If you face 42nd Street and look up, slightly, while you wait for the NY Airport Service bus in Pershing Square, this is your view — the impressive 48 foot high sculpture “Transportation” by French artist Jules-Alexis Coutan, with a clock at its center containing the world's largest example of Tiffany glass. This sculptural group, unveiled in 1914, depicts Mercury (god of speed) flanked by Minerva (goddess of wisdom) and the mighty Hercules — a fitting ornament for the facade of a magnificent structure which would serve as the hub for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s network of rail lines and provide a link to New York City’s new subway system.
Grand Central Terminal is one of my favorite man-made destinations. On a recent evening as I admired its facade, I found myself reflecting on the marvelous beauty of this intricate building and also upon just how fortunate we are that Grand Central Terminal is still here to admire. After all, a large piece of “being Green” is appreciating and preserving what we already have.
Grand Central Terminal’s glory days were once nearly numbered. In 1964, Pennsylvania Station was demolished, despite a public outcry, and replaced with an office building and the new Madison Square Garden. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, formed In response to this demolition, designated Grand Central Terminal as a landmark in 1967, making the terminal subject to the protection of law. Grand Central Terminal was seemingly safe, but a new threat arose the very next year.
As a result of bankruptcies and mergers of the railroads operating in New York, Penn Central had become the new owner of Grand Central Terminal. Penn Central then leased the property to a developer who proposed constructing a 55-story tower above Grand Central Terminal. The building’s facade would have been preserved, but rendered insignificant; the entire Main Waiting Room and part of the Main Concourse would have been demolished. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, joined by other prominent preservationists, rallied New Yorkers in opposition to Penn Central’s plans, asking, "Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes."
New York City filed a suit to stop the construction. The resulting case, Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978), eventually reached the Supreme Court. The Court, in its first-ever decision on a matter of historic preservation, ruled that New York City's Landmarks Preservation Act did not constitute a "taking" of Penn Central's property under the Fifth Amendment and was a reasonable use of government land-use regulatory power.
Grand Central Terminal was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. It suffered years of decline, but its “extreme makeover” began when Metro-North took over operation of Grand Central Terminal in 1983. Since then Grand Central Terminal has been renovated inside and out. The interior shines. On a sunny day shafts of light illuminate the voluminous space with a sublime golden glow. People still meet at the information booth with the four-faced clock. And tourists marvel at the elaborate astronomical ceiling, which is the backdrop for a music and light show during the winter holidays.
The NYC Architecture site has many images of Grand Central Terminal through the ages, including the Cold War period when a Redstone missile was prominently displayed in the Main Concourse. The Grand Central site contains links to a self-guided walking tour, to information on the free guided tours offered on Wednesdays and Fridays at 12:30, and to a guide listing the terminal’s many shopping and dining opportunities.
Grand Central Terminal is an inexpensive destination for a day trip, with a low carbon footprint. There are several off-peak Metro-North trains from New Haven that arrive well before the tour. After the tour there should be ample time to shop and dine at a leisurely pace before your off-peak train back. Lovers of Penzey’s, be sure to look for their stall in the Grand Central Market. It will save you a drive to Norwalk. The cost for your Metro-North ticket Round Trip/Off Peak is $28.00 — $18.50, if you are a senior. That’s a bargain for a very Green day.