News / Getty Images

The Grand Central Terminal we see today is a familiar and welcoming presence. Along the west balcony overlooking Vanderbilt Avenue, bright red awnings announce Michael Jordan's Steak House NYC and the restaurant Cipriani Dolci. The area wasn't always so inviting, however, and the Terminal was not always in this location at 42nd Street.

Before Grand Central

In the mid-1800s, noisy steam locomotives traveled from a terminal, or end-of-the-line, on 23rd Street northward through Harlem and beyond. As the city grew, people became intolerant of the dirt, danger, and pollution of these machines. By 1858, City government had banned train operations below 42nd Street. The train terminal was forced to move uptown. Industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, owner of multiple rail services, bought up the land from 42nd Street northward. In 1869, Vanderbilt hired architect John Butler Snook (1815-1901) to build a new terminal on the new land.

1871 - Grand Central Depot

Archival photo of Second Empire style building covering an entire city block.
Grand Central Depot, designed by John B. Snook, 1871. Snook's Depot by Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images ©2005 Getty Images

The first Grand Central on 42nd Street opened in 1871. Cornelius Vanderbilt's architect, John Snook, modeled the design after imposing Second Empire architecture popular in France. Progressive in its day, Second Empire was the style used for the 1865 New York Stock Exchange building on Wall Street. By the late 19th century, Second Empire became symbolic of grand, public architecture in the United States. Other examples include the 1884 U.S. Custom House in St. Louis and the 1888 Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.

In 1898, architect Bradford Lee Gilbert enlarged Snook's 1871 Depot. Photos reveal that Gilbert added upper floors, ornamental cast iron decorations, and an enormous iron and glass train shed. The Snook-Gilbert architecture, however, soon would be demolished to make way for the 1913 terminal.

1903 - From Steam to Electric

Archival photo 1907: Two men walk past metal framework of Grand Central Station during construction.
1907: Two men walk on 43rd Street past the metal framework of Grand Central Station during the construction of the terminal, New York City. Metal frame construction c. 1907 by Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images

Like the London Underground railway, New York often isolated the messy steam engines by running rails underground or just below grade level. Elevated bridges allowed the increasing road traffic to proceed uninterrupted. In spite of ventilation systems, subterranean areas became smoke- and steam-filled tombs. A devastating rail accident in a Park Avenue tunnel on January 8, 1902 stirred a public outcry. In 1903 legislation prohibited steam-powered trains altogether—steam locomotives became banned in Manhattan, south of the Harlem River.

William John Wilgus (1865-1949), a civil engineer working for the railroad, recommended an electric transit system. For over a decade London had been running a deep-level electric railway, so Wilgus knew it worked and was safe. But, how to pay for it? An integral part of Wilgus' plan was to sell the air rights for developers to build over New York's underground electric transit system. William Wilgus became Chief Engineer for the new, electrified Grand Central Terminal and the surrounding Terminal City.

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1913 - Grand Central Terminal

Archival photo of Grand Central Terminal complete / Commodore Hotel being built to the East.
As soon as Grand Central Terminal was completed in 1913, the Commodore Hotel was under construction. Terminal, Viaduct to Elevated Terrace, and Commodore Hotel, c. 1919 by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The architects chosen to design Grand Central Terminal were:

  • Charles A. Reed (Reed & Stem of Minnesota), the brother-in-law of rail executive William Wilgus, and
  • Whitney Warren (Warren & Wetmore of New York), educated at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and a cousin of rail executive William Vanderbilt

Construction began in 1903 and the new terminal officially opened on February 2, 1913. The lavish Beaux Arts design featured arches, elaborate sculptures, and a large raised terrace that became a city street.

One of the more remarkable features of the 1913 building is its elevated terrace—a city thoroughfare was built into the architecture. Traveling north on Park Avenue, the Pershing Square Viaduct (itself an historic landmark) allows Park Avenue traffic to gain access to the terrace. Completed in 1919 between 40th and 42nd Streets, the bridge allows city traffic to proceed through, on the terrace balcony, unimpeded by terminal congestion.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1980 stated that "The terminal, the viaduct, and many of the surrounding buildings in the Grand Central zone comprise a carefully related scheme that is the finest example of Beaux-Arts civic planning in New York."

1930s - A Creative Engineering Solution

Elevated Park Avenue around Grand Central Terminal c. 1930s
Grand Central Terminal in 1930s. Elevated Park Ave. around Grand Central Terminal, 1930s by FPG/Getty Images ©2004 Getty Images

The Landmarks Preservation Commission noted in 1967 that "Grand Central Terminal is a magnificent example of French Beaux Arts architecture; that it is one of the great buildings of America, that it represents a creative engineering solution of a very difficult problem, combined with artistic splendor; that as an American Railroad Station it is unique in quality, distinction and character; and that this building plays a significant role in the life and development of New York City."

Learn More:

The book Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark by Anthony W. Robins and The New York Transit Museum, 2013
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Hercules, Mercury, and Minerva

Symbolic statuary (Mercury, Minerva, Hercules) above the south entrance of Grand Central Terminal
The south entrace to Grand Central Terminal is adorned by Jules-Alexis Coutan's symbolic statuary of Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules. Photo © Jackie Craven
"As a bullet train seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for 140 miles. flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the 2 1/2 mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue and then... Grand Central Station! Crossroads of a million lives! Gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily."—Opening from "Grand Central Station," broadcast over the NBC Radio Blue Network, 1937

 

The grand, Beaux Arts building once known as "Grand Central Station" is actually a terminal, because it is the end of the line for trains. The south entrance to Grand Central Terminal is adorned by Jules-Alexis Coutan's 1914 symbolic statuary, which surrounds the terminal's iconic clock. Fifty feet high, Mercury, the Roman god of travel and business, is flanked by the wisdom of Minerva and the strength of Hercules. The clock, 14 feet in diameter, was made by the Tiffany Company.

Renovating a Landmark

Front view of cast iron eagle high above an entrance to Grand Central Terminal.
Cast iron eagle from the 1898 Bradford Lee Gilbert addition to Snook's Depot was reinstated to the renovated Grand Central Terminal in 1999. Cast-iron eagle from the 1898 Bradford Gilbert addition to Snook's Depot © Jackie Craven

The multi-million dollar Grand Central Terminal fell into disrepair in the latter part of the 20th century. By 1994, the building faced demolition. After a great public outcry, New York began years of preservation and renovation. Craftsmen cleaned and repaired the marble. They restored the blue ceiling with its 2,500 twinkling stars. Cast-iron eagles from the 1898 previous terminal were found and placed atop new entrances. The enormous restoration project not only preserved the building's history, but also made the terminal more accessible, with north end access and new stores and restaurants.

Sources for This Article:
History of Railroads in New York State, NYS Department of Transportation; Grand Central Terminal History, Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated; Guide to the John B. Snook Architectural Record Collection, New-York Historical Society; 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; Grand Central Terminal, New York Preservation Archive Project; Grand Central Terminal, Landmarks Preservation Commission, August 2, 1967 (PDF online); New York Central Building Now Helmsley Building, Landmarks Preservation Commission, March 31, 1987 (PDF online at href="http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/1987NewYorkCentralBuilding.pdf); Milestones/History, Transport for London at www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/modesoftransport/londonunderground/history/1606.aspx; Pershing Square Viaduct, Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation List 137, September 23, 1980 (PDF online) [websites accessed January 7-8, 2013].