Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Grandest Central Station

I have visited a lot of cities, I mean a really lot of cities, here in the U.S. and abroad.

But, I have to say,without a doubt, hands-down, no contest.......my favorite city is, always will be, New York.  It's home.  And Grand Central Station, it's the jewel in that crown.

Actress Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City" fame, said "Grand Central is everything that New York is. It's big, its loud, its functional, its dysfunctional, it's crowded, it's noisy but it is something that New York is too that we sometimes forget: It is so beautiful."

Photo of Grand Central taken in the 1930's showing sunlight streaming onto the marble floor below

I love this place.  It's so much more to me than a train station.  I holds so much history, personal and public.
Joe's father was once the Assistant Station Master, back in the forties, and he brought so many stories home to my mother in law.  He probably could have written a book.  I'm sure he knew all the secrets and met a lot of celebrities as they passed through.  They had secrets, plenty of them, and they were safe with Joe Guardino.

Once upon a time, I was a commuter.  Each and every week day, for more than ten years, I passed through the great big Main Concourse.  Completed in 1913, this appears today almost identically as it did when it opened.  We can thank Jackie Onassis for that gift, for it was she who led the pack when the fate of this beautiful place was on the mat.  Long story short, the wrecking ball was on its way, fresh on the heels of the destruction of Penn Station, the beautiful old bastion of the West side.  Jackie and a group of other prominent New Yorkers got together and with their clout, they managed to stop what would have been a disaster in the history of the city.                                                                 
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
The Hudson Valley and Harlem lines of the Metro North Railroad come in and out by the  hundreds every day.  The Terminal covers over 200,000 square feet at grade level with a series of passageways leading out from the center to the surrounding streets.  Each passageway is unique in character and some actually become part of the ground floors of buildings and hotels. Today, they are clean and well-lit, most of them lined with high-end retail and repair shops, similar to European arcades.  The walls and floors are lined with a soft shade of beige marble and a modern circulation system lends to the feeling of relief as one passes through after a walk from the office on a July day.  There's something about being in these passageways on those humid mornings that makes one want to linger.  The aroma of coffee and pastries from the bakeries and restaurants can easily put an end to a newly planned diet on a Monday morning!  

The sights and smells of Grand Central today are very different from those during another time in her history.  That time, during the seventies and eighties, found this treasure shrouded in grime, littered with remnants of a city that was out on a limb, struggling to keep financially alive.  Crime was at an all-time high and it seemed that leadership wasn't leading the way.  New York, the greatest city in the world, had become the "scariest" city and the station, a microcosm reflecting  much of what was feared.  Passageways were dark, dirty, stuffy and lined with people sleeping on the floor or begging for money.  The passenger waiting room, filled with mahogany benches, once a majestic hall, had become a free hotel for the homeless and the restrooms, off limits to anyone who sought a clean toilet and not carrying a nose plug. It became impossible to keep these rooms clean and safe.  Commuters were scared to take trains at night from what had become a seedbed for stories of petty crime. There were huge billboards, one at either end of the concourse, blocking light from entering and the once spectacular constellation ceiling was covered with black grime.  Hidden now was the Hewlett-Basing Studio treasure that happily would be revealed again in the late nineties thanks to the painstaking work of a team of conservators whose mission was to clean every detail of the heavens.  The cleaning of the celestial ceiling caused even the most seasoned of commuters to gaze upward when passing through the concourse. 

The waiting room at its worst.  It's been replaced by a lovely room on the opposite side of the station
 The vast renovation project went on for several years, one piece of history restored at a time. I was one of those fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch parts of  the restoration during the late nineties.  Many of the restorations, brought to completion by late-night work crews were completed in time for morning rushes of commuters. As the project progressed, it was thrilling to exit from the train, coming into the Concourse, to find a surprise unveiled, one that the day before, was under construction wraps.  During the earliest days of renovation in the late winter and early spring of 1990, the huge Kodak Photo company's sign that hung in the Main Concourse was dismantled.  Working  behind shielding drapery, piece by piece was taken down until finally, the entire sign was gone, allowing the morning light to once again flood the floor to the joy of the people on their way to work.  Changes such as this became a regular occurrence and each of us who frequented the station felt swept up in the anticipation of what would next be revealed in its glory.  A personal favorite memory is that of the day the newly constructed East Staircase was finally completed.  A majestic sweep of steps that led to the east balcony was built to match the renovated staircase at the opposite end of the terminal.  Its arrival was filled with excitement. This, also, was a site shrouded by the construction company and when the shrouds were removed, there it stood.  Beautiful.  Glorious and proud. On the marble wall at its base a plaque honoring Mrs. Onassis hangs today to remind all of her great efforts in saving Grand Central. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I want to personally thank you for this, one of your greatest achievements.  You were one very classy lady and, as a native New Yorker, I thank you for adopting our city as your home.  I don't know what we would have done without you.


Dear Mayor Beame…is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters…February 24, 1975

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