Grand Central Terminal was built to house Cornelius Vanderbilt's railroad network, consolidated in the late 19th century as New York Central. It replaced John B. Snook and Isaac Buckout's Second Empire style 42nd Street Terminal, an iron and glass train shed built between 1869 and 71 (which had supplanted New York's first Madison Square train shed and terminal at Madison Square). A massive track fire caused by the collision of two trains in 1902 prompted the decision to electrify the train lines. The smoky, sooty train tracks running down the center of Fourth Avenue were covered, creating what we know today as Park Avenue North. By the 1920s, the avenue was transformed from a eyesore lined with tenements and factories into a boulevard of luxury apartment buildings. By the 1950s, lower Park Avenue North had become one of the most sought-after commercial districts in the city.
Founded to oversee the station's replanning, the Grand Central Corporation envisioned the project as "Terminal City"-- a multi-lot development linking the new station with hotels, apartments, and office buildings running along 42nd Street and up Park Avenue. This plan, often described as a "city within a city" can be understood as the precursor to ideas explored later at Rockefeller Center.
The 1903 competition brief also called for linking the station with the new subway system . For the station itself, the brief specified distinct departure areas for commuter and long distance trains, a main circulation concourse, a subsidiary ticketing space and waiting rooms. Furthermore, it required that Park Avenue traffic should circulate around the station.
Ultimately, this brief reflected a new and innovative appreciation of the urban character and the changing needs of a booming metropolis. Reed & Stem--a firm with strong engineering capabilities--won out over architects like McKim Mead & White and Daniel Burnham for the commission. They were ultimately responsible for functional aspects of the design. To their consternation, the Vanderbilts added the firm of their Beaux Arts-trained cousin, Whitney Warren, to the team. Warren & Wetmore were responsible for the aesthetics of the station.
Reed & Stem's station was conceived first as a system of efficient circulation between the city's streets, trains, subways, the 'El' and adjacent buildings. A viaduct encircling the station [1919-29] links Park Avenue North and South. Suburban and long haul trains are isolated on two separate levels of tracks. Multi-level circulation ramps replace stairs, facilitating pedestrian traffic through the station. The building is replete with amenities for the traveler--commercial establishments, a police station, changing rooms, private offices and apartments. The station still functions well, despite subsequent rearrangements and a dramatic increase in traffic.
Modeled on Roman imperial baths, Warren & Wetmore's Beaux Arts architectural design is, in effect, a surface dressing for this masterful circulation plan. The monumental main concourse [1903-13] is capped by a vaulted plaster ceiling suspended from a steel substructure. Thermal windows bring light into the concourse and serve as hallways linking to office spaces at the concourse's four corners. Guastavino vaults grace portions of the broad, shallow lower level. Acorns and oak leaves--both symbols of the Vanderbilt family--adorn the interior.
Outside, the limestone-clad station's southern facade has the grand scale of the interior. Modeled on a Roman triumphal arch, the facade symbolizes the triumph of the railroad. It was also envisioned as a gateway to the city, then located primarily to the station's south. Jules Coutan's central sculptural group depicts Mercury (the god of commerce) supported by Minerva and Hercules (representing mental and moral strength). After the original Pennsylvania Station was demolished in 1963, Grand Central Terminal was landmarked. This innovative complex, integrating the train system with an intricate web of urban conditions, will be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.