It is no accident that a statue of the Roman god Mercury adorns the front of New York’s Grand Central Terminal (GCT). According to Bulfinch’s Mythology, Mercury “presided over commerce, wrestling and other gymnastic exercises, and everything, in short, which required skill and dexterity.” Considering the complexity of GCT itself — both functional and aesthetic — skill and dexterity have been critical to the terminal’s recent exterior facelift.
Built in 1913, the terminal is one of New York City’s most prominent architectural and historic landmarks. GCT has more than 500,000 people pass through it every day, making it the most visited site in New York City. But GCT is not simply a historic treasure. It is a living, breathing, fully functional component of one of the world’s busiest transit systems. Therefore, even the most necessary renovations can only be allowed to interfere minimally, if at all, with the structure’s daily functions. In frenetic New York City, that is easier said than done.
A threat to pedestrians, traffic
“In renovating the facade of Grand Central Terminal, we were fortunate that the main building sits on the Park Avenue viaduct,” says Wayne Ehmann, chief architect for the Metro-North Railroad, which operates GCT. “Because of that, the bulk of the exterior is set back about 30 feet from the street.” Moreover, the facade meets the street at the viaduct level, where no pedestrians are permitted. A major challenge of the redesign centered on controlling traffic patterns around the building. That necessitated several meetings with the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT), since the Park Avenue viaduct is a heavily used arterial.
“The DOT was concerned about how much of an impact construction would have on traffic flow. But the project team was able to develop a plan that greatly mitigated the disturbance,” says Ehmann. “We figured out ways to limit both inconvenience and exposure to any potential danger. In fact, for most people, the only disturbance of traffic flow was a single lane closure. But there were concerns beyond traffic flow.”
Ehmann says one of these concerns was that everyone knew noise would be a problem. For example, when removing paint with needle guns, the noise was a considerable distraction to commuters, station employees and neighborhood residents. “We took that into account and scheduled paint removal at night, when noise would not be a problem for the commercial area surrounding the terminal,” he says.
Aside from the lane closure, though, the biggest inconvenience to GCT users and the community was aesthetic. For two years, passengers and tourists had to look at a large net covering the facade, rather than the beautiful facade itself. In fact, the group most inconvenienced by the exterior renovation was the entertainment industry, which was denied the ability to use the original facade as a backdrop for film and television projects.
“Metro-North was very concerned about ensuring that renovation work would not impair the function of the terminal in any way,” explains Dean Kimball, R.A., DMJM Harris project manager for the $20 million exterior restoration of Grand Central. “Metro-North made that a defining part of the program, so we made it part of our design approach,” he says. “For Metro-North, implementing an accurate, carefully executed and period-correct renovation was nearly as important as not impeding traffic or interfering with transit operations.”
Keeping operations fluid
From a construction perspective, accessibility was also a difficult element of the project. “Although the setbacks took pedestrians out of the equation, we still had to ensure that we did not disrupt the building’s interior function in any way,” says Kimball. “So, construction materials and personnel had to access work areas from the exterior only.”
To deal with the problem, the team installed a hoist from the viaduct level to the roof level, and constructed temporary bridges from that point to span the monitor roof into the light wells — an area with very decorative, half-circle windows. Adds Kimball, “Of course, all of the mitigation measures were designed after we had successfully completed a yearlong assessment report. That report was critically important; it allowed us to create an approach that would interfere as little as possible with the traveling public.”
Without a complete set of original drawings to use as a reference source, the project team had to develop its own map of the facade’s current condition. Sounding each stone block in the facade of the steel-framed structure, the team performed an excruciatingly detailed assessment of those facing stones, the windows, the roof and the cornice to determine exactly what needed repair. But that degree of assessment was not overkill.
Aside from the need to craft a renovation program that would not interfere with the building’s function, the renovation itself had to be nothing short of perfect.
Unique city, unique challenges
Above all else, the team faced the challenge posed by the fact that the GCT is one of the world’s most recognized facades. And in New York, people are neither shy nor unobservant. Any mistake in the renovation would have likely led to a considerable, highly vocal outcry. With a staff that was drawn mostly from New York, the project team knew what was at stake in renovating a gem in the city’s historical crown. To realistically operate under such circumstances required quite a bit of planning and a carefully orchestrated design approach.
The new, improved GCT is expected to be complete in 2006, but the verdict is still out on how the difficult work will be received. Summing up the challenges of the project, Ehmann says, “Just think about performing a facelift on someone who’s running a marathon.”
Grand Central Terminal Facts
Grand Central Terminal (GCT) is both a world-famous monument and a jewel in the American transit system crown. Originally constructed in 1871 as Grand Central Depot, it was rebuilt beginning in 1903 and reopened in 1913.
Today, the building operates as one of the largest transit hubs in the world. Subways, commuter rail and Amtrak lines run through the station, while heavy traffic from bus, car and pedestrians is also interconnected. The terminal has 44 boarding platforms and 67 sets of rail tracks.
GCT also serves as a major meeting place for tourists, shoppers and other visitors. The building houses five restaurants, 20 eateries and 50 specialty shops. The 12,000-square-foot Vanderbilt Hall hosts major events, exhibitions and promotions.
GCT’s design remains an innovation in the construction of modern transit hubs. One concept pioneered at the terminal was the use of ramps for conducting the flow of traffic through the facility and aiding with the transport of luggage. Another was the wrapping of Park Avenue around the Terminal above the street, creating a second level for picking up and dropping off passengers. Many design innovations of GCT have also been incorporated into modern hub airports.
Arthur Schurr is a New York-based freelance writer who reports on transportation infrastructure.