Streetnotes 20: URBAN FEEL. Spring  2010


Matthew A. Postal

A Great Stage

I frequently visit Grand Central Terminal; not to travel on Metro North or to shop in the stores scattered throughout the terminal, but to meet a group of strangers, often dozens of people who await my arrival near the information booth at the center of the main concourse. I am not alone in such midweek rendezvous. For three decades, the Municipal Art Society has sponsored free tours of this remarkable building. It has become a New York tradition, one of the longest running shows in town.

A half dozen or more guides share the unique responsibility of introducing visitors to this Beaux-Arts masterpiece. In recent years, those I meet have cause to celebrate, oohing and aahing over the polished marble and gilt chandeliers that give the interiors a soft, warm glow. They are pilgrims who have come to celebrate a re-gilded age, the triumph of decoration over the austerities that modernism brought to the mid-twentieth century city. Furthermore, Grand Central serves as an antidote to our frenzied digital age, a reminder of a gentler time and place.

While the group’s enthusiasm is certainly genuine, it is, for the most part, a recent phenomenon. When I led my first tour of the terminal, it looked much as it did when I was studying art history at Vassar in the early 1980s. A single guide was sufficient to lead the faithful through the dilapidated, but nonetheless grand, halls. Many were disturbed by what they found -- dingy corridors, drop ceilings, brash illuminated signs -- but nearly all came away with a new respect for the building’s innovative plan. These days, however, the groups are quite substantial, almost too large to contain -- two guides can barely handle the crowds that arrive by the dozens, if not hundreds. We come from different but related backgrounds, including architectural historians like myself, an architect, a real estate broker, and a retired social worker.

As 12:30 nears, the group slowly forms. It was in graduate school when I was approached to lead the tour. I thought to myself: how could I do the Terminal justice? Complicating the challenge was the fact that at the time few reliable books, scholarly or otherwise, were available to provide facts and inspiration. Unlike most leaders, who borrow their tales and details from guidebooks or scripts provided by employers, our tours are based in an oral tradition dating back to 1970s, whereby facts and anecdotes are shared between one Municipal Art Society guide and the next. In short, I trained in the corridors of Grand Central, integrating what I read with what I heard from other experienced guides.

Once identified, we find ourselves quickly surrounded. Initially, it was a bit overwhelming to gaze upon this thickening sea of eager faces, sometimes as many as ten persons deep. Holiday weeks are particularly crowded. Passing out brochures to extended hands, I assess each group, wondering who are they and where they are from. While some are locals taking a long lunch, many come from suburban Long Island and New Jersey -- commuters who use Penn Station and haven’t had the chance to see the recent restoration first-hand. The rest, approximately half, are from outside the metropolitan area, including an equal mix of American and foreign tourists. Interestingly, there are usually more women than men, and the average age, I would estimate, is fifty years or more. We divide the group in half and begin.

In recent years, my experience has changed dramatically. No longer do participants listen quietly with sober reverence. Most shake their heads knowingly as I describe the sad demolition of McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in the early 1960s. That loss, it seems, has become part of our collective conscience. Those who join the tour seem unanimous in their praise for the local landmarks law and historic preservation, nodding, as if to say, never can such a thing happen again.

I continue, laying out the Terminal, its multi-level plan and decorations, as well as the men responsible for its creation, from the chief engineer of the New York Central Railroad, William Wilgus, to its forced collaborators, the architects Reed & Stem, and Warren & Wetmore. As the tour proceeds, some leave and others join. We visit the former in-coming train room (known as the “kissing gallery” for the many reunions that took place here), the lower or suburban concourse, and of course, the world-famous Oyster Bar with its magnificent Guastavino tile ceilings. Occasionally, we are interrupted by train announcements and ongoing construction noise. While some members of the group smile and express sympathy, I am accustomed to these distractions and they no longer phase me. This is the cost, I tell them, of leading tours through a working train station, rather than a museum or muzak-filled shopping mall. Someone will inevitably suggest I use a microphone, but such amplification seems unnecessary, distracting passersby and creating a distance between the group and myself.

As time passes, the comments and questions multiply. Occasionally, personal memories are evoked, retold to me privately, or, at my urging, to the group as a whole. A retired waiter sadly recounted the declining number of pies ordered for the first class dining cars on the long distance routes during the late 1950s. Another man proudly recited, with his embarrassed companion looking on, the complete introduction (“As a bullet seeks its target  . . .) to the popular 1940s radio drama “Grand Central Station.” A former GI, now in his seventies, fondly remembered spending a night (his “liberty”) on the long wood benches in the waiting room. Inevitably, an older, generally well-dressed, woman will ask about Jacqueline Kennedy and the role she played in the building’s preservation. Others ask about the tennis courts (above the former waiting rooms) and the newsreel theater, or if the now-sparkling astrological signs in the ceiling mural were laid out by mistake in reverse (probably not).

The tour generally ends where it begins -- at the center of the main concourse. Here, after having shared more than an hour together, we pause to watch the rushing commuters pour in from all directions, and to bask in the station’s hard-won glow. By this time, the group’s mood could be described as ebullient. Everything they’ve heard is true. When I first began leading tours in the mid-1990s, hope was in the air: the former waiting rooms (now called Vanderbilt Hall) had been refurbished and a radiant rectangular patch at the south east corner of the zodiac ceiling promised good things to come. But for the most part we were left to imagine what the station once was and what it could be again -- what needed cleaning, which insensitive additions should be dismantled, and what would be revealed after years of neglect. In an era of hype and diminished expectations, the restored station is just as it was supposed to be -- safe, clean, and most of all, majestic.

Of the various architectural walks I lead, Grand Central continues to be a favorite. No matter how many times I visit, it remains a thrill to pass through the low-ceiling corridors into the soaring, 130 foot high, volume that is the main concourse. It was a great pleasure to watch the restoration slowly progress, week by week, month by month. Like stop-action photography, I saw the various pieces fall into (and out of ) place, such as the extraordinary excavation of the ramps leading past the Oyster Bar to the suburban concourse or the more gradual (and frequently delayed) openings of new restaurants and shops. As each stage unfolded, I watched closely, hoping that the results would match expectations.

Now Grand Central looks much as it did in 1913. Gone is the colossal Newsweek clock that straddled the ticket booths and the 18-by-60-foot-Kodak sign that obscured the east windows for more than forty years. While there’s always one in the group who laments the demise of such familiar ads, others spend their time pointing our what remains to be done, from the cleaning of the facade to decades-old cracks in the terrazzo floor. When the tour is over, most of the group scatters, but a handful stay and the questions continue. Some are to be expected, like the location of the restrooms or a good place for lunch, but other questions are more difficult to answer, especially those that concern the homeless or what can be done about eliminating those who remain. As neither a spokesman for the railroad, nor the neighborhood Business Improvement District, I speak candidly, pointing out the reduced number of seats on the main level and expressing concern for their treatment, but also noting that the presence of homeless men and women is now much less obvious due to the station’s increased popularity.

I stroll out via the Vanderbilt Avenue ramp into the bright light of 42nd Street, generally heading west. As I approach the library on Fifth Avenue, I look back. I wonder what such public adoration means for a building. Will this outpouring of affection hurt or help the station in the long run? Will the station managers and Metro North learn from the mistakes of their predecessors? Or, will the visual clutter gradually return as the transit authority cashes in on this prized attraction. To my chagrin, several large illuminated signs have been recently installed in the main concourse. More painfully, I wonder if Grand Central will become a target.

Standing on 42nd Street, midway between the station and Times Square, I reflect on what such revitalized places tell us about cities and about contemporary architecture practice. As the poster-child for the preservation movement, Grand Central Terminal is hard to beat. But do such projects place too much emphasis on the past? While the average person may prefer century-old buildings, I am relieved and pleased by the enthusiasm for the future Penn Station. Its soaring, glazed ticketing hall may provide the city with a breath-taking public space -- the perfect counterpoint to Grand Central’s main concourse. If all goes as planned, in a decade or so New York City will once again possess two great portals, one reflecting the taste of the early twentieth century, and another, the taste of the twenty-first. But, until then, see you at Grand Central!



Matthew A. Postal 2010