Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station
See the most famous terminal in the nation up close and personal. Each week there are two free tours of Grand Central, or you can book a private tour on the day or time convenient for you.
Imagine Park Avenue from 45th to 49th Street as a rail yard, a corridor of smoke and cinders extending uptown from 49th Street. Think of breweries and factories operating where the Waldorf-Astoria, Lever House and the Seagram Building now stand. Picture to the east a district of tenements, warehouses, and slaughterhouses. In place of the United Nations and Tudor City, the squatters’ shacks of Dutch Hill, inhabited by paupers, criminal gangs, and a herd of goats. It is hard to conceive that this cityscape ever existed, let alone that it was the environment in which Grand Central Terminal took shape less than one hundred years ago.
While Grand Central Terminal stands today as one of New York City’s most famous landmarks, it was by no means the first railroad station in New York City. In fact, the current structure is neither the first to claim the name “Grand Central” or to occupy the present location at 42nd and Park. Yet, the story of Grand Central Terminal allows one to gaze back and observe much of the history of the City of New York, and to witness the growth and expansion of a vibrant metropolis reflected in an unrivaled monument of civic architecture.
The first rail line into New York City, the New York and Harlem Railroad, was formed in 1831 and began service to a terminus at Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street the following year. Over the next five years, the railroad constructed a station, offices, and stables along Fourth Avenue, 26th and 27th Streets; through subsequent expansion and reconstruction, the New York and Harlem Railroad Station would come to occupy the entire block bounded by Fourth and Madison Avenues and 26th and 27th Streets. (In 1871, P.T. Barnum purchased the New York and Harlem Railroad Station and converted it into Madison Square Garden, the first of several structures to bear that historic name).
During the late 1840’s, additional railroad service into New York, notably The New York and New Haven Railroad and The Hudson River Railroad, precipitated the advent of variety of terminals, depots, freight houses and passenger stations throughout the city. Horse-drawn extensions merged with steam-powered lines in a haphazard network of railways that was plagued by complaints about noise, pollution, traffic, and chronic accidents. By 1858, steam locomotives had been progressively banned from crowded areas and were no longer in service below 42nd Street, giving rise to the need for a new terminal.
Shipping magnate “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired the Hudson River Railroad in 1864. Soon after, Vanderbilt added the New York Central Railroad to his holdings and consolidated his position by creating a rail-link between Spuyten Duyvil and Mott Haven, allowing Hudson River trains to arrive at a common East Side terminal. In 1869, Vanderbilt purchased property between 42nd and 48th Streets, Lexington and Madison Avenue for construction of a new train depot and rail yard. On this site would rise the first Grand Central.
Grand Central Depot, designed by architect John B. Snook, was built at a cost of $6.4 million and opened in October 1871. Virtually obsolete at the time it opened, it served three distinct rail lines -- the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad -- each of which maintained its own waiting room, baggage facilities and ticketing operation at the station. Subsequent renovations and enlargements culminated in the 1898 expansion of the depot under architect Bradford Lee Gilbert and further interior renovation in 1900 directed by Samuel Huckel, Jr.
Reborn as “Grand Central Station,” the reconfigured depot’s most prominent feature was undoubtedly its enormous train shed. Constructed of glass and steel, the 100-foot wide by 650-foot long structure rivaled the Eiffel Tower and Crystal Palace for primacy as the most dramatic engineering achievement of the 19th century. The updated station also featured a “classical” façade, a unified 16,000 square foot waiting room, and distinctive ornamentation, including monumental cast-iron eagles with wingspans of 13-feet (In fact, one of these eagles was recently salvaged and will rise again above Grand Central Terminal’s new entrance at 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue).
Grand Central Terminal officially opened to great fanfare at 12:01 am on Sunday, February 2, 1913, and more than 150,000 people visited the new terminal on its opening day. Although construction was not yet entirely complete, Grand Central Terminal had arrived and New York City would never be the same again.
With Grand Central acting as an anchor, development around the terminal took off. Between 1913 and 1917, the Biltmore Hotel, the Yale Club, and two office buildings were constructed on railroad property across Vanderbilt Avenue. During the 1920’s, as hotels and apartment buildings began to rise on the “air rights” tracts of Park Avenue, skyscrapers simultaneously sprang up along East 42nd Street. Warehouses gave way to the 56-story Chanin Building, the 54-story Lincoln Building and the 77-story Chrysler Building. On Lexington Avenue, the Hotel Commodore opened in 1919, and the Eastern Offices Building -- better known as the Graybar Building -- was completed in 1927, each with a passageway connection to Grand Central’s Main Concourse.
As the neighborhood prospered, so did Grand Central. Grand Central Terminal, at various times, housed an art gallery, an art school, a newsreel movie theater, a rail history museum, and innumerable temporary exhibitions. All the while, it remained the busiest train station in the country, with a bustling Suburban Concourse on the lower level and famous long-distance trains like the Fast Mail, the Water-Level Limited, the Wolverine, and the Twentieth Century Limited departing from its Main Concourse. In 1947, over 65 million people -- the equivalent of 40% of the population of the United States -- traveled the rails via Grand Central Terminal.
Pictures and information were provided by Grand Central Station
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