Municipal Art Society of New York

A reminder of how celebrities can do good for cities.

This month, Grand Central Terminal celebrates its 100th year. On this anniversary, it's worth remembering that the landmark was almost destroyed by an office tower redevelopment project in 1975 when an unlikely savior – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – stepped up to the microphone to save the Beaux-Arts building.

Onassis was outraged in early 1975 when Grand Central’s landmark designation had been voided by the court, clearing the way for the railroad to build over the station with a Marcel Breuer design that looked like a shoebox lid standing on its side.

Grand Central was symbolic of old Manhattan, a city her grandfather, James T. Lee, had helped build (highlights include 740 Park Avenue). Onassis also cared about historic preservation, having restored the White House to its former glory and saved Washington’s Lafayette Square from being replaced by ugly government office buildings in the early 1960s.

After reading a front-page story in the New York Times about the station’s plight, she joined in the fight with the Municipal Art Society,
Courtesy: Municipal Art Society        a venerable group that had successfully called for the city’s first zoning code, planned the subway lines, and pioneered the Landmarks Preservation Law in 1965 as a result of the razing of the original Pennsylvania Station.

Not only was Penn Station knocked down, but many felt insulted by its replacement—the modernist office complex and the hideous squat black steel-and-glass arena called Madison Square Garden. They worried the same would happen with the city's other railway station.

•       •       •       •       •

Grand Central had taken ten years to complete in 1913 at the staggering cost of $65 million. By 1929, the year Jackie was born, 47 million passengers were passing through the terminal’s Indiana limestone façade. In the main terminal, you could see soldiers coming home, rocket ships launch on a jumbo screen, and of course, catch a train, buy a book, a meal, a stock, a bet, or, indeed, by 1975, drugs or a trick.

In the baby boom years after World War II, the suburbs were draining families and revenue from cities, especially New York. Train stations, in their neglect, had become seedy and run-down, and Grand Central was no different. It was dangerous and depressing. Its cerulean blue ceiling depicting the zodiac in gold was virtually obscured by nicotine soot. Its windows were partly covered with advertising. Its skylights, painted black during the war, remained so. Tenants had stripped storefronts of fanciful entries, making it uglier. The roof leaked. Although Onassis knew there was beauty beneath the grime, Grand Central had become a place that New Yorkers had given up on, ceding its waiting room to homeless people.

So she helped in two ways. 

The Oyster Bar in 2013. (Reuters)

She was the star of a press conference in Grand Central’s Oyster Bar. "If we don’t care about our past we can’t have very much hope for our future," she said into a bank of microphones over the din of flashbulbs popping. "We’ve all heard that it's too late, or that it has to happen, that it's inevitable. But I don’t think that's true. Because I think if there is a great effort, even if it’s the eleventh hour, then you can succeed and I know that’s what we'll do."

The next great hurdle for Grand Central’s preservation movement was to convince New York Mayor Abraham Beame, an accountant by training who was facing one of the city’s worst fiscal crises since the Great Depression, to spend money he didn’t have to fight the railroad’s development plans. Jackie understood that Beame, in desperate straits politically, needed to be a hero.

She pulled out a sheaf of her trademark blue stationery with the simple 1040 Fifth Avenue engraved at the top. Dated February 24, 1975, she wrote the letter longhand, her loopy print leaning slightly to the left. 

Dear Mayor Beame…is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters…

Beame, a steady man of simple tastes, announced within a week of receiving that letter that he would appeal. "This case has great significance to the future of preservation in New York City and in the entire United States," Beame announced in a statement. "Grand Central Station was designated a landmark because it is a landmark in every sense of the word; it is a symbol of life in the City of New York."

Today, celebrities regularly use their status to influence urban environments. There’s Bette Midler, who said she would have loved to have been a planner had she not chosen show business, planting a million trees in New York; David Byrne advocating for better environments for bicycling, and Brad Pitt and Treme actor Wendell Peirce working in post-Katrina New Orleans. Just as often, though, stars use their influence to block projects—from the Dock Street condo development in Brooklyn to the sanitation garage near the Holland Tunnel – simply because they live near them.

Onassis's preservation advocacy continued as she helped save other Manhattan landmarks, such as Lever House and St. Bartholomew’s Church. She also blocked a skyscraper proposal for Columbus Center, two miles away from her home, in part arguing against shadows -- a tactic over-used in many cities today to halt development. But her campaign for Grand Central Terminal remains the gold standard. She was subtle, genuine and classy. Above all, in arguing for the preservation of one of the most wonderful public spaces in America, she was right.

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