Grand Central Terminal At 100: Legal Battle Nearly Led To Station's Demolition
Fifty years after first opening, Grand Central Terminal earned landmark status. The designation should have ensured its prosperity and longevity, but in 1970s it came dangerously close to being leveled. Jon Weinstein describes the protracted battle over the terminal's fate that lead all the way to the Supreme Court.
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It would take the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in 1963, one the city's most distinctive destinations, to bring about a cry of public indignation.
"Penn Station didn't die in vain," said Sam Roberts, author of "Grand Central". "People were so upset that Penn Station was demolished by the Penn Central, sold the air rights, built a new building, Madison Square Garden, that they said, 'We're not going to let this happen again.'"
So the Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed, and in short order, bestowed landmark status on Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grand Central Terminal.
But the designation was no guarantee that landlords were not going to challenge the decree, which is exactly what the cash-strapped Penn Central Railroad did as it made plans to level Grand Central.
"For very crass, gross, purely mercenary reasons, they wanted to tear the building down," Roberts said. "Admittedly, they were running a bankrupt railroad and needed the money."
They were willing to put up a fight. The city, however, in the mid-'70s, was also nearly bankrupt, and an extended court battle and an unfavorable decision could have it paying millions of dollars to the railroad in damages.
The city awaited the cavalry, and it arrived in the form of the Municipal Art Society, a civic-minded, not-for-profit organization made up of artists, architects and lawyers, among others bent on protecting the city from irresponsible development. Kent Barwick served as president at the time.
"Here in New York, we'd already had a landmarks law, but the commission was walking on eggs," Barwick said. "They were avoiding fights because they didn't want to end up in the Supreme Court."
But this fight was shaping up to be a battle royale, with the Municipal Art Society rallying artists, politicians and one high-profile recruit, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
"One of the first things she did, incidentally, was to write a handwritten letter to Mayor Beame, which, as I remember, started, 'Dear Abe, President Kennedy so loved Grand Central Terminal,'" Barwick said.
The case, Penn Central v. New York City, made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and was decided in the city's favor in 1978.
The rest, as they say, is history, one that preserves the future.