In 1903 construction began on Grand Central Terminal—the third railway structure to occupy the Midtown site. Cornelius Vanderbilt built the first: Grand Central Depot opened in 1871 and served as a hub for several rail lines. Advancements in technology and the city's population growth led to its reconstruction in 1899 as the six-story Grand Central Station. While trains arriving in Manhattan at the time continued on to southern Manhattan, that building’s successor became the final stop for all rail lines—not a station, but a terminal.
The 10-year project, involving a 70-acre compound and 32 miles of track that fed into 46 tracks and 30 passenger platforms, was at the time the largest construction project in New York City’s history. It necessitated the removal of over 100 houses and other structures, not to mention 3.2 million cubic yards of dirt and rock, as well as the construction of two power plants and the consumption of hundreds of thousands of tons of steel.
The world-famous landmark is the final product of an immensely complicated engineering project. The author of the master plan was William John Wilgus, the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad’s Vice-President in charge of construction, who had also supervised the renovation of the terminal’s predecessor, the Grand Central Depot, a few years before.
This diagram comes from Wilgus’s typewritten treatise summarizing the project, Grand Central Terminal in Perspective (1939), which he donated to the New York Public Library in the 1930s. (Among his papers, the Library holds not only records from his employment with the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, but also from his later private consulting practice, his public service activities, and more.)
You'll see the cross-section of the building is rendered in exacting detail, including familiar sights like the iconic Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant (“Restaurant”) and Vanderbilt Hall (“Waiting Room”). Revealing some of the many layers of the terminal’s architecture and activity, it may prompt viewers on their next visit to consider all that goes on above and below them—and the great complexity of its creation.
Wilgus devised a number of innovations for the facility, one of which transformed Manhattan’s real estate practices. He planned to move rail lines beneath the surface, freeing up a 30-block area for development. In the first instance of leasing air rights, Wilgus helped offset the enormous cost of Grand Central Terminal’s construction with new, above-ground structures that ultimately included office towers, hotels, and a post office.
He originally imagined a single building above the terminal that would generate $2.3 million in rent annually, a solution that he described as “a remarkable opportunity for the accomplishment of a public good with considerations of private gain in behalf of the corporation involved.” The area’s eventual development also allowed for the reconnection of Manhattan’s streets; previously, the surface railroads created a literal division between residential areas to the west and the less palatable factories and slaughterhouses to the east.
Moving the tracks below ground became possible because of the transition from steam to electrical power. Earlier steam locomotives were more noisy, spewed fumes and soot, and, critically, were much less safe—particularly running on open tracks alongside bustling city streets. Indeed, the impetus for Grand Central Terminal arose with a 1902 train crash in the Park Avenue Tunnel, as a commuter train collided with another waiting at the entrance and killed 15 passengers. The determined cause was clouds of smoke that had blinded the driver.
In response to public outcry, the state legislature passed a law in 1910 requiring that all trains in Manhattan be operated electronically. But Wilgus was far ahead. In what he called “the most daring idea that ever occurred to me,” Wilgus wrote to New York Central’s president in December 1902 and suggested that the railroad demolish Grand Central Station and replace steam locomotives with electric trains, eight years before the enaction of the state legislation. The ability to run subterranean tracks meant the terminal could have two levels of platforms, one for long-distance and one for commuter trains, allowing the terminal to expand vertically within the same footprint. (Other subterranean train yards and utilities extend as deep as 10 stories.)
Once New York Central accepted Wilgus’s master plan, it invited just four architectural firms to participate in a design competition for the terminal itself. Reed and Stem's proposal won, but the president of New York Central permitted another firm, Warren and Wetmore, to submit plans because of the principals’ connections with some of the company’s directors—including William Vanderbilt, who ultimately insisted on their involvement. The firms joined together as the Associated Architects of Grand Central. But following the 1911 death of Charles Reed, who was also Wilgus’s brother-in-law, Warren and Wetmore secretly negotiated a new contract for the completion of the architectural work on the terminal and all later buildings in the complex. (Stem and the estate of Reed sued and won damages 5 years later.)
Grand Central Terminal opened to great fanfare in 1913, boasting several additional architectural innovations. Its use of ramps rather than stairs permitted travelers to move about more efficiently, particularly with luggage in tow, and transportation centers around the world soon followed its model. And it was one of the first all-electrical buildings in the world. At its opening, more than 4,000 bare bulbs gleamed from every chandelier and lighting fixture in the building. The New York Times devoted a special section to the terminal on its completion, lauding it as “a monument, a civic center, or, if one will, a city.”
This diagram is one of 250 objects featured in the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, which showcases items spanning 4,000 years from the Library's research collections. We'll be publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures.
The Treasures exhibition opens Friday, September 24th, 2021 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now available here.