Part II: Happy birthday, Grand Central! Let’s see what you’re made of…

This month, New York's Grand Central Station celebrates its 100thanniversary. Goldman Sachs Fellow Allison Marsh uses the occasion to delve into the museum's engineering collections. In Part I, she explored the ambitious plans of William J. Wilgus, the 37-year-old engineer who developed Grand Central Station. Today, she shares highlights from the Archives Center's Guide to the Grand Central Terminal Collection, which documents the decade-long construction process. Grand Central Terminal is receiving anniversary accolades as an architectural masterpiece, but beneath the facade, what emerges is actually a masterpiece of something else: systems engineering. 

Contract Drawings

The new Grand Central Terminal was built on the existing site of the Grand Central Depot, which had been operating for decades and had renovated its facilities numerous times.  One of the biggest challenges during construction was keeping track of previous structures uncovered during the excavation. A special note on this Map of Existing Conditions makes no claim that sub-surface features depicted are “even approximately correct.”
The new Grand Central Terminal was built on the existing site of the Grand Central Depot, which had been operating for decades and had renovated its facilities numerous times. One of the biggest challenges during construction was keeping track of previous structures uncovered during the excavation. A special note on this Map of Existing Conditions makes no claim that sub-surface features depicted are "even approximately correct."

 

You may rush through Grand Central searching for a public bathroom, but have you ever thought what happens when you flush?  This contract drawing from 1903 shows the initial planning for the sewer details.
You may rush through Grand Central searching for a public bathroom, but have you ever thought what happens when you flush? This contract drawing from 1903 shows the initial planning for the sewer details.


Progress photographs

The finished exterior’s “Beaux Arts Eclectic” design features three arched windows 60 feet high flanked by Doric columns.  In this progress photograph, you can see the steel frame construction as the granite and limestone façade is being added.
The finished exterior's "Beaux Arts Eclectic" design features three arched windows 60 feet high flanked by Doric columns. In this progress photograph, you can see the steel frame construction as the granite and limestone façade is being added.

 


Memos and correspondence

Because construction took almost 10 years, the engineers were constantly aware of the inconveniences they were causing and how poor public relations could cause setbacks.  In this memo, the general manager takes a proactive stance “to obviate any attacks by the newspapers” with regards to noise along the Park Avenue side tunnel.
Because construction took almost ten years, the engineers were constantly aware of the inconveniences they were causing and how poor public relations could cause setbacks. In this memo, the general manager takes a proactive stance "to obviate any attacks by the newspapers" with regards to noise along the Park Avenue side tunnel.

 


Engineering notebooks

Similar to many large scale engineering projects, Grand Central was plagued by cost overruns. By examining the engineering construction notebooks and weekly cost reports, you can track exactly how costs escalated. In this particular case, which unfolded over a series of memos between contractors, the engineers had to decide whether to fill an unexpected hole with concrete, costing an additional $2,000.
Similar to many large scale engineering projects, Grand Central was plagued by cost overruns. By examining the engineering construction notebooks and weekly cost reports, you can track exactly how costs escalated. In this particular case, which unfolded over a series of memos between contractors, the engineers had to decide whether to fill an unexpected hole with concrete, costing an additional $2,000.

 
Engineering construction notebook
Engineering notebook

Celebrating an anniversary gives you a moment to pause and reflect on a finished product, but I would argue that engineering is more of a continuous process. Throughout construction, the station never closed, although some services had to be temporarily relocated. By October 1912, the suburban level terminal opened. On February 1, 1913, over 2,000 guests of the architects were invited to inspect the new terminal before the doors were thrown open to the general public at midnight.

It took several more years to complete key features. For example, the separate arrival station did not open until 1914 and the terminal loop tracks were not finished until 1927. You can pick today to celebrate an engineering milestone, or you can recognize that engineering is an ongoing activity and celebrate the system everyday.

Allison Marsh is an assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina. She will be at the museum for the next five months uncovering gems in the engineering collections in the Division of Work and Industry. She can be reached at marsha@mailbox.sc.edu.

Posted at 10:18 am EST in From the Collections