NYC Impressions – Grand Central Terminal & the City Beautiful Movement

Train stations. Central Stations. A place where destinies have a very literal meaning. And the grandeur of some of these places is there to ensure either arrival from or departure to a new destiny is celebrated, marked, and deeply underlined in the chapters of our lives. You may just be arriving into the unknown. But your eyes cannot stop looking around the immense space that a Central Station can be. And that is even truer when we speak about New York’s Grand Central Terminal. It is so much more than a transportation hub – it is one of the city’s greatest landmarks, and for many, the first thing they experience of New York.

The first time I was at Grand Central Terminal was in 2010, when my parents took me to finally meet the country I had been born in. While I gazed in awe at my surroundings, a spectacle of golden light reflected warmly against the marble walls, trying to absorb it all, forgetting momentarily that I may be in the way of people running to catch their train, holding my digital camera weakly, I was approached by a policeman. I can only imagine he saw in my expression the innocence of someone who hadn’t seen such grandeur in her entire life. Who had experienced nothing of the world beyond the limits of a small town in Portugal. He offered to take a picture of me inside his little police car. And here is the proof that this indeed happened. It still makes me laugh.

Back in 2010….

This time, I was not approached by any nice policeman. I actually didn’t even see any police and thought the station was strangely quiet. Or again, maybe I now simply know a lot more of the world. what was busy for me then, is no longer busy for me now.

Between the 1890s and the 1920s, New York’s urban planning was impacted by the City Beautiful movement. Despite the name, this movement led by American architects was not focused only on making cities more beautiful. Actually, it arose mostly from a need to make cities more orderly, address social issues, and encourage civic pride and engagement. At this time, the U.S. urban population had started to outnumber the rural population, and cities were perceived as ugly, dirty and unsafe – which makes sense if we think about how rapidly these new urban centres were growing, leaving no space for proper planning. There was also a wave of immigrants, contributing to a rise in population, and making it harder to create public places for recreation. And of course… if we can make it beautiful, even better. The Movement was also meant to shape the American urban landscape to resemble European cities, which at the time were primarily designed in Beaux-Arts aesthetic.

The Grand Central Terminal was born amidst this context. It managed to be a beautiful building that also made the train system a lot more efficient than it had been before. Still, this architectural masterpiece has often been threatened and multiple efforts have been made in the past decades to ensure New York keeps its most beautiful buildings, despite often being shadowed or even completely hidden from sight thanks to the skyscrapers.

When inside, look up. The ceiling is something unique, a blue sky above your heards, a mural of constellations – this is not the original mural, which was quickly deterioating after 11 years of being painted, with a leaky roof causing mold in the mural. It was in 1944 that the “restoration” took place – except that instead of restoring the original mural, this was simply covered with cement boards, and a completly new work was pained from scratch. Probably for the better if this new structure stops leaks – it’s been over 70 years, and it seems… all right? In the photo I took below you can see the borders of the cement boards.

I’m very glad about the City Beautiful movement. Without it, probably New York would be a much uglier city, full of advertising billboards and boring skycrappers. We can find examples of building inspired by Beaux-Arts and New-Classical architecture across the island, including the New York Public Library, also a child of this movement.

New York’s County Supreme Court is also a clear example of Neo-classical archicture, perhaps also a child of the City Beautiful movement, build also between 1913 and 1927.

It’s worth adding that New York City is not the place most impacted by this movement – it actually got its origins in Chicago, with the World’s Columbian Exposition. The American architect Daniel Burnham was heading the construction of the fair’s temporary city – what would be known as the White City, hiding the poverty and crime of Chicago. He was inspired by Parisian Ecole de Beaux Arts and Neoclassical and Baroque architecture.

Yet, while I’m a huge fan of the old European architure style, what does this make of the U.S.? A copy? A replica? So I can understand when famous architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan opposed to the City Beautiful movement, wanting to create a new and truly American style. An identity.

What do you think? 🙂

Love, Nic


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