Sociology professor receives Sloan Foundation Grant to write book on Grand Central Terminal

If you have ever taken a train out of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, you probably noticed the structure's grandeur and its classical, ornate architecture, the artwork of the constellations on the concourse's ceiling, or the stately staircase inside modeled after the one in the Paris Opera House.

But you may not have thought, as you cozied into your seat for the ride on the local back to the suburbs, of Grand Central as a metaphor for change in American society and the impact that technology has had on that transformation.

Dr. Kurt Schlichting, professor of sociology and anthropology, has not only thought about it, but for the past four years has conducted exhaustive research into several archives relating to Grand Central. As a result, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has authorized a grant of $26,850 for Dr. Schlichting to complete the research and writing of a manuscript on Grand Central Terminal, and Johns Hopkins Press will publish the book.

The Aldred P. Sloan Foundation is one of the largest foundations in the U.S., funding science and technology education. It also supports The American Experience, the PBS series that focuses on the history of technology.

The focus of the book, according to Dr. Schlichting, will be on the impact of technology on society, the societal change taking place in New York City at the turn of the century, and the human drama associated with the creation of Grand Central. "Critics of technological history say what's missing is human agency," said Dr. Schlichting.

The original Grand Central was built in 1871. To the west, it faced the mansions of the wealthy, and by 1900 500 steam-powered trains a day rumbled up and down Park Avenue and into its terminals spewing smoke and steam. "Steam was cutting edge technology; it was powerful, quick and efficient over time and distance. Steam-powered railroads knitted society together over vast areas of the continent," said Dr. Schlichting.

Although steam was an efficient method for powering the locomotives, plumes of steam and smoke often blinded passengers and made train travel hazardous. So a civil engineer with vision, William Wilgus, the chief engineer of the N.Y. Railroad, suggested electrification of the railroad. In 1901, he proposed a two-story underground train yard and terminal which was not possible without the new electric technology and a huge investment. In addition, he wanted to sell the air rights over 30 blocks of real estate in midtown Manhattan, which were being used as a railyard, to generate revenue for the project.

"Technology was equated with progress," said Dr. Schlichting, who examined the meticulous records of Wilgus that comprise the William Wilgus Papers at the N.Y. Public Library. "Railroads, although criticized for exploitation, were the only way to travel. The 20th Century Limited was that era's Concorde. Wilgus' plan was a radical state of the art plan that sparks a great transformation."

Wilgus' proposal initially met resistance but, in 1902, 15 people were killed when two trains collided in a steamy Park Avenue tunnel. Shortly thereafter, the terminal was torn down, and a new $86 million Grand Central was proposed with 57 electrified tracks on two levels.

The architectural firm of Reed and Stemm was selected by the N.Y. Central Railroad to design the new Grand Central, but William K. Vanderbilt, who held a major position in the railroad and was the grandson of Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt, insisted that his cousin and well-respected architect, Warren Whitney, be included in the design team.

In that era railroads competed with each other for the best-looking terminals and ostentatious designs were not seen as undemocratic. Reed had proposed that an office building be built on top of the terminal, but Whitney's vision of Grand Central conceived in the classical Roman style, which we see today, prevailed.

Over the decade, Grand Central took shape. Over 29,000 tons of steel were used, three times more than that in the Eiffel Tower. The railroad also had to build two power plants of its own because New York City didn't have enough electricity to power the station. On Feb. 1, 1913, the new Grand Central terminal opened, celebrating the marriage of art, design, architecture and technology. Park Avenue, which was north of Grand Central, was created as a grand boulevard, modeled after one in France. "It still is a major north-south thoroughfare without bus service," said Dr. Schlichting.

The dedication, however, didn't include the individuals who had contributed the most to Grand Central's creation. Wilgus left the project in 1907, and went on to take part in the planning of the Holland Tunnel. "Wilgus felt embittered that he didn't get credit. He felt that he had the idea for all of it. When the terminal opened, his name was not on the promotional material," said Dr. Schlichting.

Reed had died in 1911, but his estate sued Warren for violating the terms of its partnership, claiming Warren was attempting to reap the entire financial windfall from the project. After seven years in court, in which Wilgus testified in behalf of Reed, Reed's estate won and Warren was ordered to pay $200,000. Warren was subsequently expelled from the American Institute of Architects over the matter.

The main concourse of Grand Central is 470-feet long, 160 feet wide, and was considered the gateway to the continent. At the western end is the staircase, and 125 feet above its marble floor is a painting of the backward galaxy of constellations which supposedly is from God's point of view. At its peak, Grand Central inspired a radio serial, and in 1947 it had 65 million passengers, including movie stars and national politicians.

But other technologies were emerging, according to Dr. Schlichting, that eventually contributed to the decline of the railroad and Grand Central. Penn Station opened before Grand Central and gave direct access to Manhattan from New Jersey and Long Island. New York was growing rapidly - the boroughs were added in 1898 - and the suburbs and Long Island were beginning to develop as immigrants entered the middle class and moved out of the city. The building of interstate highways accelerated suburbanization in Westchester and Fairfield Counties, making autos even more attractive for commuting. Planes also were emerging as formidable competition.

In 1954 the N.Y. Railroad reported a loss for the first time. The terminal, fending off a proposal to have it knocked down, became increasingly commercialized, subjugating its grandeur. In the late 1960s, the station's then-owner, Penn Central Corp., proposed to gut the interior and build an office tower on top. That drew an outcry from prominent New Yorkers, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who rallied forces to oppose the move. Grand Central was designated a historic landmark, but not until the developers opposing the designation took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court which upheld its landmark status in 1967.

Though the station was saved, it entered a period of decline. Amtrak's trains moved out in favor of Pennsylvania Station across town, homeless people moved in and the terminal became a place for commuters to merely pass through.

In preparation for writing the book, Dr. Schlichting concentrated his research in New York, but also visited the Library of Congress and National Archives in Washington, D.C. and the Ecole Des Beaux Arts, the Paris art school that trained the major architects of the era in classicism including Whitney, and the French National Archives. In New York, he began his research at the Pierpont Morgan Library on 34th Street and continued with the N.Y. Central and Wilgus Archives at the N.Y. Public Library.

"I was intrigued reading about the history of technology. I was able to reconstruct how it all happened."

Dr. Schlichting said he plans to end the book with the current $200 million restoration, which the Metropolitan Transit Authority is overseeing, that is scheduled for completion next year.

"Grand Central is a brilliant piece of planning, technology and construction."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647,

Posted on June 1, 1998

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