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MAY 15, 2000


Saving a Gem

Gateway to a Million Lives

By John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton
Norton 230pp $39.95

Only a few years ago, New York's Grand Central Terminal was borderline scary and more than borderline tacky. The huge waiting room was home to the homeless, some of them territorial and loutish. Meanwhile, grime and schlock ads lent the place all the charm of a subway stop. The story of its glory days, decline, and rescue is recounted by John Belle, principal architect on the project and a founding partner of Beyer Blinder Belle, and Maxinne Rhea Leighton, associate partner, in the heavily illustrated Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives. The book is as elegant as the firms' restoration project.

Today, Grand Central seems as good as new. Light pours in, the billboards are gone, and travelers and civility have returned to the relocated waiting room. The ceiling with its mural of the constellations has been spruced up to complement one of the world's great functional spaces. Cost of the renovation: $200 million.

The latest of three Grand Centrals on the same site, the present terminal is a squat, albeit beautifully scaled, mausoleum of a design crowned with a sculptured gang of lounging pagan gods. Plans had been afoot even before its opening in 1914 to top the station off with a skyscraper. They were nixed, but the heart of Manhattan was reshaped anyway, as the aptly named Park Avenue was developed in conjunction with new sites over the recently buried rail yards.

By the 1950s, the authors point out, New Yorkers by and large did not want to be reminded of the past, of economic hardship and war. Anything new was considered good. Prodded by the landlord, the New York Central Railroad, architects drew up plans to replace the station with superskyscrapers, including a 108-story wonder by I.M. Pei that resembled a nuclear reactor.

It could easily have happened. In fact, it did--but to Pennsylvania Station, Grand Central's handsome crosstown rival, which was demolished in the mid-'60s. At the same time, Grand Central's offices and baggage depot were replaced by the bland Pan Am (now Met Life) Building. The concourse was saved, but only for the time being. By the mid-'70s, powerful pressure was brought to bear on the government of the failing city to let the failing railroad make the most of its property--i.e., clear it.

Enter Grand Central's heroine, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When she first called in to volunteer her services, people thought it was a joke. Wasn't she a limousine liberal, one who had probably never even ridden mass transit? Actually, she was just what was needed: a celebrity knowledgeable about preservation, politically savvy, and courageous. Open to ridicule, up against huge forces, she showed grace that masked her grit. ''We've all heard that it's too late, that it has to happen, but we know that's not so,'' she announced. With some very good lawyers, this capable woman prevailed.

It's an inspiring history, illustrated here with 150 splendid photos of movie stunts, deluxe trains, station characters, and restoration discoveries, as well as neat-o architectural cutaways and one painting--William Sonntag's 1880 watercolor of a rainy rail yard--that alone justifies the price of the book.

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