Many consider the destruction of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to have been the architectural crime of the twentieth century. But few know how close we came to also losing its counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, a hub every bit as irreplaceable. Grand Central’s salvation has generally been told as a tale of aroused civic virtue, which it was. Yet it was, as well, an affirming episode for those of us convinced that our political culture has become an endless clown-car act with the same fools always leaping out.
“In New York then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance,” said Le Corbusier of Grand Central. “It is so well done that you could believe it to be genuine. It even has a strange, new firmness which is not Italian, but American.” It was not seen as such by its owner, New York Central Railroad, which viewed it mostly as a cash cow. As early as 1954, the Central proposed replacing the terminal with something called The Hyberboloid — an I. M. Pei monstrosity that, at 108 stories and 1,600 feet, would have become the world’s tallest building at the time. There was enough public outcry that a scaled-down Hyberboloid was built instead just north of Grand Central, where it was retitled the Pan Am (later the Met Life) Building. Even at a lesser height, it proved every bit as grotesque as promised.
Still unsatisfied, New York Central proposed in 1961 to build a three-level bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have required lowering the ceiling from sixty feet to fifteen and cutting off from view its glorious blue mural of the zodiac. This, too, was stopped. Foiled again, New York Central resorted to plastering the terminal with ads and bombarding travelers with canned Muzak, complete with commercials, over the public address system.
Meanwhile, in the angry atmosphere that followed the demolition of Penn Station, New York City finally got a Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated Grand Central a landmark in 1967. But the terminal still wasn’t safe. Now hemorrhaging money as Americans turned away from trains and the passenger rail system began to collapse, the New York Central merged with its old rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. The chairman and CEO of the new “Penn Central” was one Stuart Saunders, former CEO of the Pennsy, and the man who had torn down Penn Station to build the latest Madison Square Garden.
Bear with us here, as we trace how the troubled new railroad nearly succeeded in tearing down Grand Central — for it says much about how we conduct business and politics in America today.