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An Immense And Distant Roof

June 2024
6min read

A great and living monument to commerce, engineering, art, and human ingenuity

In You Can’t Go Home Again Thomas Wolfe wrote that “few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time, and…there was a superb fitness in the fact that the one which held it better than all others should be a railroad station. For here, as nowhere else on earth, men were brought together for a moment at the beginning or end of their innumerable journeys…. Men came and went, they passed and vanished, and all were moving through the moments of their lives to death, all made small tickings in the sound of time—but the voice of time remained aloof and unperturbed, a drowsy and eternal murmur below the immense and distant roof.”

Wolfe was speaking of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station when he wrote these words some sixty years ago, but they are equally appropriate to Penn Station’s cross-town neighbor, Grand Central Terminal. For Grand Central is not only an immensely busy train station, it also contains at its heart one of the greatest interior architectural spaces on the face of the earth—the main concourse. The room is tall enough to hold a twelve-story building; its volume is equal to about a thousand typical Manhattan apartments. And the space is not only grand, it is glorious as well, with a power and magnificence that gives New York a vestibule no other city in the world can match.

At the moment, however, while the room is as astonishing as ever, its power and magnificence are a bit under wraps. For it looks like some sort of inside-out Christo sculpture, with its walls and windows draped in no less than one and a quarter acres of fabric. The cloth is there to protect the people passing through on all those innumerable journeys from anything, chemical or mechanical, that might drop off a movable 120-ton scaffold, 120 feet wide and 12.5 feet high, from which workers are repairing and restoring the room to its original appearance.

It is all part of a vast restoration of the entire Grand Central complex, one that will take two years and cost approximately $175 million to accomplish. That may seem like a lot of money to spruce up a railroad station, and there is no doubt that it could all be done much more cheaply if only the station could be shut down during the work. But that would be nearly the same as shutting down New York City itself, for the number of people who pass through Grand Central on an average day is more than five hundred thousand, close to the entire population of Cleveland.

But whatever inconveniences New Yorkers may experience during the restoration, they will be nothing compared with what their great-grandparents endured at the turn of the century. For then they didn’t restore Grand Central. Instead, they tore down the largest train station in the Western Hemisphere and built an entirely new one in its place while a thousand trains and switching movements a day continued uninterrupted. It was a feat of engineering equaling the Panama Canal, which was being built at the same time. But unlike the Panama Canal, it was accomplished at the very heart of the country’s largest city, and while that mighty heart was beating still.

The first Grand Central had been completed in 1871. It was built at Forty-second Street for the simple reason that New York had long forbidden the noisy, smoky, and dangerous steam engines of the era to come any further south into the city. At the time, Forty-second Street was near the northern edge of the built-up area of the metropolis, and the train yard behind the station, occupying all the space between Lexington and Madison Avenues and Forty-fourth and Fiftieth Streets, could sprawl largely unobserved behind the new station. But by the last decade of the nineteenth century the situation had changed. The city had continued its rush up Manhattan Island, and Grand Central was now at its center. The noise and smoke from the yards blighted the neighborhood. Moreover, the old terminal was no longer adequate to handle the volume of traffic that was flowing through it daily, almost three times what it had been in 1871.

This increased train traffic through the Park Avenue tunnel also created safety hazards, as smoke and steam obscured the signals. In January 1902 an engineer plowed into a train ahead of him, killing fifteen passengers. The state legislature voted to ban locomotives in Manhattan after July 1,1908. Something had to be done, and quickly. It was a young, largely self-taught civil engineer named William J. Wilgus who devised the solution, a solution that was, and is, a modern wonder of the world.

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1865, Wilgus’s only formal training was working for a civil engineer for two years after graduating from high school and taking a correspondence course in drafting from Cornell University. But great engineers are born as much as made. He worked for several smaller railroads, learning on the job—and learning so fast that he was hired by the New York Central when he was only twenty-eight. By the time he was thirty-four he was chief engineer.

The first step in the solution was to decide to switch over to electric power in Manhattan—by far the largest electrification project yet attempted.

To solve the problem of the increasing traffic volume, Wilgus proposed enlarging the number of tracks at the terminal to fifty-seven on two levels, the lower one for suburban trains, the upper for the long-distance trains, and building a whole new terminal building, one not only of suitable size but of suitable grandeur as well.

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.

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