All aboard -- for a new Grand Central Terminal New York: Restoration has returned architectural splendor to one of the city's busiest buildings

Short hop

December 06, 1998|By Peter Whoriskey | Peter Whoriskey,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Grand Central Terminal has become a synonym for modern chaos, so maybe it was easy to forget about the building's classical splendor: Its crowning statue of Mercury; its grand bronze clock; its barrel-vaulted ceiling painted blue with lighted gold-leaf stars; its nickel- and gold-plated chandeliers; the monumental echoes within its stone main hall; its symmetry and pomp. Anyway, over the years, its charms had slowly disappeared.

Turns out it was all there, all along, hidden under 85 years of soot, billboard clutter and bad additions.

With a recent rededication ceremony to mark its $200 million restoration, Grand Central Terminal seems poised for the first time in decades to assume its stature as a New York landmark.

For anyone visiting the city, the new Grand Central, just like the original, will serve both your appetite and sense of wonder.

With 50 train platforms, 500,000 daily visitors and a monumental sense of self-importance, few other buildings better capture the city's hustle and bustle.

"It's New York's living room, in a way," says Douglas McKean, the project manager of the restoration for the New York architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle. "At other stations, it's like rats coming out of a tunnel. At Grand Central, you emerge from your train into a wonderful building. It's uplifting."

Completed at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in 1913, Grand Central was the nation's first fully electrified train terminal, and its architecture was intended to match the marvel of its %o technology. The old steam trains demanded immense train sheds; electric ones did not. This allowed the architects to take the volume of the building - formerly devoted to train sheds - and devote it to soaring public rooms.

The soul of Grand Central Terminal is the main concourse, an immense empty room topped with the 120-foot-high "Sky Ceiling" mural. It's meant to depict a night scene. Stars in gold leaf and electric bulbs mark the signs of the zodiac. It's as if only the stars could capture the ambitions of its builders.

But an ample sense of self is evident throughout the building. The pediment statues of Minerva (Roman goddess of invention), Hercules (strength) and Mercury (travel), which announce the building on Park Avenue, are 50 feet tall. One of the grand staircases loosely resembles that of the Paris Opera. Huge arched clerestory windows admit sunlight. Everything, it seems, is either marble or limestone or bronze. At various times during the terminal's history, you could catch a newsreel movie or a Turkish bath or an art gallery.

It now seems unbelievable, but in 1954, the New York Central Railroad announced plans to demolish the building that seemed built to last forever. New plans called for a 6 million-square-foot office tower. Soon other schemes were hatched - one of which proposed a bowling alley in the huge waiting room. In part, Grand Central was caught in an economic squeeze: Long-distance rail travel had slackened and at the same time, midtown real estate prices had skyrocketed.

The ensuing fight for its preservation, led in part by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was itself a landmark in the nation's preservation movement: Settled in 1978 by the U.S. Supreme Court, it established the right of local governments to protect significant buildings.

What the court case did not settle, however, was what to do with the aging landmark.

Its roof leaked. An 18-foot by 60-foot Kodak Colorama billboard ,, covered some of the huge clerestory windows. Building additions replaced soaring ceilings with dropped ceilings, narrowed passages and blocked vistas. Vagrants haunted the old, sooty edifice.

"It was like a rabbit's hole," McKean says. "All tunnels and low passages."

The fate of Grand Central turned in 1983, when Metro-North Commuter Railroad took over operation. It hired the firm of Beyer Blinder Belle, which is responsible for the acclaimed restoration of Ellis Island. In 1990, that company completed a master plan.

A good deal of the restoration, while technically complicated, was just plain common sense: Fix what was broken and remove the offending additions. Some of it must have stung: Removing the single biggest blight on the main hall, the Kodak billboard, cost $450,000 in lost advertising revenue.

But the architects have also made several additions. Escalators connect the station's upper and lower levels for the first time, for example, and other connections have been altered. This is a tricky business: With entrances on all sides and tracks on two levels, the original design is celebrated for its ability to get everyone where they need to go. Tweaking that plan had to be undertaken very cautiously.

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