On this day in 1913, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal opens for the first time. The transportation hub as we know it today began construction in 1903, but before that 89 E 42nd was home to an older steam train station built in 1879. Even though the station had been updated to deal with an increased volume of commuters coming from suburbs outside the city, a collision between outdated steam trains in 1902 killed 15 people, and made it clear that a more substantial renovation was needed.
That same year, engineer William Wilgus and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt began planning the landmark that Grand Central is today. They proposed a station with new electric trains that would not emit exhaust fumes and could, for the first time, operate underground. Planning officials also changed the station’s name. Technically a station, because trains no longer went south of Grand Central Station, the hub was renamed Grand Central Terminal. While these renovations and improvements had practical value, the more significant impact that both Wilgus and Vanderbilt hoped to create was cultural.
Grand Central was designed to usher New York into the dynamic 20th century. As the world around it grew increasingly interconnected, Vanderbilt wanted Grand Central to overtake its rival Penn Station as the palatial gateway to the heart of a rapidly growing country. That ambition was manifested in the form of a towering white marble facade and a ceiling mural depicting God’s view of the sky. After almost 10 years of construction and more than $4 billion in today’s money, New York’s architectural marvel opened to the world.
Despite initial success, Grand Central eventually fell into severe disrepair due to an increase in highway use and gradual neglect. Even the ceiling blackened due to cigarette smoke. As early as 1945, there were calls to tear down the building. However, the destruction of the original Penn Station between 1963 and 1966 sparked a movement to preserve architecturally significant buildings in New York, including Grand Central. Several high-profile New Yorkers, including former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis and architect Philip Johnson, formed The Committee to Save Grand Central. The committee fought to preserve Grand Central’s status as a landmark building, ensuring it could never be torn down. A $100 million restoration beginning in 1980 reestablished Grand Central as a bustling monument to the power and grandeur of New York City.