In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, we will be exploring all aspects of the terminal, from its most famous attributes to its hidden treasures. To begin, we will explore the terminal that never was.
For the past century, New York City has been graced by Warren & Wetmore’s Beaux Arts masterpiece. As a result of their Grand Central commission, the firm went on to have an illustrious career. However, since their prior commissions had been minimal, and the firm did not even win the design competition, it is quite remarkable that Warren & Wetmore’s building was ever built.
In 1893, William John Wilgus began working for The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad as an assistant engineer on its Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg line. From Buffalo and privately tutored in engineering, Wilgus quickly rose through the company’s ranks and by 1899 he was the railroads’s chief engineer for construction and maintenance of tracks. He was a visionary. After a 1902 train crash on Park Avenue, in which 15 people died instantaneously, Wilgus sent a letter to the President of the company outlining his ideas for utilizing electric trains which would be placed underground and for a new terminal building. By January 10, 1903, the company’s Board of Directors (which included J. P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, as well as Cornelius II Vanderbilt and William K. Vanderbilt) accepted Wilgus’ plan and appointed him Vice President in charge of construction.
Four architectural firms were invited to participate in the design competition. D.H. Burnham and Company, McKim, Mead and White, Reed & Stem, and Samuel Huckle Jr. The firms were from around the country (Chicago, New York, St. Paul, and Philadelphia) and had differing opinions in terms of how the new terminal should be designed. Huckel opted for a baroque turreted building with Park Avenue running right through it, McKim, Mead & White drafted plans for a 60-story skyscraper, which would have been the tallest in the world and was surmounted by a 300 foot jet of steam illuminated in red as a beacon for ships and an advertisement for the company, and Reed & Stem envisioned a multi-tiered elevated roadway that circumvented the building, which would connect to its different levels, a court of honor to the north of the terminal which would house the National Academy of Design and the Metropolitan Opera, while no record remains of Burnham’s design.
In hindsight, from the start, Reed & Stem, while the underdogs, clearly had the right connections to ensure their victory. They had previously designed stations for the company and Stem was Wilgus’ brother-in-law. On June 17, 1903, Reed & Stem’s design was approved. But their win was short lived. Warrren & Wetmore, who had not even entered the competition, then submitted their own design for the proposed station. Their design, or the fact that Whitney Warren was William Vanderbilt’s cousin, ensured their entry would not go unnoticed. By January Warren & Wetmore was added to the design team which was named the Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal (The team also designed Detroit’s Grand Central Station). Warren & Wetmore prevailed and large parts of Reed and Stem’s design was eliminated, including the revenue-generating office and hotel tower atop the terminal and the the vehicular viaducts.
Grand Central Depot would not be demolished until 1910 and Grand Central Terminal did not officially open until 12:01 am on Sunday, February 2, 1913. The crowd of more than 150,000 people that visited Grand Central on its opening day was a testament to the its grandeur. Although, looking back now, it is a wonder to think of how much grander it would have been had one of the original plans been realized.