Grand Central Terminal: A Postmodern Cathedral

Grand Central Terminal

Photo: By Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York (014) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Since 1913, Grand Central Terminal has been the hub for New York’s commuter masses, visited by travelers from around the world. Today if you walk through the terminal you’ll notice that near the entrance to the Apple store, you’ll still find huge gold dipped chandeliers illuminated with bare light bulbs. Electric light bulbs were a bold statement of progress, back in 1913, when the terminal opened to the world when the streetlamps were still lit with gas jet lighting. The preservation of the old while leaving plenty of space for the new makes Grand Central Terminal a postmodern icon. The Terminal (Don’t call it a station) was the vision of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who dreamed of a secular cathedral style structure that would not only serve as a practical thoroughfare for travelers but as an artistic tribute to all that is quintessentially New York.

Grand Central Terminal

Photo: By Tktino (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The 42nd Street Entrance of Grand Central Terminal is crowned by a Tiffany Clock flanked with statues of the supreme beings who capture the character of railroad travel during its heyday—Mercury for speed, Hercules for power, and t Minerva, the goddess of intelligence. The piece is formally called “Glory of Commerce” and in the early 20th century, New York was building high and far, providing jobs to many in the city proper and residents of the surrounding suburbs who took the Harlem and Hudson lines to work.

To execute his vision, the billionaire employed thousands of architects stone masons and artists. Most notable is the duo of artisans, Paul Helleu of Paris and Charles Basing of Brooklyn who designed the heavenly ceiling mural, which is actually not an accurate rendition of “as above, so below” but a flipped vision of the heavens as it is seen if one were looking down, not up, at the universe. The truth was that the mirror image of he constellations was accidentally flipped in the rendering.

Of course, one of the first commuters in the people’s palace noticed the error so the “vision of God” interpretation story was circulated and it seemed to appease most of the masses the masses. Even if it didn’t, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s opinion was the only one who really counted, and as he wasn’t bothered by this unique interpretation of the zodiac, so it stayed wrong.

In the 1930s and 40s, Grand Central Terminal was memorialized in films and became as much a symbol of New York as the Statue of Liberty. Visitors coming to the city for the first time would take a grand tour before they even hit the sidewalk on 42nd Street.

Grand Central Terminal was always a grand stage playing out whatever was going on in society. In the 1970s New York crime was staggering, and Grand Central Terminal had only a few thriving shops and restaurants. The city was deep in a recession. A gigantic Kodak photo display screen hung over the terminal windows at the east balcony, blocking sunlight from the main level, added to the dark and dreary malaise, despite its technicolor photos depicting pastoral scenes and happy families. Newsstands selling cigarettes and papers were greeted by grumpy commuters, who lit up while marching straight to the exits, discarding lit butts on the marble flooring. Try as they might the transit police could not keep visitors from being solicited by prostitutes or shaken down by aggressive panhandlers. Commuters learned to keep their heads down and their bags close. The future didn’t look good for New York, and Grand Central was the last fortress of beauty and dignity in a decaying city, then dubbed the “Rotting Apple” as opposed to “The Big Apple”.

An initiative was proposed to construct a modern skyscraper on the site of the terminal. Dedicated New Yorkers like Mayor Ed Koch and former first lady Jackie Kennedy rallied to save Grand Central. The courts favored the majority of New Yorkers and ruled that as it is a historic landmark it could not be touched. The problem was how to restore GCT to its former glory when New York itself was facing hard times, financially and socially.

The atmosphere of The People’s Cathedral grew more dismal. During the Reagan Administration, many psychiatric hospitals closed and having few effective aftercare programs to offer, the patients were turned out in the street. Grand Central Terminal, being open to the public, became a popular homeless hangout. Some even lived inside the station, in the alcoves behind the track tunnels. During the 1980s, Metro-North workers in the tunnels of Grand Central Terminal reported that they could not strip off a warm sweater or jacket while they were working, lest a homeless tunnel dweller would make off with the items. The diesel train mechanics kept one eye on the train brake shoes they were repairing and the other on their lunchboxes. The Waiting Room was filled with lost souls sleeping on benches. Dogged commuters learned to keep their heads down and their bags close. It was not unusual to have to step over a person lying on the floor near the pay toilet ladies room if you dared use one of the Terminal’s public restrooms. It became so commonplace that Native New Yorkers didn’t give the mentally ill shuffling around the terminal with sores erupting on their bare feet a second look, except to dodge a shopping cart if need be. For the common people, most of the news was bad news. New York needed Grand Central Station to make a comeback, as much as Grand Central Station needed New Yorkers to keep believing in its magic.

Although the wolves of Wall Street were making a killing, for the common people, most of the news during the 1980s was bad news. Still, despite all the hardships, folks could still be seen at the Whispering Arch, right near the Oyster Bar on the lower level, where if you stood on one side and whispered, the sound acoustics allowed it to travel through the stone archway to the person on the other side. There was still talk of the secret of Track 61, where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his own train to travel back and forth, plus a limo that rode the tracks to an elevator going straight up to his private entrance at the Waldorf Hotel. The basic architecture still held grandeur and glamor, and lovers still met under the four faced milk glass clock (it’s not made of solid opal, just milky opal like glass) although sometimes they would get jostled by folks scurrying to the ticket windows. There was still taverns onsite like Charlie Brown’s Ale and Chop House, just an escalator ride up from the terminal into the Pan Am Building (now the Met Life Building). If you knew the right people, you could go up and stroll the glass catwalk connecting the prestigious offices that peered down to the bustling crowd below. Glancing closely at the Tiffany entrance clock at just the right moment, you could see that the number VI is actually a window that is sometimes opened. Those lucky enough to be at that window got a breathtaking view of Park Avenue South. Ghostly specters of Vanderbilt himself along with presidents and film stars were said to be seen frequenting the terminal. History, legend, and lore were up against the very unpredictable financial system that made Vanderbilt rich and allowed Grand Central to be built in the first place. There was much to be saved, and New York was not going to lose one of its greatest treasures.

Every old building has its share of spooky stories, and GCT is no exception. Ghostly specters of mogul and visionary Cornelius Vanderbilt himself, along with deceased presidents and film stars were said to be seen frequenting the terminal. Although sentiment remained, history, legend, and lore were up against the very unpredictable financial system that made Vanderbilt rich and allowed Grand Central to be built in the first place. There was much to be saved, and New York was not going to lose one of its greatest treasures.

In 1990, some noteworthy changes began, starting with the removal of the enormous Kodak photo that hung in Grand Central Terminal for 40 years, allowing majestic streams of light to pour through, creating a scene more beautiful than any advertisement Madison Avenue could muster. Photos from that display can now be viewed at the terminal’s Transit Museum, in a smaller form. Smoking inside the terminal was banned and the railroad was going electric, so the smell inside the terminal got much better.

The next challenge was the cleanup and restoration of the Zodiac mural. Turns out nicotine from the millions of smokers had damaged the ceiling more than the diesel trains. Many dedicated workers took pride in hanging on pulleys upside down from the ceiling, attacking the stains with a vinegar and water solution. They missed a tiny spot, just 18 inches wide, on purpose, to show the difference between the before and after, which still drives visitors of the perfectionist persuasion crazy when they look up to take in the entire refurbuished mural scene.

A new display was added to the terminal after September 11, 2001. It was a large American flag, a bold symbol that helped restore faith and give courage to natives and visitors alike following New Yorks’ most horrific event. New Yorkers, being resilient, kept traveling for work and for pleasure in a heroic spirit that would have made Cornelius Vanderbilt and all the laborers past and present whose labor has made this city within a city what it is today proud.

Now, GCT stands as a tribute to tradition and progress alike—part mega shopping mall, part museum of the past, all in one. Grand Central Terminal will always be the grand arena of New York for people to play out their dramas and chase their dreams.. A place where time slips between old and new, tradition and progress, imaginative visions and stark reality.

 

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