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How Grand Central Terminal, a NYC landmark for 50 years, was saved from destruction

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The rise and fall and rise again of Grand Central Terminal

A train station. The ceiling is green with a painted pattern. On the floor are many people walking. There are archways and windows. Shutterstock.com

It was 50 years ago today the Grand Central Terminal became a New York City landmark, ensuring that the Beaux Arts beauty would be preserved for future generations. (Though it almost wasn’t enough to save the building—but we’ll get to that.)

Surprisingly, Grand Central wasn’t among the first batch of buildings to gain protected status in 1965, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission was first established. But it was one whose protected status was most desired by the city’s preservation-minded community. The LPC was formed in the wake of the destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s grand old Penn Station, and many preservationists worried that Grand Central would suffer a similar fate.

It didn’t help, of course, that the New York Central Railroad (which, at the time, owned Grand Central) was in bad financial shape, and seeking ways to monetize the area around the train depot. It had already allowed the much-derided Pan Am Building—which architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable one called “a colossal collection of minimums”—to rise behind Grand Central, and had been scheming to build an even taller structure atop it for years. (I.M. Pei’s Hyperboloid, a 102-story circular skyscraper, was just one of the proposals that was entertained.)

A Wurts Bros. photo of the Pan Am Building in 1963, the year it was completed.

When the LPC finally did name the building a landmark in 1967, it did so with effusive praise: “Grand Central Terminal, one of the great buildings of America, evokes a spirit that is unique to this City,” the designation reads. “In style it represents the best of the French Beaux Arts.” For a time, it seemed as though the threats to the building would cease.

That didn’t last long, though: Just a month later, The New York Times reported that New York Central was planning to “build a skyscraper, possibly 45 stories tall, surmounting the waiting room of Grand Central Terminal.” The following year, a more detailed plan by Modernist architect Marcel Breuer was revealed: He designed a 55-story concrete slab that would have been plopped atop the terminal, turning the 42nd Street entrance into a lobby for that skyscraper, and providing what the architect called a “calm backdrop” to the Beaux Arts building.

Preservationists and architecture critics were, as you might expect, unenthused by that idea. Huxtable, ever the master of sick architectural burns, called it a “grotesquerie” that would be “a monument … to the awesome value of New York air rights.” The LPC eventually rejected the proposal, and rejected revisions to it in 1969, leading to a decade-long battle between the city and the newly-created Penn Central (the result of a merger between New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad) over Grand Central’s future.

Grand Central Terminal in 1968.
AP Photo

Penn Central eventually sued the city in order to try and push its skyscraper plans forward, and as a result of that lawsuit, the terminal’s landmark status was vacated for a brief period. Penn was by that time in even worse financial shape—it had declared bankruptcy in 1970—and in its decision, the New York State Supreme Court argued that not letting the Breuer building move forward caused “economic hardship” to the rail company.

But eventually, with the help of the Municipal Art Society, the ailing terminal got some very snazzy benefactors. Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and architect Philip Johnson were two of the big names who joined the Committee to Save Grand Central Station, which was headed up by former New York City mayor Robert Wagner. At a 1975 event announcing the group’s formation, Onassis called the fight to save the terminal “terribly important” because “if we don't care about our past, we cannot hope for our future.”

Jackie Kennedy, Bess Meyerson, Ed Koch, and Philip Johnson were some of the famous names who banded together to save Grand Central in the 1970s.
Photo by Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Whether or not her star power was the terminal’s sole saving grace is up for debate, but having a beloved First Lady on board certainly helped turn it into a cause célèbre. More celebrities lent their names to the cause; in the spring of 1975, stars like Dick Cavett, Benny Goodman, and Tony Randall performed at a benefit outside of the station, and a celeb-filled train traveled to and from the station in 1978 as a way to gain attention and shore up support for the cause.

Meanwhile, the legal battle raged on. In late 1975, the decision to void Grand Central’s landmark status was overturned, giving it protected status once again. Penn Central challenged that ruling, taking the fight all the way to the United States Supreme Court—and finally, in 1978, the court ruled in preservationists’ favor, with six justices agreeing that the rail company’s argument had no merit. “This is a country that is finally recognizing its urban assets and the need to protect them for livable cities,” Huxtable (yes, her again!) wrote about the court’s decision.

It would take a couple more decades before the station—which was feeling the effects of the fiscal crisis that gripped New York in the 1970s—was returned to its original splendor, but the preservationists’ fight meant that there would be actually be something to save. Thanks to an extensive restoration (undertaken by Beyer Blinder Belle, among other entities), Grand Central is as lovely as ever, and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

Still, 50 years after the terminal was landmarked, the fight over building around it rages on. The Midtown East rezoning initiative, which appears to be on its way to a full City Council approval, could make it easier for landmarks like Grand Central to sell their air rights, paving the way for tall towers to sprout around the building. While Grand Central itself is unlikely to be altered too much—its landmark protection now extends to the building’s interiors, too—it remains to be seen how the neighborhood around it will change in the coming years.

Grand Central Terminal

89 East 42nd Street, Manhattan, NY 10017 (212) 340-2583 Visit Website