How Grand Central Terminal’s History and Legacy Have Found Their Footing in Today’s New York

The 110 year old terminal holds a special place in New York and serves as an example of striking a perfect balance between history and modernity.


Grand Central’s Main Concourse sees a large portion of the Terminal’s 750,000 daily visitors. (Photo Credit: Karl Zimmermann, used by permission)

Standing tall on 42nd Street, Grand Central Terminal is a fixture in New York City. The Beaux-Arts structure with its carefully carved edges holds multiple subway lines, the Metro-North Railroad, and a collection of restaurants and stores. Park Avenue curves to avoid it; the road nearby is elevated so anyone in a car can get a good look at it. A trio of Roman gods stare down at the street below them, perched upon a clock. As iconically New York as the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central holds a dramatic past and a promising future.

“Robber Baron” Cornelius Vanderbilt spearheaded the construction of the original Grand Central Depot. While in the same location, the Depot, constructed in 1871, was a far cry from the Beaux-Arts style building sitting on 42nd Street today. The largest enclosed building in the world at the time, the Depot sat at the base of a train yard that stretched up to 56th Street. Vanderbilt’s goal had been to get all the train lines in and out of Manhattan under one roof and he certainly succeeded — as the station and the train lines it served grew more and more popular, the building’s uses outgrew its small footprint. 

Grand Central Terminal as we know it today opened to much fanfare in 1913. While the Depot had a high roof and outdoor platforms, this iteration of Grand Central was fully enclosed. This meant that the steam locomotives that used to depart from the Depot had to be replaced with electric trains. The Pennsylvania Railroad and New Haven Line, both of which still exist, were among the first electric trains to depart from Grand Central Terminal. 

Train travel in the United States peaked in the 1940s. Long distance trains departed from Grand Central, spanning the whole country from coast to coast. During World War II, Grand Central was key to mobilization, decked out in banners supporting the war effort. 

Through the 1950s, the suburbs boomed. Populations on Long Island and Westchester dramatically increased, and commuter rail service increased to serve them. Like today, jobs remained in Manhattan, but the rise of suburbia and the white picket fence ideal brought people out of the city. Alongside the long distance trains, Grand Central’s high ridership came from these commuters. 

During the 1940s and 50s, Grand Central was not the only beautiful train station in town. Pennsylvania (or Penn) Station, built in 1910, was a sprawling architectural feat, built in Classical style and located just a few miles from Grand Central. Built to allow for train travel under the Hudson River, Penn Station ultimately could not support itself on its smaller-than-expected rider base. As air travel grew more popular, the boom of trains that the Pennsylvania Railroad was banking on never came, and the station never became as popular as anticipated.

Penn Station primarily served the Pennsylvania Railroad, and its beautiful open spaces were located in areas central to those train lines. But the Long Island Railroad was (and still is) also stationed there, mostly confined to inefficient underground tunnels, even as its ridership grew rapidly through the middle of the 20th century.

By the 1960s, Penn Station was no longer the beautiful station it had been designed to be, and it was beginning to fall into disrepair. As historian Jill Jonnes explains in a Curbed article, “It was not an era when anybody had a love for Beaux-Arts architecture. The railroad was being offered a lot of money for the air rights. So, they went for it!” In a money grab, the Pennsylvania Railroad sold the rights to Penn Station, and the demolition followed shortly after.

Resistance to the demolition, beginning in 1963, was small and ineffective. What it did do, however, was encourage the establishment of the Landmark Protection Authority, which was key in saving Grand Central from falling victim to the same fate. I spoke to my grandfather, travel and rail journalist Karl Zimmermann, about his recollections of this time. “The Penn Station debacle is an important part of the story,” Zimmermann, a contributor to Grand Central’s 2013 centennial celebration, explained. While full demolition was never really threatened, new structures were proposed that would have encroached on Grand Central’s original structure. 

In the 1970s, New York City neared bankruptcy. Low on funds, the city was unable to put money into the upkeep of public works like Grand Central, and, as a result, the terminal grew dilapidated and fell into disrepair. In desperate attempts to make money, the city considered the construction of a new building that would require parts of Grand Central to be demolished. The new Landmark Protection Authority, fresh off the Penn Station destruction, along with powerful allies like Jackie Onassis, rose up against the project. Onassis, allied with the Municipal Arts Society, became a powerful advocate for the station and fought hard for its landmark status to be preserved.

Onassis and the Landmark Protection Authority won, but even without new structures jutting into the terminal, it was not thriving. The mass exodus of New Yorkers to the suburbs made the station seedier, less the beautiful work of art it had once been. This continued until 1988, when, as Zimmermann said, “Metro-North, manager of the station, found tasteful ways to fund the station.” He continued, “Most preservations really need to be able to generate some income.” Nostalgia and a desire to hold onto history only take people so far — cold hard cash finishes the job.

This income came in the form of restaurants, stores, and even a dining hall setting up shop in the terminal. The food hall and holiday market, both fixtures of Grand Central today, both date to this refurbishment.

The money generated from these new businesses could then go towards the restoration and upkeep of the station. The celestial ceiling of the terminal’s main concourse was coated in soot, primarily from people smoking in the building. The soot had to be removed, and the ceiling was painstakingly cleaned. Today, you can see a small patch in one of the corners of the ceiling, where the dirt was left untouched. The patch, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the ceiling, was left as a reminder of the restoration of the station, and the state of disrepair it had fallen into. 

After being home to long distance trains for over a century, “Grand Central Terminal’s last non-commuter trains ran on April 6th, 1991, and included the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, the Adirondack to Montreal, the Maple Leaf to Toronto, and various Empire Service trains to Albany and Buffalo,” Zimmermann said. After this, all non-commuter trains out of New York switched to leaving from neighboring Penn Station, where they are still housed.

Grand Central has found a way to not only adapt to the New York of today, but also still hold onto its history. The efforts of preservationists have brought the terminal from being a place at risk of destruction to something with celebrated longevity. (The centennial in 2013, commemorated here by the Guardian, drew crowds to the building.) A thoughtful and practical mindset by the managers of the station, seen during the restoration, will hopefully keep a place for Grand Central and its storied past in today’s New York.

“Metro-North, manager of the station, found tasteful ways to fund the station,” said travel and rail journalist Karl Zimmermann.