- Historic Sites
An Immense And Distant Roof
A great and living monument to commerce, engineering, art, and human ingenuity
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
Wilgus further recommended connecting the new Grand Central with other transportation systems, such as allowing Park Avenue traffic to loop around the new terminal and providing access to the city subway system then under construction. This integratedtransportation concept was revolutionary urban planning. Wilgus estimated that the total cost would be $43 million, almost $8 million more than the proposed cost of the city’s new subway system. But how to pay for all of this?
It was here that Wilgus had his most profound insight. As long as steam power was used, the yard behind the terminal had to be open. It could only be a rail yard, and the neighboring area could only be blighted by it. But with electrification the yard didn’t need to be open any more. Drop the tracks below grade, suggested Wilgus, and the railroad could sell or rent the air rights above the yard to pay for the cost of construction, including the expense of hauling away 2.8 million cubic yards of rock and dirt before building could even begin. Furthermore, he suggested building a hotel on a block the railroad already owned west of the terminal (it would be the legendary Biltmore) and to form a realty company to buy up the sure-to-be-valuable property surrounding the yard.
Wilgus estimated that the entire project, thanks to the real estate income, would yield an immediate profit of 3 percent a year. He turned out to be entirely correct, and land values around Grand Central rose 25 percent a year during construction.
Building the station would cost $43 million, almost $8 million more than the city’s new subway system.
Two architectural firms were hired to design the terminal itself. Reed and Stem were responsible primarily for the basic concepts, while Warren and Wetmore designed the architectural elements. Both firms, perhaps, got the assignment the old-fashioned way, as Charles Reed’s sister was married to William Wilgus and Whitney Warren was a Vanderbilt cousin. But if so, then Grand Central is a powerful argument for nepotism, for they produced a masterpiece. And it was a masterpiece that positively bristled with architectural innovations. The lights that shine between the dentils of the cornice of the great main concourse were the first use of electric light for architectural rather than illumination purposes. Surely the most famous of Grand Central’s dazzling features, however, is the map of the sky painted on the vault of the ceiling. Twenty-five hundred stars are painted on that ceiling in their correct astronomical configuration (except that the entire sky is reversed). But the sixty brightest stars in the sky were not painted. They were electric lights, each shining at its correct relative magnitude.
Grand Central Terminal was an immediate engineering, artistic, and financial success when it opened in 1913, ten years after the mighty project began. But Grand Central’s Beaux-Arts architectural style went profoundly out of fashion after World War I, and as the railroad industry began to decay, the New York Central started seeking ways to increase revenues and decrease costs. Advertising began to intrude on the main concourse. The building’s maintenance was neglected. The skylights were painted over during World War II. The heavenly ceiling was allowed to darken to an ugly brown from a beautiful blue (caused mainly by cigarette smoke) and the star lights were not replaced when they burned out. The building was, more than once, threatened with complete destruction.
But fortunately for Grand Central, and posterity, there is a rule regarding artistic achievements: Each generation thinks that its art is art, its parent’s art is ugly, its grandparent’s art is quaint, and its great-grandparent’s art is art. Grand Central survived long enough to come to be recognized as the masterpiece it is, and the current owner, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, decided that it was in its commercial interests to return the station to its former glory.
I must confess that this project has had one unexpected but delightful bonus for this lifelong lover of that building. Before writing this column, I was given a tour of Grand Central’s many nooks and crannies and was even allowed to climb up the 125-foot scaffold being used to clean the ceiling.
So while Thomas Wolfe could write memorably about an “immense and distant roof,” I was able to actually touch it, coming about as close as one can in this gravity-bounded world to touching the sky itself.