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A Historic Arrival: New York's Grand Central Turns 100

Originally published on Sat February 2, 2013 12:44 pm

Where's the Apple store? Where's the bathroom? How do I get out of here?

Those are some of the most commonly asked questions from people visiting New York's Grand Central Terminal, according to information booth officer Audrey Johnson-Gordon. And it's no wonder: The terminal boasts passages, ramps, restaurants, stores, subway connections and more passages. It is, after all, a temple of transit, full of people going somewhere else in a hurry.

On Feb. 2, that fabled destination will celebrate its 100th anniversary. To mark the occasion, New York Times reporter Sam Roberts has written a book about the terminal. Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America recounts how rapacious robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt built the station for his railroad; credits long-forgotten engineer William Wilgus for electrifying the trains; and documents how a historical preservation movement helped save the place from the wrecking ball.

It's Grand Central Terminal

Standing outside Johnson-Gordon's post under a great four-sided clock at the center of the main concourse, Roberts dispenses with a widely ignored bit of Grand Central pedantry: It's Grand Central Terminal, not Grand Central Station. Actually, it was originally called a depot. Then, when passengers started continuing downtown on horse-drawn trains, it was a station.

"Finally, in 1913," the author tells NPR's Robert Siegel, "it became a terminal because the trains terminated here."

But Grand Central Station is still a place — in fact, it's two.

"There's a Grand Central Station on the subway, and there's also a Grand Central Station that's the post office," Roberts says. "But this is officially — although I think most New Yorkers probably don't know it for sure — this is Grand Central Terminal."

The depot was there for decades before the terminal opened. Then, in 1902, a catastrophic underground train crash forced the construction of Vanderbilt's palatial terminal.

"A train coming out of the tunnel under Park Avenue — under steam control — couldn't see because of the steam, the cinders, the heat, the fog, the snow, and wound up crashing into another train with multiple fatalities," Roberts says. "And the railroad, if not the politicians who licensed it, in effect said we can't go on with this anymore — we've got to make a change, otherwise we're going to ban your railroad from Manhattan. So instead, they switched to electricity, which allowed them to get rid of the steam, get rid of the smoke, build the two-level station for incoming and outgoing trains and deck over Park Avenue, and create some of the most valuable real estate in the world."

An Innovative Hub

As Roberts tells it, the phrase "commuter train" owes its life to a man known as M. Sloat, a superintendent on Vanderbilt's New York Central Railroad who, back in the 19th century, came up with a brilliant marketing scheme.

"He noticed that lots of people from Westchester, [N.Y.], from Connecticut, were taking the train back and forth," Roberts says. "So instead of charging the full fare, they decided they would commute the fare, much like, I guess, you would commute someone's sentence if they were on death row. But that's how 'commuter,' the term, was actually born."

According to Roberts, Grand Central also gave us the principle of air rights when it created Park Avenue over what had been an open train yard, and people started building on top of railroad property. It effectively gave New York midtown Manhattan — the heart of the city used to be farther downtown.

Another Grand Central innovation was the ramp. "The place has virtually no staircases," Roberts explains. "People realized that particularly long-distance travelers were coming in with suitcases, lots of luggage, and the ramps were built to accommodate them. Lots of people didn't know what a ramp was, interestingly enough, so there was one explanation that pointed out that the word comes from 'ramparts.' "

And when it opened in 1913, the terminal served as a massive advertisement for both electricity and the Vanderbilts.

"Look at all those bare electric light bulbs," the author says. "You wonder why there were not more ornate lighting fixtures. It's because they were showing off electricity. This was the first electric terminal, both the tracks and the lighting of the whole terminal itself. And if you look very carefully at some of the finer artwork, you will see lots of acorns and oak leaves. The acorn and the oak leaf was on the Vanderbilt family crest. You know, little acorns, mighty oaks, like the Vanderbilts grew. And they had an enormous influence on the development of this terminal."

'It's Like Being In A Cathedral'

These days, Grand Central is home to commuter trains — there are no more luxury 20th Century Limited rides to Chicago. (The New York Central literally rolled out a red carpet every time that train boarded, another Grand Central contribution to the lexicon.)

The terminal is such a bright, open space, with at least one original tenant left — the famed Oyster Bar — and so many other amenities. You can sympathize with the woman who once asked information booth officer Audrey Johnson-Gordon if she had to pay to get in. Sam Roberts thinks it's a bargain.

"It is like being in a cathedral. It's like being in an art museum," he says. "And to think this is something that's being made available to the public at large — not for an elite group of people, but anyone who wants to travel anywhere can walk into Grand Central and partake of it. That's a great New York City institution."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And now, a train ride to a fabled destination, which marks its 100th birthday on February 2nd.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "GRAND CENTRAL STATION")

KEN ROBERTS: (as Narrator) Pillsbury Snow Sheen Cake Flour brings you "Grand Central Station."

SIEGEL: That's a fictional version of our subject, complete with an inaccurate title - we'll explain that in a moment. With a breathlessness that only old-time radio could manage, this show focused on a grandiose rail hub in the heart of Manhattan.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "GRAND CENTRAL STATION")

ROBERTS: (as Narrator) As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night, great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for 140 miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the two-and-one-half-mile tunnel, which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue and then Grand Central Station.

SIEGEL: In real life these days, it's a little less dramatic than that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: May I ask from which track is Bridgeport?

AUDREY JOHNSON GORDON: We've got that 207 train (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm going to take for the 230 something. Could I take the 207?

GORDON: You can take either one of them. The 207 leaves first. The next one is that 234 train, 105.

SIEGEL: That's information booth officer Audrey Johnson Gordon at her post in the center of the terminal's main concourse under a great four-sided clock.

GORDON: Yes, Sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Greenwich, Connecticut.

GORDON: Track 102A, downstairs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 102A.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: So what are the most common questions you're asked here at the information booth?

GORDON: One lady wanted to know if she went outside of Grand Central, how much would it cost to come back in?

SIEGEL: Aha.

GORDON: I said I'll be at the door.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: That obviously was unusual.

GORDON: Very unusual.

SIEGEL: More common requests? Where's the Apple store?

GORDON: Where's the Apple store and where's the bathroom and how do I get out of here.

SIEGEL: That's really not such a strange question. There are passages and ramps, restaurants and stores, subway connections and more passages, and it is, after all, a temple of transit, full of people going somewhere else in a hurry.

GORDON: This train is receiving passengers, lower level, 102.

SIEGEL: A new book tells the story of this majestic place. It's called "Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America." Its author is New York Times reporter Sam Roberts. Roberts tells the story of the rapacious robber baron, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built it for his railroad, the story of the long forgotten William Wilgus, who figured out that the trains had to be electrified, and the story of how the historic preservation movement got under way to save the place from the wrecking ball that had claimed New York's Penn Station.

When we met Sam Roberts outside Audrey Gordon's information booth, we first dispensed with that widely ignored bit of Grand Central pedantry: That it is Grand Central Terminal, not Grand Central Station. It was originally called a depot, and then when passengers used to continue downtown on horse-drawn trains, it was a station.

SAM ROBERTS: And finally in 1913, it became a terminal because the trains terminated here.

SIEGEL: But I just took the subway here from the west side, and the shuttle says Grand Central Station.

ROBERTS: It does. And, in fact, there are two Grand Central Stations. There's a Grand Central Station on the subway, and there's also a Grand Central Station that's the post office. But this is officially - although I think most New Yorkers probably don't know it for sure - this is Grand Central Terminal.

SIEGEL: The depot was there for decades before 1913. What forced construction of Vanderbilt's palatial terminal was a catastrophic underground train crash in 1902.

ROBERTS: A fatal accident, a commuter train, a train coming out of the tunnel under Park Avenue - under steam control - couldn't see because of the steam, the cinders, the heat, the fog, the snow and wound up crashing into another train with multiple fatalities. And the railroad, if not the politicians who licensed it, in effect, said we can't go on with this anymore, we've got to make a change, otherwise we're going to ban your railroad from Manhattan. So instead, they switched to electricity, which allowed them to get rid of the steam, get rid of the smoke, build the two-level station for incoming and outgoing trains and deck over Park Avenue and create some of the most valuable real estate in the world.

SIEGEL: As Sam Roberts tells it, that phrase that he just used a moment ago, commuter train, owes it life to a Mr. Sloat, a superintendent on Vanderbilt's New York Central Railroad, who back in the 19th century came up with a brilliant marketing scheme and an unusual word for it.

ROBERTS: He noticed that lots of people from Westchester, from Connecticut were taking the train back and forth. So instead of charging the full fare, they decided they would commute the fare, much like, I guess, you would commute someone's sentence if they were on death row. But that's how commuter, the term, was actually born.

SIEGEL: As Sam Roberts recounts its story, Grand Central gave us the principle of air rights when it created Park Avenue over what had been an open train yard and people built on top of railroad property. It effectively gave New York midtown Manhattan - the heart of the city used to be farther downtown. It also epitomized innovation 100 years ago. With trains making long-distance trips in those days, people had lots of luggage that had to be moved onto the trains by cart. Hence, all those ramps.

ROBERTS: And when these ramps opened, they were really innovation at Grand Central Terminal because the place has virtually no staircases. People realized that particularly long-distance travelers were coming in with suitcases, lots of luggage, and the ramps were built to accommodate them. Lots of people didn't know what a ramp was, interestingly enough, so there was one explanation that pointed out that the word comes from ramparts.

SIEGEL: So where are we now?

ROBERTS: We now walk up from the lower level to the upper level, the main concourse level without going up one step.

SIEGEL: And when Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, it was virtually a massive advertisement for electricity and for the Vanderbilts.

ROBERTS: Look around you and look at all those bare electric light bulbs.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

ROBERTS: You wonder why there were not more ornate lighting fixtures. It's because they were showing off electricity. This was the first electric terminal, both the tracks and the lighting of the whole terminal itself. And if you look very carefully on some of the finer artwork, you will see lots of acorns and oak leaves. The acorn and the oak leaf was on the Vanderbilt family crest. You know, little acorns, mighty oaks, like the Vanderbilts grew. And they had an enormous influence on the development of this terminal.

SIEGEL: Grand Central is home to commuter trains these days, no more luxury train to Chicago, like the one Cary Grant took in "North by Northwest."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NORTH BY NORTHWEST")

CARY GRANT: (as Roger Thornhill) Give me a bedroom in the 20th Century, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) It's leaving in five minutes.

GRANT: (as Roger Thornhill) Yes, I know. Could you make it snappy?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I think they're all sold out.

SIEGEL: The 20th century was the train for which they literally rolled out a red carpet every time it boarded - another Grand Central contribution to the Lexicon. Grand Central is such a bright open space - with at least one original tenant left - the famed Oyster Bar - and so many other amenities, you can sympathize with the woman whom Audrey Johnson Gordon at the information booth talked about, the woman who asked do you have to pay to get in. Sam Roberts thinks it's a bargain.

ROBERTS: It is like being in a cathedral. It's like being in an art museum. And to think this is something that's being made available to the public at large; not for an elite group of people, but anyone who wants to travel anywhere can walk into Grand Central and partake of it. That's a great New York City institution.

SIEGEL: Sam Roberts, author of "Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America," thank you very much for talking with us.

ROBERTS: Robert, thank you for inviting me.

GORDON: 210, Sanford local. This train will be receiving passengers, lower level.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "GRAND CENTRAL STATION")

ROBERTS: (as Narrator) Until next week, this is your Grand Central Station narrator, Ken Roberts, saying goodbye. And for better baking, better buy Pillsbury, greatest name in flour.

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.