Continuing with our recent investigation of New York City's architectural and cultural gems, today's episode delves into the material and visual culture of one of the most vital elements of the city's infrastructure: its transportation system. Listen as we discuss the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Transit Museum (located in a decommissioned subway station), and the crown jewel of the train system, Grand Central Terminal.
Check out the Slideshow below for the images we mention in the episode. Scroll down further for our Postscript (stuff that didn't make it into the episode), in which Tina discusses the more recent history of Grand Central Terminal. At the bottom of the page, you'll find Links to other sites for more information and News Updates.
In case you're still hungry for more Grand Central Terminal and MTA factoids, here are some to satisfy you:
- GCT has a tennis court and gym facility on its fourth floor
- New York Central tested thirteen different kinds of stone for GCT; the samples of each stone now reside in Van Cortlandt Park's Putnam Trail, in the Bronx
- the MTA has plans for the former "Kissing Room" (now an underused retail space) to once again function as a welcome room, this time for the new LIRR station being built under GCT
Tina: Grand Central Terminal has obviously seen a lot of changes through the decades. One of the most significant is that it no longer provides long-distance rail service, which is a consequence of the advent of the jet age in the 1950s.
With the decline of rail travel, some architects proposed tearing down Grand Central and replacing it with a terminal that would have a skyscraper incorporated into it. (This was actually part of Wilgus’s original plan for the Terminal: he imagined a giant skyscraper sitting on top of the Terminal, in order to provide more revenue for the rail company.) There was a major public protest led by the magazine Architectural Forum, fueled in part by the regret many felt over losing Penn Station. Jackie Onassis even got involved, and eventually, a lawsuit was filed to stop the destruction. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the preservationists won, establishing a new precedent for the preservation of historic structures.
A new skyscraper was still built by the owners of the property, however: the PanAm Building, now known as the MetLife Building. It’s a giant skyscraper that is right behind (or north of) Grand Central’s concourse. The building was co-designed by Walter Gropius, a famous member of the Bauhaus, an avant-garde group coming out of Germany that radically transformed ideas about art, design, architecture, and art education in the early twentieth century. But despite that, the critical response was very negative; it might be that critics were still hurting over the loss of Penn Station, and were therefore thinking in a "preservationist" mode. Ada Louise Huxtable, the first architectural critic for the New York Times, called it “gigantically second-rate,” which is a clever way of saying that this enormous structure is also an enormous failure. She went on to write, “A 100 million dollar building cannot really be called cheap; but PanAm is a colossal collection of minimums.” Nowadays, people have become a little more comfortable with it; there’s even some fondness for the MetLife Building, perhaps thanks to Mad Men and the nostalgia for all things redolent of the 1960s. Some people still complain that it looms over and dwarfs Grand Central, overwhelming the lower, more horizontal, Neo-Classical building below it. But if you’re feeling more charitable, you could say that it frames Grand Central, creating a visual backdrop that blocks off the rest of the city and lets Grand Central come to the fore.
After Grand Central was saved from developers, it still had to survive the New York economic landscape of the 1970s and 1980s. This was definitely a rough time for the city, and at Grand Central, there was a lot of crime and uncollected garbage, and homeless people began sleeping in and around the terminal. Finally, a group of local business people got together and formed a Business Improvement District, or BID. BIDs generally hire people to pick up trash, provide information to visitors, guide homeless persons to shelters (or remove them by other, less charitable means)--any activities to help make the area more comfortable for commuters and shoppers. BUT BIDs are very unusual groups: they are not governmental, but they are not simply volunteer organizations, either, as they can force businesses which are not members to pay into the BID. In other words, BIDs operate somewhat like a governmental group excising a mandatory tax—but because the BID is not a government body, it’s not subject to public oversight. The BID at Grand Central was accused of being brutish and secretive, almost like a mafia, but it did oversee the cleaning up of the district, comparable to the cleaning up that happened around Times Square (which some now see as an overcorrection—a “sanitization” of New York, in the negative sense of the term).
New York Times coverage of Grand Central's opening in 1913
Grand Central Terminal, New York Preservation Archive Project
Grand Central Terminal on the Cover of the New Yorker
New York Transit Museum
Sept. 28, 1998: Paul Goldberger, "Now Arriving" (on the 1990s renovation of GCT), New Yorker
Jan. 18, 2013: Sam Roberts, "100 Years of Grandeur: The Birth of Grand Central Terminal," New York Times
Feb. 8, 2015: Sam Tanenhaus, "The Failed Dream of the Easy Commute," New Yorker