Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark
New York Transit Museum and Anthony W. Robins; Introduction by Tony Hiss
Stewart, Tabori & Chang, an imprint of ABRAMS
115 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011; www.abramsbooks.com.
2013. 224 pages. $40 cloth.
The two great railroad stations of the greatest city in the United States—Grand Central Terminal (opened 1913) and Pennsylvania (Penn) Station (opened 1910, demolished 1963–1966)—stand as useful bookends in surveying the recent historic preservation movement in the United States. The destruction of Penn Station helped start the modern historic preservation movement in New York City and, subsequently, the United States.
As the station was being demolished, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was given statutory authority—a power it would soon use to help preserve Grand Central Terminal. With Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis leading the charge, the efforts by the New York Central Railroad (and then-co-owner New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad) and its successor, Penn Central, to demolish or drastically alter the terminal were defeated after a long controversy that ended with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1978. Grand Central Terminal’s new owner, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, then spent almost two decades restoring the great edifice.
Lorraine B. Diehl documented the construction and demolition of Penn Station masterfully in 1985’s The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station. Now, on its 100th birthday, Grand Central Terminal is highlighted in the lavishly illustrated Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark. The book is an unusual collaboration, with the New York Transit Museum and Anthony W. Robins, a noted authority on the architectural history of New York City, credited as coauthors. The introduction, by Tony Hiss, is delightful, as anyone who has read his (with Rogers E.M. Whitaker) All Aboard with E. M. Frimbo would expect.
Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark, however, does not replace David Marshall’s excellent Grand Central (Whittlesey House, 1946) as a literary portrait of one of the greatest buildings in the United States. Marshall’s book is one of the first—and perhaps still the most interesting—of many about the terminal.
Grand Central Terminal distinguishes itself from these other works largely due to the many photographs included by Frank English, official photographer for Metro-North Railroad, the commuter railroad operating trains into Grand Central Terminal today. Railroad staff and contract photographers, from William Rau (Pennsylvania Railroad, Lehigh Valley Railroad) to Ed Nowak (New York Central Railroad) have often shown artistic sensibilities, and English clearly follows in this great tradition. The book is well worth reading, and viewing, just to see English’s richly rewarding images.
Grand Central Terminal is divided into eight chapters, with the first describing midtown Manhattan as it was before Grand Central was built, and the second and third describing the construction of the terminal. The personalities involved, from engineer William Wilgus and architect Whitney Warren to artists such as Jules-Félix Coutan and Sylvain Salières, are perhaps the most interesting part of this story. After the first three chapters, the book’s progression is a bit confusing—the fourth and eighth chapters describe the terminal’s place in the city, the fifth gives a behind-the-scenes view of the terminal, and the seventh describes the unusual, non-railroad-related features of this great structure. The sixth chapter, which focuses on Grand Central’s former powerhouse at 50th Street and the present substation below the terminal, seems out of place.
A few areas of the book could have been improved. The first is the design—three columns of small type per page, with few illustrations—which makes Hiss’s introduction look like an afterthought compared to the richly visual structure of the rest of the book. Stronger historical images exist that could have been used in parts of the book. The bibliography includes just one book about Grand Central—Marshall’s. Unaccountably missing are the many other books focused on this great railroad station, such as those by Bill Middleton, Kathleen Odenthal, Kurt Schlichting, Ed Stanley, and many others.
The United States seems to be on the verge of providing its citizens with more transportation alternatives. Grand Central Terminal is America’s greatest surviving landmark of railroad passenger transportation—and it may be a harbinger of the future as well. Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark is both a birthday present honoring this great building and a visual feast for those interested in it, including the many who simply love it.
Tony Reevy is with the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has authored or coauthored three books and over 30 articles on America’s railroads.