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:
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.