N.Y.'s landmark Grand Central hails a new lease on life today Baltimore firm played key role in renovation of 1913 railroad terminal

October 01, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

NEW YORK CITY -- For most of this century, Grand Central Terminal has been one of America's best-known landmarks -- the gateway to Manhattan for hundreds of thousands of train and subway travelers every day.

Now it's ready for the next century, after a $196 million revitalization designed to restore its architectural splendor while preparing it for heavy use in the 21st century.

A Baltimore-based firm, Williams Jackson Ewing, played a key role in the transformation of the terminal, which will be rededicated in ceremonies beginning at 11 a.m. today.

"Once again, Grand Central will serve New Yorkers and people from around the world as a magnificent building and as a bustling train station and transportation hub," said E. Virgil Conway, chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which controls the building and launched the improvements.

"Our goal was to give the public a Grand Central Terminal that not only lives up to its great history and international renown, but a Grand Central that is better than ever before," he said.

The rededication celebrates the modernizing of the terminal by improving its infrastructure and operations, and the restoration of the building to preserve and highlight architectural features such as its vaulted "Sky Ceiling" mural.

A third goal is to make the train station a regional shopping and dining destination as well as a transportation hub, with more than 100 stores, shops, restaurants and cafes. Some have already opened; many more will be in place by late November or early December.

The idea behind the merchandising plan was to generate increased revenue for the terminal without losing the flavor of New York, said Michael Ewing, principal of the Baltimore firm that headed the effort to lease 170,000 square feet of retail space.

Leasing agents could have assigned space to national chains and made plenty of money for the transit authority, but they decided to seek out a mixture of merchants and vendors who represented the best of New York, he said.

'The soul of the city'

"It's a landmark building. It has great history to it. It's the soul of the city," Ewing said. "We didn't want to muck it up and and turn it into a tourist trap. It wasn't necessary. We wanted the experience to be an authentic New York experience."

The terminal was designed by two sets of architects, Reed & Stern and Warren & Wetmore. Construction began in 1903 and the building opened 10 years later. Built by the New York Central Railroad, the predecessor of the Penn Central, it covers 76 acres, from 42nd to 50th streets, between Lexington and Madison avenues.

During the era of the famed 20th Century Limited, more than 500 trains arrived and departed every day. Half a million people a day still pass through, including 100,000 rail commuters, 150,000 to 200,000 subway riders, and thousands more pedestrians walking from one Midtown location to another.

Over time, the terminal's great spaces began to show signs of disrepair: stained walls, grimy windows, dirty and obstructed passageways, a forest of signboards epitomized by a giant Kodak Colorama sign.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Grand Central Terminal was the subject of a fierce preservation battle that came after the razing of the even-grander Pennsylvania Station. The Supreme Court ultimately protected Grand Central from the wreckers' ball, but after decades of deferred maintenance it was literally beginning to crumble.

In 1994, the transit authority gained long-term control of the terminal in the form of a 110-year lease from the successor to Penn Central Corp. This gave it the authority to enter into a development agreement with GCT Venture Inc., a joint venture of LaSalle Partners of Chicago and Baltimore's Williams Jackson Ewing. Construction began in 1996 and culminates with today's gala rededication.

Light once more

The revitalization project has revealed spaces that were masked for years by visual clutter and physical obstructions. Light again pours into the main concourse through windows that were blocked and covered with grime. Stone surfaces have been cleaned and repaired, and the famous Sky Ceiling mural has been illuminated using fiber-optic lights.

One of the most dramatic changes was the addition of a stairway on the east side of the main concourse. The stair was included in the original plans for the terminal but dropped from construction at the last minute.

As part of the redesign, the building has gained an entrance from Lexington Avenue. The former main waiting room, renamed Vanderbilt Hall, is now available for seasonal markets, art exhibits, receptions and private parties.

Balconies overlooking the main concourse will house a series of fine restaurants.

"From the start, this building has been a place where the age-old tradition of civic monuments was married to the most up-to-date technology," Conway said. "We believe we have taken the very best of Grand Central and made it ready to serve the new century."

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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