The original plans for Grand Central Terminal called for the terminal to be surmounted by residential or office space in order to ensure its financial success. This was a component in all of the original designs per the wishes of William John Wilgus who oversaw the design competition. However, this aspect never became a reality (in contrast to Terminal City). Ultimately, Warren & Wetmore were brought on to design the terminal alongside Reed & Stem (due to the influence of Vanderbilt himself) and they against the idea of having a hotel/office on top of the terminal. By the 1950s, when the New York Central Railroad reached its nadir, it no doubt rued their decision to forgo that revenue stream.
In 1954, the New York Central Railroad announced that it was considering tearing down Grand Central Terminal. Fellheimer & Wagner (the successor firm to Reed & Stem, who built Michigan Central Station) designed a building described as “1950s blandness.” They envisioned a 50 story tower, with a 2,400 car garage, that would have replaced the train station. Simultaneously, I. M. Pei, who was working for the firm of Webb & Knapp, proposed an 80 story hourglass shaped tower.
According to The New York Times, “No plans for this tower were published, and Mr. Pei said recently that he had no recollection of the design.” This is especially intriguing given the purported renderings which can be found online (as seen above and in this strange video rendering). Public protest won out and neither plans was realized. In its place, the Pan-Am building was erected in 1962. On August 2, 1967, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Grand Central Terminal a New York City landmark and that ended the saga of the railroad trying to alter their impressive terminal.
In 1968, the nearly bankrupt New York Central Railroad merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad to form the Penn Central Railroad. Having successfully demolished Penn Station, Penn Central was not going to let a little thing like a landmark designation stand in its way of earning a profit. In 1968, Penn Central announced that Marcel Breuer, who designed the Whitney, had been commissioned to design a new tower for Grand Central. Breuer’s International Style tower looks as if it fell from outer space and landed atop the terminal.
Preservation groups were outraged. The Municipal Arts Society, with the invaluable assistance of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, rallied the opposition. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission would not accept Breuer’s designs and Penn Station sued, taking their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, a landmark decision (about landmarks) the Court upheld that constitutionality of the landmark designation, and the validity of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission itself.
Join Untapped Cities on a special tour of the Secrets of Grand Central Terminal. On this tour, you will see the hidden tennis courts, locate the lost armchairs of Grand Central, see the remnants of a lost movie theater, peek into the entrance of the glass walkways and more.
See more from our NYC That Never Was series (Part I: Buildings, Part II: Bridges, Part III: Roadways and Railways, Part IV: The 1916 Zoning Resolution, Part V: The New York Public Library, Part VI Grand Central)