Grand Central Terminal, ca. 1913. Gelatin silver print. New-York Historical Society

Grand Central Terminal, ca. 1913. Gelatin silver print. New-York Historical Society

At one minute after midnight on February 2,1913, the first train to leave the new Grand Central Terminal pulled out of the station. That day over 150,000 visitors crowded into the station to inspect the new building, opened to the public after ten years of construction. Commuters saw a monumental new station outfitted with modern comforts and amenities, such as hair salons, dressing rooms, and an emergency hospital for ill travelers. In place of the stairs platforms were accessed by ramps, providing easy transport for passengers.

The new station was conceptualized by William Wilgus, the chief engineer of the Vanderbilt-owned New York Central Railroad, after a fatal accident occurred on the rail line. In January 1902, two trains collided in a tunnel clouded by the smoke emitted from steam locomotives. The collision led Wilgus to propose a radical restructuring of the railroads and the building of a new terminal. Under his plan, the railroad would become electrified, which would considerably reduce noise and air pollution. The track system would become more efficient and organized, utilizing double-deck underground tracks.

New York Central held a national design competition to select the architect for the new terminal. The St. Paul firm Reed & Stem won, likely at least in part because of the relationship between Wilgus and Allen Stem, his brother-in-law. That relationship wasn’t the only nepotistic connection, however. Warren & Wetmore, a New York City firm, was selected to collaborate with Reed & Stem on the design: Whitney Warren was a cousin to the Vanderbilts. Ultimately Reed & Stem managed the engineering of the station, and Warren & Wetmore designed the Beaux Arts aesthetic.

After several years of demolition and construction, the building neared completion in 1903. While the terminal’s famous sculptural group on the façade wouldn’t be finished until 1914, the main building opened to commuters with a considerable amount of fanfare. The New York Times published a special 8 page section about the new station, praising the amenities and design of the new Grand Central Terminal. On the 3rd the paper described the fervor of the opening day, noting that the “railroad men viewed the scene with amazement, saying that never before had the public been known to take such a keen interest in the opening of a railroad terminal.”

The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.

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