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February 1, 2013
In celebration of Grand Central's one-hundredth anniversary this month, W. W. Norton has reissued the incredible photographic tribute Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives, by John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton.  
grand central cover

This superb book exposes the critical role architecture plays in the expansion of our city fabric, and sets an appropriate backdrop for appreciating the anniversary of this monumental structure and its place in the American architectural landscape. Belle and Leighton's history of Grand Central is told through an incredible collection of photographs and illustrations, and chronicles not only the story of the two previous stations on the site, the effort to preserve the current structure after the destruction of Penn Station, but the restoration efforts that returned the edifice to its original glory.


Among the items I learned during my perusal of the book:

- In 1923 a memorial service for President Harding was held in the Main Concourse. 30,000 people gathered in the Main Concourse to hear President Truman deliver a speech in 1952.

- In 1975 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Philip Johnson held a joint press conference on the Oyster Bar ramp announcing the formation of the Committee to Save Grand Central Station.

- Free tours are conducted each Wednesday at 12:30pm.

- Construction for the new Grand Central Terminal began in 1903, when over 200 buildings were demolished to increase the site from 23 acres to 48 acres. 1.6 million cubic yards of rock and 1.2 million cubic yards of earth were excavated to make room for the train yards and two levels of tracks and platforms. 29,000 tons of structural steel and one million barrels of cement were used as well.

- Jules-Alexis Coutan's immense sculpture group crowning the 42nd Street facade features Mercury, Hercules, Minerva and an eagle. The work is 60 feet wide, 50 feet high and weighs 1,500 tons.

- The Ladies Waiting Room and Bathroom, located off the main Waiting Room, was lined with oak paneling, marble encasements, a decorative plaster relief, and a phalanx of rocking chairs intended for nursing mothers.

- In 1941, the Farm Security Administration erected a massive photo mural that was 118 feet wide and 100 feet high on the east wall of the East Balcony—which, as the book states, is probably the most prominent location in the entire Terminal. It was a montage entitled "What America Has to Defend and How It Will Defend It" and it represented the campaign urging travelers to purchase U.S. Defense bonds.

002gct plan 538x329

- Marcel Breuer doesn't come off well in this book, due to his involvement in the effort to alter and otherwise demolish the existing Grand Central Terminal in the late 1960s. His 1968 proposals for the site included a 55-floor tower that cantilevered over the roof of the existing structure, in addition to a revision that completely obliterated the exterior. He is quoted in the book: "The Landmarks Preservation Commission is preventing the usefulness and natural growth of the city. Sooner or later, there is absolutely no doubt a skyscraper will be built above the Terminal." It should also be noted that a 20-story office tower was planned to sit atop the Main Concourse in the original plan, but the idea was aborted in 1912.

- Of the major architectural firms that competed to submit designs for the eventual 1913 structure, only those from McKim, Mead & White and Reed & Stem's survive. Sadly, there is no record of the submission from Daniel Burnham, which as the book's authors note is regrettable since "it would have illustrated a powerful example of not only the Beaux Arts design and details of the Terminal but also the ideas developed during the [1893] Columbian Exposition, and the approach to planning in relation to the surrounding city context."

- In 1990 Beyer Blinder Belle began their effort to revitalize, restore and rescue Grand Central from decades of grime, pollution, and neglect. One of their first and most moving efforts was to clean a patch of sky ceiling on the Main Concourse, exposing the brilliant hue in such a way that passersby swore that the patch had been illuminated by artificial light. During the entirety of the cleaning, the firm had the work area covered with a shroud of black netting, thereby making the final reveal that much more dramatic.

Happy anniversary, Grand Central.

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