The view of the main concourse from the eastern window bay at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan on Jan. 16, 2013. Grand Central Terminal turns 100 on Feb. 1. / Carucha L. Meuse, The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News
NEW YORK -- Grand Central Terminal will turn 100 next month, an incredible milestone for a historic building that was nearly torn down and endured decades of neglect before finally being restored to its original splendor.
An estimated 750,000 visitors each day pass through the world's largest train hub to commute, dine, shop and admire the Beaux Arts architecture, making it one of the most popular attractions on the planet.
"The building itself, the structure itself, the terminal itself is whispering something to us about us," Dan Brucker, a Grand Central expert with Metro-North Railroad, said on a recent tour. "The terminal is telling us a story about renewal, imagination, reinvention, regeneration."
Grand Central Depot, the predecessor to today's structure, opened in 1871 after industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased the land between 42nd and 48th streets and Lexington and Madison avenues to make way for his new venture in railroads.
As the popularity of train travel grew, so did concern about the safety of steam locomotives.
In 1902, two trains crashed inside the Park Avenue tunnel, killing 15 people and injuring dozens.
Public outcry prompted an ambitious effort to overhaul Grand Central and create an all-electric railroad.
The original station was demolished during a decade-long, $80 million replacement project that included massive underground excavation.
When the current Grand Central Terminal opened at 12:01 a.m. Feb. 2, 1913, more than 150,000 people visited the new, cathedral-like train center. With sweeping archways, a sprawling main hall and golden chandeliers, Grand Central was a stunning display of the railroad industry's power and dominance.
"The finest, luxurious means of transportation rolling on planet Earth came in and out of here," Brucker said. "These magnificent waiting rooms (were) an introduction to the kind of luxury and magnificence you were going to experience on your travels across the United States."
That would change after World War II, when automobiles and planes emerged as competing modes of transportation, thanks to big subsidies from the federal government.
The nation's great railroads eventually fell into bankruptcy, and in the 1960s, Grand Central was eyed for a skyscraper that would have required tearing down much of the building.
But historic preservationists, led by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, protested and launched a legal battle.
The group succeeded, and Grand Central was named a national historic landmark.
"It was saved, but it looked horrible," Brucker recalled. "It was thick and black with dirt. There was advertising signage plastered all over this place. On the main concourse, there were turntables with cars for sale."
In addition, the terminal had become a refuge for about 1,000 homeless people each day.
To address the problem, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority appointed a police officer to form relationships with the homeless and get them help with housing and health care.
In 1994, the MTA embarked on a $500 million plan to restore the building's former beauty. The terminal's famous ceiling of constellations, for example, was meticulously cleaned to remove black soot from decades of cigarette smoke.
After several years of work, Grand Central's new sparkle became a big draw for businesses, which lined up to cash in on its revamped image. Today, dozens of upscale eateries and stores fill Grand Central, and Vanderbilt Hall hosts scores of arts, entertainment and sport exhibits each year.
"Besides an artistic and historic success and achievement, it is one of the finest commercial successes in this nation," Brucker said.
Opened in 1999, Grande Harvest Wines was one of the terminal's first new businesses after the restoration.
Grand Central "was almost like a place people would try to avoid, and now it's a place people make an effort to come to," said Doug Nevins, who owns the store with his father and brother. "It's a complete 180 from what it used to be."
As more stores have been added, Grand Central's popularity has soared, he said.
"It's become not only an obvious spot for commuters, but a spot as well for out-of-towners, for people to visit and shop," he said.
"It's become more of a destination."
Metro-North commuter Michael Kingsley, 39, of Hartsdale said Grand Central is one of his favorite buildings in New York City.
It reminds him of movies that have been filmed there over the years, such as "Superman" in 1978.
"I love it. Part of it is that Superman connection," he said. "I associate it with all things New York."
A hundred years after it opened, Grand Central continues to grow, with an $8.2 billion project to build a new terminal under the existing one.
When the East Side Access Project is completed in 2019, the new station will accommodate Long Island Rail Road trains, which now go only to Penn Station on 34th Street.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
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