Don't call it a Station, It's a Terminal
January 23, 2013 5:38 PM   Subscribe

On February 2nd, Grand Central Terminal turns 100. It's full of history, secrets, the location for many movies, and the site of a major squash tournament.
posted by Xurando (6 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Of all of the tidbits of information and trivia surrounding GCT, my two favorites are the dirt patch they left on the ceiling to show how bad it got and the sculptures of the rats on the Greybar Building over the entrance to Grand Central on Lexington Ave.
posted by MattScully at 6:37 PM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I believe I am entitled to hate Grand Central. I am entitled to hatred by the years I spent commuting through GCT, by the late, lonely, and often drunken hours I had to idle there waiting for a train home, and certainly by my discomfort with crowds, particularly of the large, dense, seething variety that accumulates on the main concourse Friday evenings at rush hour. I could fairly be repulsed by the odd characters that somehow aggregate on the lower level dining concourse, as though they drifted down there and found themselves unable to reach escape velocity and return to the world outside, or even to the upper concourse.

Somehow all of that becomes just a footnote to the awe and affection I feel for that place. The architecture, the elegance, and the cavernous spaces still stun me, even stealing my focus in urgent moments when I am rushing to catch a train. Even after years of daily, then weekly visits, I continue to stumble upon passages, corners, and features I've never encountered before. The same thick crowds that are confounding to try to penetrate while crossing from the MetLife escalators to Vanderbilt Hall are, from the vantage of any of the main concourse's balconies, a fascinating cross section of New York and its visitors and a humbling collection of moments from the human condition. The scale of the crowds that pass through the terminal every day, to and from their far-flung suburban diaspora, the volume of tickets and coffees and shoe-shines and beers and newspapers and sandwiches and flower bouquets distributed in the process, the planned rendezvouses, the chance encounters, the phone calls home, the massive commercial and human exchange coursing through that hub boggles the mind.

I once did all of my holiday shopping within the terminal. I've seen movie shoots and national guard patrols and wedding photo shoots and gift bazaars there. I've picked up fruit and cheese from the marketplace before jumping on the train to my mother's. I've orbited the clock over the information booth hunting for my sister, or my former roommate, or whomever I'd arranged to meet there. I've sipped rose at the bar at Cipriani with my fiancee, I've pulled on overpriced beers with buddies and colleagues at Michael Jordan's, I've endured preliminary job interviews over coffee at Cucina & Co., and I've whiled away many pleasant hours browsing the selections at Posman books. I still catch myself snapping tourist photos of the main concourse. And of course, I have a major weak spot for the peanut butter and banana smoothies at Dishes on the dining concourse.

Grand Central is a special and unique place in New York City. Our other transit hubs, Penn Station and the Port Authority, are too gritty and utilitarian and frankly uninviting- they were meant to be passed through, not lingered upon. Grand Central, by comparison, celebrates the exchange between the city and its outlying suburbs. I may be biased by my own suburban roots, but for as much as Manhattan is driven by full-time occupants like myself, it owes much of its energy to rhythm of the doubling and halving of its population through the week, the repeated siege of this tiny island by outsiders pouring through bridge and tunnel to pursue their professional ambitions or to seek out entertainment their suburban neighbors have only read about.

There is a change of energy hauling into the city in the morning bracing for a day's work, as there is making the inbound pilgrimage at night to play. Likewise, there is a downshift heading back out to the suburbs, shuffling off the workday stress or recapping and recovering from a night out, or both. Grand Central Terminal, with its elegance and grand scale, dignifies and enshrines the humming middle ground, the lingering interstitial where errands get done, strength is gathered, and human connections are made that prepare us for the journey in either direction.
posted by MonkeyMeat at 7:27 PM on January 23, 2013 [15 favorites]

The two grand staircases at GCT were not only built separately - the east after the west - but are also slightly different sizes, the east smaller than the west. According to the audio tour, this is so archaeologists of the site in the far future will know they were built separately.
posted by Apropos of Something at 7:27 PM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think you can or should discuss GCT without discussing the original Penn Station. It is likely that Grand Central would never have been built -- or at the very least, built far more modestly -- had it not been for the challenge placed before the New York Central Railroad by the rival Pennsylvania in the form of their midtown Doric temple. (And GCT was still honestly a bit utilitarian by comparison.)

It was the Pennsylvania Railroad who decided to build a monument for the ages, something that they thought would be on par with the Baths of Caracalla (from which they shamelessly copied from when it suited). The NYC's hard-nosed management team would likely never have sprung for the Beaux Arts flourishes that now define Grand Central, had they not been shamed by the PRR's bold encroachment onto their traditional turf. (If you look at most of the works of Reed and Stem, the initial architects of GCT, they are not especially ornate; it was only when Warren and Wetmore were brought in -- after the unveiling of Penn Station -- that many now-familiar Beaux Arts elements were added.)

The most significant parts of GCT, in terms of railroad architecture, aren't the visible stuff, but the fact that it was the first station to use two platform levels, located above each other. This was something that wasn't practical before the advent of electric trains, and have allowed the station to cope with far more trains and passengers than it otherwise would have. And it's that design which has allowed GCT to cope with modern passenger loads, not by accident but because they were anticipated: we're still well within the design envelope of the original 1913 plans. That's forward thinking. So although the NYC's terminal may have been the meaner one architecturally compared to the PRR's, it has succeeded in the only way that really matters if you are interested in monument-building: it's still here.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:17 PM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

When Hurricane Irene shut them down, it made for some stunning photography. When shots like that came out, I remember thinking to myself "there's a once in a lifetime shot."

Then came Sandy.
posted by radwolf76 at 6:36 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

GCT factoids from the Daily Beast.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:53 PM on February 5, 2013

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