Arguably the most iconic and celebrated rail station in the entire world, Grand Central Terminal is unquestionably one of New York City’s most famous landmarks. Few people, however, know the real history behind the iconic railway hub, including how it actually dates back to the 1870s and played a critical role in the historic preservation movement in the United States thanks in large part to a former First Lady. Whether you regard Grand Central as your daily commuting hub, tourist destination or simply a famous landmark, chances are you don’t know the hidden history of Grand Central Terminal.
The history of Grand Central actually dates all the way back to 1871. It was in that year that famed industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt constructed the progenitor of the current terminal, Grand Central Depot. Vanderbilt believed that rail transportation was the future of the country’s economy and wanted to make his mark in an influential way. The railway station, then located well uptown of the city’s bustling core in Lower Manhattan, helped to spur development in Midtown Manhattan as well as cement the city’s role as a key center for transportation, commerce and trade.
Grand Central Depot soon became outdated and overcrowded, prompting an extensive renovation between 1899 and 1900 that also rechristened the rail hub as Grand Central Station. However, disaster struck in January 1902 when 15 people were killed in a train collision just outside the station. The tragedy prompted the state government to ban the use of steam trains within city limits. This, combined with the need of a more modern and larger rail hub, prompted the station to be rebuilt yet again from 1903 to 1913 as an electric rail hub.
A Terminal is Born
The newest inception of the station, now known as Grand Central Terminal, opened in February 1913. With its breathtaking Beaux Arts architecture and impressive engineering, the new station helped Midtown Manhattan and the city overall grow economically. Its construction spurred a new, prestigious district called Terminal City around it, giving birth to icons like the Chrysler Building and the Helmsley Building. It continued to serve the city well until the end of World War II.
Decline and Preservation Battle
The postwar years, however, saw rail usage rapidly decline as Americans turned to highways and airlines for travel. Grand Central, now considered a relic of a bygone era, was subsequently planned to have a towering new office building constructed over it in 1968, forcing the demolition of its famed interior and stripping of its ornate façade. The plan drew intense opposition, led by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Eventually, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it an official city landmark, blocking redevelopment plans. An ensuing lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court, with the court siding with the city that the terminal should be saved. The 1978 landmark ruling was a watershed moment for the burgeoning historical preservation movement in the United States and helped save the iconic station from redevelopment.
Rebirth and Future
After being saved from redevelopment, Grand Central Terminal was restored in the 1970s and 1990s, helping to return the structure to its early 20th century grandeur. The terminal also saw a new life as a transit hub as well as a tourist destination, dramatically reversing its decline from after World War II. In 2006, the East Side Access project – the largest infrastructure project in the United States – started in an effort to construct a new terminal for the Long Island Rail Road in Grand Central Terminal, attesting its importance to the city’s future and coming full circle in the critical role it played over a century ago.