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Grand Central Station: changes for the better?

Occasional Observer

Over three quarters of a million visitors pass through its impressive main space every day. One of a handful of New York City’s foremost landmarks along with the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park and the Empire State building, Grand Central Terminal remains a proud symbol of New York’s glory days and an inspiring place marking the heart of the city. 

Designed by two of the City’s most notable architectural firms, Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore, Grand Central Terminal opened to the public in 1913. Flanking the Terminal, the architects also created a pair of luxurious ancillary hotels, the Commodore and the Biltmore (which became famous in its own right as the place where people met “under the clock”). Both were largely destroyed in the early 1980s (the Commodore by Donald Trump).

In 1963, a 59-floor skyscraper abutting the Terminal to the north, the Pan Am Building (now Met Life) was constructed, significantly expanding the footprint of Grand Central. Walter Gropius, the principal architect for the project, created spacious lobbies and walkways under and around the giant new skyscraper with sculptures by world renowned artists including a giant mural by Josef Albers, subsequently destroyed in a 2001 renovation. These sculpture gallery/lobbies have been diminished over the years, not only by removal of most of the sculptures themselves but by conversion of much of the lobby and circulation space into branch banks and other commercial rental space. The former public areas, once generous, are now little more than a cramped maze.

In 1995 the MTA began  a major renovation by architects Beyer Blinder Belle that restored the famous ceiling of the central space and replaced a giant photo billboard on the east side of the huge room with a grand stair to match the existing one on the west side, a most welcome addition. And they skillfully refurbished the public spaces throughout with details that maintain the Terminal’s original character. 

Over the years, some changes have occurred that were inevitable. When the New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad and inter-city traffic was relocated to the new Penn Station, Grand Central no longer needed a baggage room. However, baggage lockers remained in several locations until a bomb exploded in one locker in the mid-70s and lockers were quickly banished.

The grand main waiting room along 42nd Street had lovely wood benches that provided seating for more than 700 people. During the 80s the management removed the benches, supposedly to foreclose their use by homeless people; however, soon the space was divided up into areas for eateries and other small concessions. A few of the benches were relocated to a small space off of one of the east-west concourses for what became Grand Central’s only waiting room; this was closed in 2020 with no plan for re-opening.

From 1937 to 1979, a small, beautifully appointed Trans-Lux movie theater just east of the main space showed newsreels and short subjects for the benefit of passengers waiting for their trains. Since then this facility has served as anonymous, but more lucrative, retail space.

The quality of the commercial facilities that remain in the terminal has largely declined over the years. Space seems to have been leased out solely on the basis of who would pay the most rent. But Grand Central is, at least in part, a public facility and should consider public needs. 

Despite its tremendous popularity, the Terminal’s only bookstore, Posman Books, was closed a few years ago to provide construction backup space for a new skyscraper (by others) going up across the street; it has not been replaced.

Nowhere in Grand Central can you now buy a newspaper or magazine. Just why is hard to figure. 

Although the central space on the lower level now boasts that it is a “food court” with many small stands serving a variety of food, the only restaurant in the Terminal worth recommending is the Oyster Bar, the famed seafood restaurant at the mid-level between the main and lower floors. It opened in 1913, together with the rest of the Terminal, and has been operating ever since with only short closures for repairs and for the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its impressive Guastavino tiled vaulted ceilings provide a memorable ambiance. And the food is good, too!

A positive change has been the addition of a food market on the main level along Lexington Avenue. Here passengers on their way home can purchase high-quality meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, fruit or other ingredients for a good meal without another separate shopping trip.

Additional new facilities and transportation connections including several envisioned in President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill may make this enormous hub even more complex and impressive. Despite its growing size and complexity, let’s hope Grand Central Terminal will retain most of its charm.

 

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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