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Grand Central Terminal celebrates centenary

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One of America’s iconic railway stations, New York’s Grand Central Terminal – colloquially known as Grand Central Station – celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Now the home of the Metro-North Railroad, the station boasts top class restaurants, cocktail lounges, a gourmet market, and numerous speciality shops. The huge railway station has 44 platforms accommodating 67 tracks on two levels – below ground.

Total number of tracks and sidings exceeds 100. Much of the railway’s operational side of the station is hidden from public view.     Grand Central demonstrates what can be achieved when it comes to developing the inherent value of the site.

Network Rail is increasingly mindful of pioneering work at Grand Central as it seeks to make similar developments at its major stations.

Driving force

Railroad and shipping tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt was the driving force behind the construction of Manhattan’s original Grand Central Depot, which opened in 1871. Vanderbilt sunk the tracks below what would become Park Avenue.

However, the 100 year old Grand Central Station owes its unique success to the foresight of New York Central Railroad chief engineer William J. Wilgus who developed the idea of constructing revenue-producing buildings over the rail yards.

Wilgus described his strategy as ‘taking wealth from the air.’  Originally from Buffalo, New York, he was a civil engineer and a career railway man, well versed in the capital-intensive imperatives of building railways.

Wilgus had worked on railroads in Minnesota and Michigan as well as New York. His strategy with the huge new terminal on 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan, right from the start, was to help offset the project’s enormous cost by building upwards over the railway lines themselves. It paid off.

Completed in 1913 the Grand Central project cost $80 million and was greeted as the biggest railway terminal in the world. Back then the terminal covered a total area of 70 acres and took ten years to complete. Office blocks and hotels nearby were linked to the station by underground passages- many lined with shops.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel even had its own platform and lift – platform 61. Most famous of all is the Oyster Bar which opened in 1913. Every day 30 different types of oysters are served up to gourmet diners.

Largest commuter railroad

The Metro-North Railroad was created in 1983. Over 30 years it has grown to be the largest commuter railroad service in the United States.

Although long-distance trains stopped serving Grand Central in 1991, by that time Metro-North’s reputation for unprecedented on-time commuter service had secured the future of Grand Central.

In the 1990s a $196 million restoration project saw the main concourse ceiling cleared of smoke and nicotine, a new staircase put in and the main waiting room converted into an exhibition hall,. In Wilgus tradition the development was paid for by the creation of another 65,000 square feet of retail space.

Must-see location

Grand Central holds a unique place in the affections of New Yorkers and travellers from around the world. It remains a must-see location beloved of film directors, tourists and novelists alike.

Plans to knock it down in the 1960s were fiercely resisted – Jackie Kennedy backed the campaign. The United States Supreme Court ruled against demolition setting a refreshing precedent for preservation groups. Plans to further develop the station continue to be developed.

The Municipal Art Society of New York wants to see more green areas and sensible redevelopment. Ideas include creation of a giant glass walk way in the sky, new gardens and piazzas. One thing is certain, Grand Central Station is here to stay and the Wilgus theory of trade and commerce will continue to help pay for it.

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