Have you ever heard of Grand Central Terminal?
You know, the European-style building that expands downward from the street-level of 42nd street in New York City and features two giant staircases, exquisite marble floors, ramps, tunnels, and a ceiling that mirrors the constellations in the night sky? The icon of Americana, the beauteous example of cultural blending, the inimitable structure packed with memory, both personal and historical… sound familiar?
Even if you’ve never been there in person, you’ve likely seen the building’s main concourse and clock-tower kiosk in movies and on TV. Memorably, Alfred Hitchcock used the station to critical acclaim in North by Northwest and Terry Gilliam set a surreal ballroom waltz of commuters in his 1991 movie, The Fisher King.
These iconic movies and images make it all the more astonishing that, in 1967, Grand Central Terminal was almost demolished, to be replaced by a nondescript modern skyscraper with no more personality than a shoe box.
Why would anyone want to tear down Grand Central Terminal?
Well, the station’s pristine beauty that is so visible today is actually the product of a major restoration that started several decades ago and continued well into the late 2000s.
When the building was first opened to the public in 1913, it was the first structure to be totally powered by electricity, a fact that inspired the architects and designers to insist on lighting that featured hundreds of uncovered bulbs. The open terminal bustled with 150,000 visitors on the very first day that it opened, and the number of commuters and sight-seers grew considerably from there.
During the early 1900s, smoking cigarettes inside the building was a-okay (I know, Generation Z’ers – it was a crazy time) and most of the thousands of commuters that passed through every morning and night lit up while waiting for their train. The rising smoke from the cigarettes covered the aforementioned naked bulbs with soot, as well as the upper ramparts of the structure and, of course, the starry ceiling.
During the 1960s, many of New York City’s older buildings were viewed as examples of the growing decrepitude of the port city. Homeless men and women used public spaces like Grand Central as shelters and vandals took advantage of the lack of security to destroy things. For many movers and shakers of the time, beautiful buildings like Grand Central were seen as what was wrong with New York City, not what made it beautiful.
A movement began to rid the city of its once-resplendent main train station. Even though the Landmarks Preservation Committee designated Grand Central Terminal as an untouchable landmark in 1967, the same company that erected Penn Station pushed hard to demolish the building in 1968.
Enter… The Surprise Savior
The company may well have gotten their way, if not for the help of a surprise savior.
Jackie O wielded her considerable political and social influence to protect the building in the name of posterity. Thanks to her influence, Grand Central was saved and people began to pay more attention to the beautiful structure.
In the 1980s a restoration project began of the building, with specialists removing the scuzzy tobacco-soot from the walls and ceilings, revealing the beautiful constellation artwork above. In 2008, the famous naked bulbs were all replaced (yes every single one!) with fluorescent lighting for cost and energy efficiency. The building was finally returned to its former and intended glory.
Want to Learn More About Grand Central Terminal?
Believe it or not, this article barely scratches the surface of what makes Grand Central Terminal so special. If you’d like to learn more about the scandalous, fascinating history of one of the United States’ most iconic structures, join us on a custom scavenger hunt! We lead one-of-a-kind, engaging hunts through Grand Central to teams of all sizes. Learn more about our scavenger hunts.