In 1903, construction began on Grand Central Terminal, the third railroad structure to occupy the Midtown area. Cornelius Vanderbilt did the first: Great Central Warehouse It opened in 1871 and served as a hub for several rail lines. Advances in technology and population growth of the city It was rebuilt in 1899. six-floor Grand Central Station. As trains arriving in Manhattan at the time continued south of Manhattan, this building’s successor was the last stop of all rail lines—a terminal, not a station.
The 10-year project, which includes a 70-acre campus and 32 miles of road fed into 46 tracks and 30 passenger platforms, was at the time the largest construction project in New York City’s history. It required the removal of more than 100 houses and other structures, 3.2 million cubic meters of soil and rock, as well as the construction of two power plants and the consumption of hundreds of thousands of tons of steel.
The world-famous landmark is the end product of an extremely complex engineering project. The master plan was authored by William John Wilgus, Vice President of Construction for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, who oversaw the renovation of the terminal’s predecessor, Grand Central Depot, a few years ago.
This diagram is from Wilgus’ typewritten review summarizing the project. Grand Central Terminal in Perspective (1939), donated to the New York Public Library in the 1930s. (The library maintains not only records of his work on the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad among his articles, but also later private consulting practices, public service activities, and more.)
You’ll find meticulous detailing of the cross section of the building, including familiar landmarks such as the iconic Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant (“The Restaurant”) and Vanderbilt Hall (“Waiting Room”). Revealing some of the many layers of the terminal’s architecture and activity, it may prompt viewers on their next visit to reflect on what goes on above and below them, and the great complexity of its creation.
Wilgus designed a series of innovations for the facility that are transforming Manhattan’s real estate practices. He planned to move the rail lines below the surface and free up an area of 30 blocks for development. In the first example of leasing air rights, Wilgus had to pay the enormous cost of building Grand Central Terminal to new, above ground structures this included office towers, hotels and a post office.
Initially, he imagined a single building above the terminal that would generate $2.3 million in annual rent; described this solution as “a remarkable opportunity to achieve a public good, taking into account private gain on behalf of the company concerned”. The area’s eventual development also allowed for the reconnection of Manhattan’s streets; Previously, surface railroads created a real separation between residential areas in the west and the less palatable factories and slaughterhouses in the east.
Thanks to the transition from steam to electric power, it was possible to move the rails underground. Earlier steam locomotives were noisier, spitting smoke and soot, and critically, much less safe – they ran on open tracks, especially alongside bustling city streets. Indeed, the driving force of Grand Central Terminal is a 1902 train crash in the Park Avenue Tunnel15 passengers died when a commuter train collided with another waiting train at the entrance. The cause identified was plumes of smoke that blinded the driver.
In response to public outcry, the state legislature passed a law in 1910 requiring all trains in Manhattan to be operated electronically. But Wilgus was too far ahead. In a December 1902 letter to the president of New York Central, Wilgus suggested that the railroad demolish Grand Central Station and replace steam locomotives with electric trains, calling it “the most daring idea I have ever thought of in my life.” state legislation. The ability to run underground tracks meant that the terminal could have two platform levels, one for long-distance and the other for commuter trains, allowing the terminal to expand vertically within the same footprint. (Other underground trains and utilities run up to 10 floors.)
When New York Central accepted Wilgus’ master plan, it invited only four architecture firms to enter a design competition for the terminal itself. Reed and Stem’s suggestion won, but the chairman of New York Central allowed another firm, Warren and Wetmore, to submit plans because of the directors’ links to some of the company’s directors—including William Vanderbilt, who eventually insisted on their involvement. The companies came together Grand Central Associated Architects. But after the death in 1911 of Charles Reed, who was also Wilgus’ brother-in-law, Warren and Wetmore secretly negotiated a new contract. Completion of architectural work on the terminal and all subsequent buildings in the complex. (Stem and Reed’s estate sued and won compensation 5 years later.)
Grand Central Terminal opened to great fanfare in 1913 and boasts several additional architectural innovations. The use of ramps instead of stairs allowed passengers to move around more efficiently, especially with luggage in tow, and soon followed the model of transportation hubs around the world. And it was one of the first all-electric buildings in the world. At opening, more than 4,000 bare bulbs were glowing from every chandelier and light fixture in the building. The New York Times devoted a special section on the terminal’s completion and praised it as “a monument, a civic center, or a city if desired.”
This diagram is one of the 250 objects included in it. Polonsky New York Public Library Treasures ExhibitionDisplaying items from the library’s research collections dating back 4,000 years, the . We’ll be posting a NYC-related item every day throughout September, and you can see everything. at gothamist.com/treasures.
The Treasures exhibit opens Friday, September 24, 2021 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free time tickets are now available here.