Monday, March 04, 2013

Book Review: Grand Central

Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives by John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton
W. W. Norton, 2012 (reissue)
Hardcover, 240 pages

On February 2 Grand Central Terminal celebrated its 100th birthday. The building looks a lot better than any people or other buildings from 1913, thanks to the restoration that was completed in 1998. For those who never saw the terminal before that year (like me), the building looks like what it must have been when it first opened. But the restoration—like any work of preservation—is equal parts creativity and cleaning. It removed the clutter that blocked windows, made spaces cramped, and otherwise detracted from the Beaux Arts architecture, but it also added elements and reconfigured others to give the terminal hopefully another 100 years of use.

This book—originally published in 2000 but recently reissued by W. W. Norton—is authored by John Belle, architect of the restoration (with Beyer Blinder Belle), and Maxinne R. Leighton, currently with Parson Brinckerhoff. Not surprisingly, the book devotes a good chunk to the restoration work and the documentation of its subsequent splendor. The book starts with the threats to Grand Central from the middle of last century, when even landmark status did not guarantee its protection. A Supreme Court ruling in 1978 in favor of the city's landmarking of the building owed much to Jackie O. and other celebrities that championed the cause in the decade after Penn Station was knocked down. Yet even though it was saved by the wrecking ball, the realities of the economy and train travel meant that advertising and other means of revenue reshaped people's experience of the main hall and other spaces. Such a situation survives to this day in the renting out of the original waiting room for events and pop-up stores, but at least those are temporary and can be avoided by using other entrances (and thankfully Apple's insertion into the main hall is fairly well done).

As valuable as the chapters on Grand Central's preservation and restoration are, the best ones tell the story of the terminal's coming into being. People may see the 100-year-old stone edifice and think that is everything, but the tracks, platforms and other infrastructure that the building serves extend well beyond its footprint, sitting under many of the buildings to the north. These buildings, Park Avenue, and Midtown east of 5th Avenue owe their existence to Grand Central, which was not the first train station on its site (it follows Grand Central Station and Depot) but is the most important, for it submerged the newly electrified rails to allow for building above them. The terminal acted like a magnet and attracted development, especially hotels and offices.

As Grand Central turns 100, its role in the "invention" of Midtown and the area's subsequent transformation is coming to the fore. Two events are underway that will reshape the area around the terminal: First is the LIRR East Side Access, which will deliver trains from Long Island to the east side of Midtown by 2016 (currently they end at Penn Station). Second is the city's proposed rezoning of Midtown East, which aims to boost development around Grand Central, particularly along Park Avenue to the north. These two undertakings illustrate how infrastructure and private development are linked; destroying Grand Central would have adversely affected the former (as the destruction of Penn Station did to the underground maze that New Yorkers inherited), but the days of either/or have given way to a symbiotic appreciation of urban complexity. While this book predates these newest developments, it gives a great background on Grand Central's solid foundations that make it an ideal hub for commuters and the ever-changing Midtown surrounding it.