To millions of people who grew up in Westchester County and beyond, the vaunted, celestial ceiling of Grand Central Terminal’s main room is a synecdoche for New York City: An enormous, glittering open space full of rushing people and possibility. A new book by New York Times reporter Sam Roberts called Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, tells the story of the Terminal’s creation, and what’s most fascinating about the sprawling compound is how much grander it was originally meant to be.
According to Roberts, William Wilgus, an engineer who was instrumental in creating Grand Central, conceptualized an entire mini-city surrounding the Terminal. In 1902:
Wilgus envisioned a civic center, opera house, hotels, office buildings lining a grand boulevard–a planned, harmonious city to replace the obstructive terminal and the chasm occupied by tracks and trains that were the logical extensions of an architecturally illogical city.
Though Wilgus’s vision never quite reached those heights, he still created a building boom in the area surrounding Grand Central with his innovative thinking. Wilgus pioneered the concept of air rights in the United States, by reserving the right to develop the empty space above the rail yard. This was unheard of at the turn of the century. There were still goats roaming around midtown in 1902, and as Roberts puts it, “It would take a stubborn visionary to recognize that this blighted swath of Midtown could be converted into an iconic 140-foot wide canyon bordered by brick, steel, and glass skyscrapers.”
Some pretty impressive development did spring up. From the ’20s to the ’50s, the sixth floor of Grand Central housed an art gallery founded by the artist John Singer Sargent and others. And then there’s the gaudy 230 Park Avenue, otherwise known as the New York Central building. Bedecked in gold and red, it served as the railroad’s headquarters, and has played a pivotal role in two cultural touchstones: A meeting of mafia families in The Godfather was filmed on the 32nd floor, and it was the model for Dagny Taggart’s Transcontinental Railroad Building in Atlas Shrugged.
So Wilgus’s opera house never materialized. But his Grand Central was honored last year by the American Society of Civil Engineers, who declared Grand Central a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. And it still has the capacity to enrapture. Check out a slide show from the book above and see if it doesn’t make you want to book the next ticket into Manhattan.