With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Murray Polner: Review of Sam Roberts's "Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America" (Grand Central Publishing, 2013)

Murray Polner is a regular book reviewer for HNN.

Compared to shabby and uninspiring Penn Station, Manhattan’s other train station on the west side of Manhattan, the latest version of Grand Central Terminal in chic East Midtown Manhattan, which includes Madison and Park Avenues and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, is a stunning work of architectural genius. New York Times reporter Sam Roberts’s Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America is beautifully illustrated with a very readable text, an appropriate acknowledgment of the hundredth anniversary of the station’s past and present.

Roberts recognizes the critical importance of Cornelius III and Alfred Vanderbilt -- great-grandsons of the Commodore, the pioneering railway buccanee -- both of whom were instrumental in demolishing the old station and electrifying its railways. Most significantly, he recalls the sadly forgotten William J. Wilgus, the New York Central’s farsighted chief engineer, who a year following a fatal local steam locomotive accident, urged the existing Grand Central station be replaced and serviced by electric trains. It made Wilgus’ plan “revolutionary and, in the end, so inevitable,” writes Roberts. Bolstered by the backing of the Vanderbilts, William Rockefeller -- John D.’s older brother -- and J.P. Morgan, who gave Wilgus a green light in 1903, which, Roberts notes, allowed Wilgus “to proceed with his bold agenda for a regal terminal that would be a gateway to the continent,”

Railroads have always had a romantic grip on us, an affection never accorded air and auto travel. In his foreword, Pete Hamill, a native Brooklynite -- as is Roberts -- remembers his mother taking him to see Grand Central and being overwhelmed by its grandeur. Roberts recalls his father taking him to the station where he was allowed to sit in the cab of a New York Central train and “drive” the train -- at least for a few feet. My own memories of the terminal are many but they include accompanying a close relative off to war and then staring at families hugging the departing GIs and weeping.

New York City’s many newspapers, magazines and radio stations in that era helped transform the station into a virtual national train station. A popular radio program, “Grand Central Station,” reached homes across the country. Celebrities were interviewed by ubiquitous reporters and photographers as they arrived and departed on the once-renowned Twentieth Century Limited. Hollywood chipped in with films like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, and North by Northwest with Cary Grant, both of which featured crucial scenes shot in the terminal and thereby underlining its role as California-based filmmakers saw it. The famed redcaps were ever-present, as was an army of homeless people seeking warmth and a place to sleep before being chased by guards hired to keep travelers from seeing another slice of city life.

Penn Station, still the nation’s busiest transit hub, wears a badge of dishonor since its elegant predecessor was flattened in 1963 after its owner went bankrupt and myopic city politicians and real-estate powerbrokers could see no further than their bank balance. Grand Central was fortunate because somehow it always seemed to attract visionaries.

But did Grand Central in its different versions really “transform” America as the book’s subtitle claims? In Kris Wood’s perceptive interview on HNN, Roberts argued that it created “this image of New York as this almost mythical, Oz-like city that was implanted in people’s imaginations all over the country and, I think, all over the world.” A nice subjective response, but without much supporting evidence, sounding much like a takeoff of that famous New Yorker cartoon which depicted an enlarged and narcissistic Manhattan and the rest of an inconsequential country far away.

Grand Central, like other Manhattan landmarks, did play a critical role in the city’s metropolitan region’s growth and expansion. But how did it “transform” life in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dodge City, or Laramie, Wyoming? Nor is it demonstrably true that, as Roberts puts it, “No other building embodies New York’s ascent as vividly as Grand Central” since Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, and the grouping of buildings called Wall Street have all played essential roles in the city’s development.

Where he is correct, however, is that it pioneered air rights and landmark preservation. And he is also accurate in describing his persuasive book as “more than a story about transportation. It’s about the expansion of the city of New York into a metropolis and the aggregation of metropolitan government, which mirrored the ruthless consolidation of corporate America and of the nation’s railroads. The terminal was a product of local politics, bold architecture, brutal flexing of corporate muscle, and visionary engineering,” His book does exactly that and makes Grand Central an eloquent tribute to a valued historical site.