How Railroad Tycoons Nearly Destroyed Grand Central

Grand Central Station almost met the same fate as Penn Station.


Fifty years on, New York City is still mourning the loss of the original Pennsylvania Station, a grand transit hub that was demolished in 1964 to make way for Madison Square Garden, in the steaming hellmouth that is now Penn Station reincarnate.


In 1965, in the immediate wake of the loss, New York City established a Landmarks Preservation Commission, tasked with saving the city’s remaining historic architecture. Yet, as Kevin Baker writes at Harper’s, Grand Central, a similarly grand monument to civic architecture, faced nearly the same fate a few years later. The political power struggle over it, Baker asserts, “says much about how we conduct business and politics in America today.”

In the 1950s, New York Central Railroad, Grand Central’s owner, viewed the station less as a landmark piece of city history and more as a potential cash cow. First, in 1954, it proposed replacing the terminal with a 108-story I.M. Pei skyscraper–a smaller-scale design of which was later embodied in the Met Life Building, just north of the station. In 1961, the New York Central Railroad wanted to build a bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have lowered its 60-foot ceiling to just 15 miserable feet.

Grand Central Terminal exterior at 42nd St and Park Ave via Wikimedia

Even after Grand Central became a designated landmark in 1967, the railroad continued to try to thwart preservationists. As passenger rail became less popular, New York Central Railroad merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad, appointing the very man who had torn down Penn Station–Stuart Saunders–as CEO of the new company.

Baker writes:

In open defiance of the Landmarks Commission, Saunders invited bids for a fresh excrescence just weeks after the commission’s 1967 ruling on Grand Central: a fifty-five-story office tower, to be built on top of the terminal. Some designs for the new building promised to preserve the main concourse, at least, but it was suggested that one side of the terminal might have to be razed in the process.

The Landmarks Commission rejected the proposal. In response, Saunder’s new Penn Central Railroad sued, arguing that the ruling constituted “a taking of plaintiff’s private property for public use without just compensation” and that the station had little aesthetic value. By the time the case made its way through the court in 1975, though, the economy had taken a nosedive, and the Penn Central Railroad no longer existed. The ensuing battle makes for a complicated, sordid tale, involving Jackie Onassis, rubbernecking tourists, and, ironically, characters and elements that seem to magically prefigure the 2008 economic crisis, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and dubious banking practices.

[H/T Harper’s]

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut