Aesthetic Realism Looks at New York City: Grand Central

Grand Central Terminal:
A Study in Beauty and Meaning

by John Stern


When I was about 12, I remember walking with my father on 46th Street near Park Avenue. He pointed out something very surprising: instead of meeting the sidewalk, the outside wall of a building stopped short, and there was a narrow horizontal gap between the underside of the wall and the sidewalk.  He explained that the buildings in this neighborhood had no basements or foundation walls and were supported instead on steel columns anchored in bedrock below the tracks underneath our feet. Why? Because, he explained, otherwise vibrations from trains moving below us would eventually damage the buildings. He told me we were standing over dozens of railroad tracks that are part of Grand Central Terminal, and sure enough, through a sidewalk grating I could see a few of these tracks and a train moving slowly outbound.

     This was my introduction to the mysterious and yet orderly world of Grand Central Terminal, an outstanding example of science and art, of engineering and aesthetics, of imagination and organization, boasting one of the grandest interior spaces on the planet.

Grand Central Terminal

I will comment on its history, its visual splendor, and the work of the many people responsible for Grand Central as it is today in relation to this principle of Aesthetic Realism, stated by its founder, the noted American poet and critic Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” It is the oneness of such opposites as matter and space, surface and depth, personal and impersonal, rest and motion, one and many that explain the beauty and efficiency of this much-admired railroad terminal, and these are the same opposites we want to put together in our lives!

1.     History Is There

     In 1970 Mr. Siegel, referring to economics throughout the centuries, explained that “the private-public fight is a big thing in history.” That fight is going on worldwide between private profit for a few people and what is good for the vast public, for living, breathing human beings. It is also the fight that goes on in every person between contempt—the desire to get “an addition to self through the lessening of something else,” and respect—the desire to see what a thing deserves and to value it truly.

     On the one hand, the chief purpose of the men who built and operated America’s railroads was to make as much money as possible for themselves and their stockholders. But to accomplish this they had to serve the public’s need for freight to be carried and passengers to reach their destinations—which they did with widening scope and increasing efficiency. However, as railroads became indispensable to economic growth and the distribution of population, most owners grew arrogant, manipulated their stocks, tried to ruin competitors, ignored legitimate complaints, skimped on safety, and generally did as they pleased. Their attitude was summed up famously by New York Central Railroad president William Henry Vanderbilt when he proclaimed in 1882, “The public be damned!” Meanwhile, that public—including shippers and passengers—objected, and demanded remedial action. And so the federal government was forced to begin regulating the rates railroads charged and the safety of their operations.

     During the peak years of travel by rail, Grand Central was home to a fleet of fast trains to the Midwest, including the glamorous Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago, frequented by celebrities and reached over a distinctive red carpet.

Magic Carpet

But as the primacy of railroads declined after the Second World War through intense competition by automobiles, trucks, and planes, Grand Central Terminal declined too. It was only through eventual public ownership and operation by the State of New York that the indispensable suburban commuter services to Grand Central have been preserved and substantially improved, and the beautiful Terminal building itself saved and restored.

     The history of Grand Central is colorful, spanning more than 130 years. The first terminal of that name was erected in 1871 at Fourth Avenue (now Park) and 42nd Street, then close to the edge of the built-up part of the city. It was conceived and built by Cornelius Vanderbilt,

Cornelius Vanderbilt

a one-time steamboat magnate (hence his title Commodore), who had merged several railroads into the New York Central system, which served upstate New York and reached as far west as Chicago and St. Louis. The terminal replaced an earlier nondescript building further downtown at 26-27th Street and Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South). The new building was terminus for the New York Central and the New York, New Haven & Hartford, which served southern New England.  It was an impressive structure, with an ornate Second Empire-style façade, 1

Grand Central Terminal 1871

and an awesome iron and glass train shed 100 feet high, spanning 15 tracks—then one of the largest interior spaces in America.

Inside Grand Central Terminal

2.     Freedom and Order Were There from the Beginning

     To avoid tying up valuable track space by having to switch locomotives from the head of a newly arrived train, the railroads devised an efficient solution called the “flying switch.” An inbound train speeded up, a brakeman uncoupled the engine from its cars, the locomotive accelerated further and was switched onto a siding, while the passenger cars coasted into the station with brakemen controlling their speed by hand brakes, bringing the cars to a gentle stop. This procedure was used without mishap for decades. It is a tribute to the opposites of freedom and order working beautifully together, because the rigid and orderly rules governing this method made for the freedom of trains moving swiftly, reliably, and safely.

      Long distance and commuter travel grew much faster than expected, so Grand Central had to be expanded in 1886, and comprehensively renovated in 1898.   But as traffic continued to grow, it was clear that a new terminal was needed.

1898 Renovation

     At this time—1892 to 1895—Grand Central was visited often by Antonin Dvořák, the famous Czech composer,  who was teaching at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.

Anton Dvorak

He loved trains and went to see them at many points around the city, including at Grand Central. 2   (It was in New York City and Iowa that he composed his beloved New World Symphony.) Was Dvořák affected by the freedom and precision of those fast-moving yet precise trains? I think so, and in his music we can hear those same opposites take many forms—including an intensity of sound and exactitude of rhythm.

3.     A Tragedy Is a Catalyst for Change

      The physical layout of Grand Central and its approaches in 1898 included 22 tracks in the terminal, outdoor train yards extending from 45th to 48th Street, an open track bed along Park Avenue, sunken below street level, to 56th Street (bordered by warehouses, breweries, and tenements) and a four-track ventilated tunnel from 56th to 96th Street. Steam locomotives on all this trackage generated copious quantities of smoke, soot, and cinders.

Open track bed

     Then in January 1902 there was a disastrous accident. In the tunnel at 58th Street, with visibility greatly impaired by smoke and steam, an inbound express smashed into the rear of a local that had stopped, killing and injuring scores of people. The public was outraged, resulting a year later in both the city and state outlawing the operation of steam locomotives in Manhattan after 1908.

     What was to be done? William J. Wilgus (1865-1949), chief engineer of the New York Central,

William J. Wilgus

knew that another remodeling simply wouldn’t do—for one thing, people would not stand for it. He proposed instead thorough, imaginative, and innovative solutions that function superbly to this day:

1) construct two levels of tracks below street level, the upper
    for long-distance trains, the lower for suburban trains;
2) eliminate the steam locomotives and move all trains by
     electric power instead;
3) construct a monumental terminal building; and
4) sell air rights above the new underground train yards,      permitting developers to erect buildings there and pay
     rent to the railroad.

4.     A Masterpiece of Engineering; or, Fact
and Imagination, One and Many

      The 10 years of construction included painstaking engineering for the two levels of tracks and train yards below street level, planned and closely supervised by Wilgus. The work was difficult. Imagine! Extensive excavations for the two new levels of tracks had to be carried on while not disrupting the daily arrivals and departures of hundreds of trains, whose numbers were increasing each year.

train yards

It was a feat of meticulous organization, a making one of the opposites of one and many: of innumerable and disparate elements all designed to work for one purpose—just as each of us hopes to have all the elements in our lives go for a purpose we can be proud of.

     But I did not feel my life was integrated in this way.  When I began to study Aesthetic Realism one of the first things I learned—and it was liberating to me—was that I, like every person, was in a fight all the time between hoping to respect the world and people, and getting a victory out of being scornful and superior. This was contempt, which Eli Siegel described as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."  This began to change in me when, in an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel made this fight between contempt and respect vivid to me. He asked:

Do you think you feel more important having contempt for things or respect for them? Do you think it would be better to add 5% to the meaning of people, add no %, or subtract 5%?

I saw that for my own self-respect and happiness it would be better to add that 5%. I also learned that this fight affected every aspect of my life, including love, friendship, how I saw my family, and my work as an urban and regional planner.  It explained why I felt I was too churlish with people, too prone to look for flaws in them.  When I saw that my having contempt was the very thing that held up my life, that it made me feel tight, unexpressed and also lonely—I changed, and became more like a happy, energetic train going towards its destination. And this came to include love for Faith Stern, who, I’m proud to say has been my wife for 39 years.

     The fight between respect and contempt affects engineering too. If an engineer doesn’t want to respect fully the rigorous integrity that organization and the laws of physics demand, disaster may result. The long history of engineering records many examples where insufficient respect for the properties of iron, steel, glass, brick, and concrete, and the effects of winds and weights, have caused the falling of bridges (like this one in Minneapolis), the failure of roofs, the collapse of entire buildings, and the injuring and killing of countless people.

Fallen Bridge, Minneapolis

      Wilgus’s respect for engineering underlies his design for the new rail terminal. He wanted the people who used it to have, through the order of his design, the greatest ease and freedom in their travels, and this purpose was embodied in the terminal building, which was being constructed above the tracks.

Terminal Building Construction

5. Simplicity and Complexity Are There, Too

      The plan Wilgus devised was simple and complex at the same time.
He divided the excavations for the new two levels of tracks into segments of work, which are described by Kurt Schlichting in his book Grand Central Terminal: 3

Wilgus devised a plan to manage the excavation and construction in stages by dividing the old terminal building, train shed, and train yard into a series of bites and having construction proceed one bite at a time. In each bite, work began by demolishing all structures within the bite and removing the existing railroad tracks. Once cleared, work crews excavated to a depth of between 50 and 60 feet. With excavation completed, construction began on the two-story underground structure. As soon as work crews completed the new platforms and tracks, the [railroad’s] operating division assumed control and the excavation and construction workers moved on to the next bite.

Excavation for Grand Central Terminal

     The quantity of rock and soil that had to be excavated for the two levels of tracks was stupendous—3 million cubic yards, 4  an amount of material that would (by my calculation) fill about three Empire State Buildings. All this had to be removed in trains of hopper cars run at night, so as not to interfere with the heavy passenger traffic—a task the horse-drawn carts of then could never have handled.

6. Hidden and Shown Work Together

      As construction proceeded, the trackage from Grand Central into the Bronx, southern Westchester, and southwest Connecticut was electrified. Employing this intangible, invisible source of power to produce tangible, visible results in moving heavy trains, makes one of the opposites of hidden and shown.

     The relation of what is within a person to what he or she shows affects everyone. We all have thoughts and feelings inside, but how much do we want to show them, including to the people closest to us? In his landmark essay “The Ordinary Doom,” Eli Siegel explains:

There is a triumph in withholding the feelings we may be aware of. Concealment is equated, unknowingly to ourselves, with individuality: the more we conceal, the more it seems we are asserting our very personality, resisting a somewhat repellent, unwelcome intrusion of other things into ourselves….Through secrecy we can be defying the world and deceiving it. 5

In an early Aesthetic Realism class Mr. Siegel asked me, “Do you believe you would like to hide what you are?” The answer was Yes. I began to see that what I really wanted was to have the depths of myself known by other people, while hoping to know their depths too. Why? Because, as Mr. Siegel writes in his essay, “We live not only in our own minds, but in other minds; our minds depend for their full existence, on being apprehended by other minds justly, beautifully”

7. Rest and Motion Are Part of Grand Central’s Design

      While Wilgus’s two-level rail terminal was being completed underground, the monumental terminal building itself was rising steadily into the air above. Its architects were the firms of Reed & Stem of St. Paul, Minnesota and Warren & Wetmore of New York. The two firms were unwilling collaborators and argued strenuously over many details, but the final design included ideas from men of both firms.

     The designers of Grand Central had to solve the problem of how to provide for the movement of people into, out of, and through the building. There was an early proposal for using only stairways to connect the various levels, but Charles Reed pointed out the congestion that would result. He proposed instead inclined ramps, by means of which large numbers of people could move smoothly to and from their trains. And that is what we have today: broad sloping ramps, plus stairways and escalators, as well as underground passages to many nearby buildings.

Inclined ramps  Underground passages

     Rest and motion are the principal opposites in all modes of transportation—for example, a train starts and stops for the same purpose: to reach its destination with ease. In the same way, a person walking in Grand Central moves and pauses as she or he may window shop, buy a newspaper, have a snack, look up with wonder at the high,

High Starry Ceiling

starry ceiling in what is called the Grand Concourse, catch a train

Catching a Train

through an ornamented gateway,

Ornamented Gateway 1       Ornamented Gateway 2

or simply pass through the building. When we feel our taking it easy and our activities go for one purpose—a respect for what’s around us—we will experience that dynamic tranquility which Aesthetic Realism describes as the feeling of happiness.

      The oneness of rest and motion is also in the ingenious solution to connecting Park Avenue at 42nd Street with Park at 46th. William Wilgus came up with the idea: have Park Avenue bridge 42nd Street and move around Grand Central on twin ramps one story above the nearby streets. Today drivers are at rest while their automobiles move freely around both sides of the terminal, enabling Park Avenue to be a continuous, uninterrupted boulevard.

Park Avenue Bridge    Ramp to Park Avenue Bridge

8. Architecture and People; or, Impersonal and Personal

     In his historic broadside of Fifteen Questions titled “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?,” Eli Siegel asks:

Does every instance of art and beauty contain something which stands for the meaning of all that is, all that is true in an outside way, reality just so?—and does every instance of art and beauty also contain something which stands for the individual mind, a self which has been moved, a person seeing as individual person? 6

In Grand Central the personalities of tens of thousands of individuals mingle every day with the impersonality of geometry and space, bringing personal meaning to impersonal architecture, and impersonal meaning to human lives.

Grand Central terminal: impersonal and Personal

     I remember listening to a half-hour radio drama broadcast in the late 1940s and early ‘50s that illustrates these opposites. Titled “Grand Central Station,” its introduction was famous:

[S]hining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, part of the nation’s greatest city.

Describing the trains rushing down along the Hudson River and “beneath the swank and glitter of Park Avenue,” the introduction concluded:

And then Grrrand Centrrral Staaation—crossroad of a million private lives, gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas, daily. 7

9. Grand Central’s Neighbors: A Unified Development

Terminal City

      A major aspect of Grand Central is the orderly and architecturally distinctive development of the blocks around the terminal and along Park Avenue, including 12- to 15-story apartment houses, hotels,8  and office buildings, that came to be known by the 1920s as Terminal City. These new buildingmany designed by Whitney Warren and adhering to architectural standards imposed by the railroadmade up one of New York’s most harmonious streetscapes from the 1920s to the 1950s. However, today all the apartment buildings from 46th to 53rd streets (except one) have been replaced by office buildings of various shapes and designs, and the Helmsley Building (formerly the New York Central Building),

Helmsley Building Lobby

with its ornate crown and opulent lobby, is overwhelmed by the massive Met Life Building behind it, that towers above the Terminal building itself.

10. The Terminal Building: A Oneness of Matter and Space

      The principal opposites in all architecture, Aesthetic Realism explains, are matter and space. The way matter encloses space in the terminal building, and matter and space interpenetrate, is part of its magnificence.

     Let us take a tour of Grand Central as it is today, following its extensive restoration in the 1990s. Approaching the building from the south, we see the three tall arched windows on its 42nd Street façade, an example of the

42nd St. facade

terminal’s Beaux-Arts 9 design by Whitney Warren. As we approach on Park Avenue, these great windows seem to beckon to us as to a gateway, inviting us inside. The columns that flank each window both separate and join them, and give greater depth to the façade. On top of the windows is a horizontal cornice, and above that the horizontal of the heavy roof. Adding complexity to the fairly simple lines of the roof is a monumental sculptural group by Jules Coutan, of Roman gods surrounding a wonderful ornate clock in the middle. The south façade, then, is a study in horizontality and verticality.

Coutan sculpture with clock

     The building was designed to provide travelers several attractive ways to reach the Grand Concourse and their trains, and with each a person experiences a mobile, ever-changing relation of matter and space:

1) progressing from 42nd Street and Park Avenue through Vanderbilt Hall, the high-ceilinged former waiting room with elegantly ornate chandeliers;

elegant ornate chandelier

2) entering via a second corridor from 42nd between Park and Lexington,

3) descending a graceful staircase from Vanderbilt Avenue, 10

Descending staircase from Vanderbilt Ave.

4) traversing two gently arched passageways from Lexington Avenue lined with shops; and

Passageway with shops

5) walking down a gentle ramp from the corner of 42nd and Vanderbilt.

Ramp from 42nd and Vanderbilt avenues

Whatever approach he uses, a traveler then enters that amazing interior space, the Grand Concourse, measuring 275 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 125 feet high.

Grand Concourse

This great room is bordered by small lunette (semi-circular) windows with concave decorative moldings, located just below the ceiling.


semicircular windows


The arches in these openings,




like those atop the tall windows on the 42nd Street façade and along the east and west walls of the Grand Concourse, are both vertical and horizontal. These arches, like those in the famous Oyster Bar restaurant in the lower level,

Oyster Bar

have a meaning for us, which Mr. Siegel describes in his book Self and World: “[Everyone] has the vertical aspect of himself or herself, and the horizontal. The vertical line is a symbol to the unconscious of the self alone; the horizontal, of the self going out.”11

Glory of Grand Concourse

     Part of the glory of the Grand Concourse is the way horizontal and vertical elements work together. Warm-colored, square, vertical columns of artificial stone rise above the north and south sides of this room. These columns support horizontal cornices, which join the columns and also separate them from the high lunette windows and the concave ceiling. The horizontal lines of the cornices are softened by rows of warm electric lights, and are matched by the horizontal lines of the north, east, and west balconies below and

Ticket booth, south side

the line of ticket booths below on the south side. And the lunette windows high on the south wall welcome the sun’s rays, which stream in to illuminate part of the floor, seeming to soften its hard marble.

Lunette windows welcoming sun's rays

     The glorious blue-green, concave ceiling of the Grand Concourse is the joint conception of Whitney Warren and the French artist Paul Helleu. It is studded with constellations of stars, and as a person looks up

Blue Green concave ceiing

to it through space and sees other elements of the great room, he or she has a feeling of largeness and pleasure. This room shows us that in looking up to something we can feel proud, and that much oppose our narrow desire to look down on other people and things.

     At the center of the Concourse is the information booth, with its handsome golden clock.

Information booth

Here is where people arrange to meet, the focal point in the middle of the three-quarters of an acre of marble floor. It is a fixed point amid the democratic flow of the thousands of people who pass through the terminal each day.

11. The Terminal Is Saved and Reborn: A Victory of Ethics

      In 1964, largely as a result of the demolition of the other monumental gateway to New York City, Penn Station,12  and its replacement by a facility with all the charm of a bus station, New York City passed a landmarks preservation law, under which many buildings, including Grand Central, were designated as landmarks. This event gave rise to a fresh battle between private and public. The private owner of Grand Central, Penn Central (a merger of the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads), desperate for revenue, proposed an office tower to be built using the air rights over the Terminal.

Proposed office tower uisng air rights

It is ironical that the concept of air rights, proposed by William Wilgus and used so beneficially 60 years earlier, would now destroy an important part of the iconic building. Two proposals for the office tower were therefore rejected by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Penn Central tried to have this decision overturned, first through the New York State courts, and finally in the U.S. Supreme Court. Prominent New Yorkers, led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, rallied to save the terminal. Finally, in 1978, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court upheld the city’s landmarks law, saving Grand Central from the commercial pressures of potential development. The citizens of New York and other cities now had the right under legal precedent to preserve their historic architectural heritage. It was an important victory for the interests of the broad public over the narrow, profit-driven interests of a few.

     But the magnificent terminal urgently needed saving also from years of neglect by the cash-starved Penn Central. In 1988 its new owner, Metro North commuter railroad (part of the New York State-owned Metropolitan Transportation Authority) commissioned the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle to study what had to be done to stabilize and restore the Terminal. Their detailed report, covering every square inch of the terminal, was approved, and work on the $200 million dollar restoration13  began in the early 1990s. The work needed affected every part of the Terminal.

     1) Outside, the sculpture by Jules Coutan and its clock were cleaned and      repaired.

Coutan sculpture

2) Inside, the most visible effort was in the Grand Concourse: restoration of the great vaulted ceiling, which had become darkened by decades of grime, and cleaning the ornamental plaster rosettes that bordered it.

vaulted ceiling

3) Inter-level pedestrian access was improved by widening ramps and adding escalators.

4) The long-planned stairway on the Lexington Avenue side of the Grand Concourse (proposed by Whitney Warren to match the one on the Vanderbilt Avenue side) was finally built.

5) New underground pedestrian access from 47th and 48th streets to the north ends of the train platforms and to the Terminal building was provided.

6) Electric power, heating and ventilation, and communications systems almost a century old had to be replaced or upgraded, and air conditioning installed. 14

7) Vanderbilt Hall was cleaned and restored.

8) The enormous brass chandeliers that rise above the balconies now occupied by restaurants were refurbished.

9) The former retail shops throughout the terminal were replaced with a great variety of new stores.

10) Decades-long water damage to walls and thousands of decorative details everywhere had to be meticulously repaired.

11) The lower level commuter concourse was partly remodeled to include an extensive food court with dozens of restaurants offering moderately priced international cuisines, imaginatively utilizing the former ticket booths for their kitchens and storage.

lower level commuter concourse

12) The abundant advertising that for five decades had increasingly intruded on walls, balconies,15  and even on the floor of the Grand Concourse was eliminated. The Terminal was rededicated in 1998. The results thrill everyone who passes through Grand Central and looks around.

Rededicated Grand Central Terminal

     In his prize-winning poem, “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” Eli Siegel asks, “…What is it man can do?”16 One answer is Grand Central Terminal, that consummate, iconic masterpiece of science and art, engineering and aesthetics, which has welcomed hundreds of millions of people these 96 years.


End Notes

1  The Second Empire style in design flourished in France during the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1871) and was popular in the U.S.

2  Alec Robertson, Dvořák (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1964, pp.74-80)

3  Kurt Schlichting, Grand Central Terminal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, p.67)

4  Schlichting, p. 70

5  A Book of Nonfiction, ed. by Rev. Joseph T. Browne, S.J. (New York: The Macmillan Co. 1965, p. 251)

6  Eli Siegel (New York: Terrain Gallery, 1955)

7  John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton, Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000, p.94)

8  The hotels included the Roosevelt, the Commodore (now the Grand Hyatt); the Biltmore, Park Lane, and Marguery (replaced by office buildings); the Chatham; the Barclay (now the Inter-Continental); and the Waldorf-Astoria (which had a private rail siding, reached by elevator, that may have been used by VIPs arriving by train and staying at the hotel).

9   The Beaux-Arts style was monumental in conception, using historic forms and rich decorative detail.

10  The staircase was modeled on Charles Garnier’s grand staircase in the Paris Opera (Schlichting, p.142)

11  Eli Siegel, Self and World (New York: Definition Press, 1981, p.118)

12  Pennsylvania Station boasted a monumental waiting room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling soaring 150 feet atop Roman columns. The train concourse was sheltered by a canopy of glazed glass vaults supported on spidery columns of steel, through which one could see the sky. The engineering required for the approaches to the station was complex, comprising twin single-track tunnels through the rock of the Palisades in New Jersey and under the Hudson River, tunnels across Manhattan, and four single-track tunnels under the East River to Long Island City.

13  Belle and Leighton, p.124

14  On a college freshman tour of Grand Central in 1948, I remember seeing the large rotary converters which changed alternating current to the direct current that powers the trains; asbestos-covered high-pressure steam pipes; and outcrops of the native bedrock—all well below the lower level of tracks.

15  Before ads blocked the Lexington Avenue balcony, I remember a full-size replica there of the DeWitt Clinton, an early 1830s locomotive with two stagecoach-like passenger cars.

16 Eli Siegel, Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems (New York: Definition Press, 1957, p. 4)

2008-2009 Color photography by Amy Dienes, Faith Stern, John Stern; archival photography from the Internet.