The History of NYC's Grand Central Station

Discover the Fascinating Past of Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Station
Photo credit: Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Officially named Grand Central Terminal, this busy NYC transportation hub, and city landmark is more often called Grand Central Station by natives, though note that is technically the name of the subway station just underneath. Most Manhattan residents have passed through Grand Central on their way to a weekend outing in Connecticut or Westchester. However, many New Yorkers don't know much about Grand Central's fascinating history or its hidden secrets.

Read on and be enlightened to the terminal's storied past:

Grand Central's Beginning

The first Grand Central Terminal was built in 1871 by shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. However, the original Grand Central soon became obsolete when steam locomotives were banned after a catastrophic train collision in 1902 that killed 17 and injured 38. Within months, plans were underway to demolish the existing station and build a new terminal for electric trains.

The new Grand Central Terminal officially opened on February 2, 1913. More than 150,000 people turned out to celebrate opening day. The beautiful Beaux Arts building with its massive marble staircase, 75-foot windows, and star-studded ceiling was an immediate hit.

Glory Days of Grand Central

Hotels, office buildings, and skyscrapers soon sprang up around the new terminal, including the iconic 77-story Chrysler Building. The neighborhood prospered as Grand Central Terminal became the busiest train station in the country.

In 1947, more than 65 million people – the equivalent of 40% of the U.S. population – traveled through Grand Central Terminal.

Hard Times at Grand Central

By the 1950s, the glory days of long-distance rail travel were over. In post-war America, many travelers preferred to drive or fly to their destinations.

With the value of prime Manhattan real estate rising and railroad profits falling, the railroad began to talk about demolishing Grand Central Terminal and replacing it with an office building. New York City's new Landmarks Preservation Commission stepped in in 1967 to designate Grand Central Terminal as a landmark protected by law, temporarily squashing the development plans.

Penn Central, the railroad conglomerate that owned Grand Central Terminal, did not want to take no for an answer. They proposed building a 55-story tower above Grand Central, which would have meant demolishing parts of the Terminal. The Landmarks Preservation Commission blocked the project, leading Penn Central to file an $8 million lawsuit against the City of New York.

The court battle lasted for almost 10 years. Thanks to concerned citizens and city leaders, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the development plans were thwarted (after the lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court).

A New Beginning for Grand Central

In 1994, Metro-North took over operation of Grand Central Terminal and began extensive renovations. Now restored to its 1913 splendor, Grand Central has become a beloved Manhattan landmark and a busy commuter hub.

Grand Central preserves a little of the history and grandeur of old New York in the middle of modern Manhattan.

Grand Central Terminal now houses several restaurants and cocktail lounges, a Dining Concourse, and some 50 shops. The historic train station is also the site of art and cultural exhibits and other special events throughout the year, like the annual holiday fair.

See Grand Central Station For Yourself

You can learn much more about the history and architecture of Grand Central Terminal by taking the walking tour sponsored by the Municipal Arts Society. The tour departs daily at 12:30 pm in the Main Concourse ($25/person).

The Grand Central Partnership also sponsors a free walking tour of Grand Central Terminal and the surrounding neighborhood. This tour meets on Fridays at 12:30 pm in the atrium at 120 Park Avenue, across from Grand Central.

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-- Edited by Elissa Garay