Feb. 1 marked 100 years since Grand Central became a functional train station. Since 1913, this New York City fixture has been integral to the transportation of locals and visitors alike. Commuters often have too little time to enjoy the beauty of the architecture, and it’s a little known fact that the building of Grand Central was vital to the development of New York City itself. The Eye sat down with Gabrielle Shubert, the director of the New York Transit Museum, to talk about Grand Central’s rescue from destruction, its architectural innovations, and French sculptors.
How has Grand Central’s design allowed it to remain functional in the 21st century?
From a functional standpoint, innovations of the architects and the engineers had to do with ramps that move people really efficiently all throughout the building. There are very few staircases in Grand Central: There are mostly ramps. Grand Central provided electricity and power not only for itself, not only for the railroad, but also for the buildings around it, and that is still working. Some of that equipment has been upgraded—the giant roads that converted electricity have been replaced with solid steel equipment, and the almost block-long interlocking machine has been replaced with computerized signaling and switching equipment. But other than that it has been functioning pretty well.
How has Grand Central adapted to different uses over time?
It’s interesting, but Grand Central had been on the forefront of what was going on in the world. For instance, [as] an art gallery. Where do we put art? People were interested in art at the turn of the century with Picasso and John Singer Sargent, and there were [so many] well-known artists here ... so Grand Central had an art gallery and a school of art. When TV first came around, PBS had its first broadcasting studio in Grand Central Terminal. During the war [World War II], Grand Central had a USO lounge for soldiers in transit from one part of the country to another or from one part of the country to overseas. And there was a musical director who played the organ at Christmas and Easter and for the USO guys. And when the Apple Store comes along, and creates one of the most innovative retail [venues], there it is at Grand Central.
During the fight to preserve the building, how was Grand Central able to escape the fate of Penn Station?
The railroads that owned this building were in great decline and could not afford to maintain their huge rail stations ... which was partly why Penn Station was destroyed. So the efforts to save the building were not backed up by the people who owned it. They wanted to knock it down to make something new and make money. There was a long back-and-forth over the legal issues of saving the building. Landmark laws were very new in New York City and the preservationists were trying to invoke the new landmark laws to save the building, but it had to go all the way to the Supreme Court. And it wasn’t until the Supreme Court upheld New York City’s landmark law that the building was finally in the safe zone.
How did Midtown develop because of Grand Central?
Up until Grand Central came along... the rail yards were north of 42nd Street ... You couldn’t get across town. The development of the city was sort of stopped at 42nd Street, and having that railway above was such a big impediment. But when Grand Central was built and the engineers’ idea was to put the rail yards underground, then, suddenly, this land was freed up. It was William Wilkins, chief engineer of the terminal, who came up with the idea of air rights, which we now think of as a matter of course when it comes to the development of the city, but it was a new concept back in 1913. It allowed for the rail companies of the preceding buildings to sell their air rights to developers. And when you get mass transit around big buildings, it’s a boom. Real estate developers love to get the opportunity to develop around transportation hubs because it means that their buildings are going to be easily accessed. When the New York Central [Railroad] sold these air rights to developers, that money financed the building of Grand Central Terminal, the building that we know today.
What is your favorite architectural feature of the building?
It’s hard to decide which is my favorite. So there was this little French man, Sylvain Salières, who was hired by the architect to come and design all the ornamentation inside the building, and he is the guy responsible for all these amazing carvings of oak leaves and acorns. And one of my favorites is around the water fountain that is around the western staircase. All around the water fountains are these beautiful carvings of cattails and oak leaves and acorns. It is so beautifully done and so delicate, and I think that 95 percent of people who use that water fountain don’t even notice in a hurry. But if you take a moment, you will see these exquisite carvings all around this very functional water fountain.
What is so important about celebrating the 100th anniversary of Grand Central?
What is important is that this building is a survivor. Penn Station across town was knocked down in the 1960s, and Grand Central would have suffered a similar fate if not for the efforts of a group of really passionate preservation activists ultimately led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who said, “You can’t keep knocking down New York’s great buildings.” Another thing that I think is really important is that it is so well engineered and so well planned out and thought through that, what functioned a hundred years ago functions really beautifully 100 years later. I think it makes a case for the fact that preserving great buildings does not always mean that you’re compromising. Rather, if it was well planned out in the first place, it’s working really well for today.