Reintroducing the man behind Grand Central Terminal

Update (and welcome NY Times readers): In celebration of Grand Central Terminal’s Centennial we’re offering a 40% discount on Kurt C. Schlichting’s definitive histories of the railroad station: Grand Central’s Engineer: William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan (reg. $49.95) and Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City (reg. $32.00). Simply add code HGCT at checkout.

By Robin Noonan, publicist

Every once in a while you work on a book about which you feel real passion, a book that you believe strongly in and can’t let go. Grand Central’s Engineer: William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan, by Kurt C. Schlicting, is the first book I’ve felt this way about in my six months at the JHU Press; and it is one I keep revisiting.

February 2013 will mark the centennial of Grand Central Terminal—a marvel known round the world.  Grand Central’s Beaux Arts architecture is instantly recognizable to all who have passed through its walls or stared up at the constellations dotting the Main Concourse’s ceiling.  They form a backward zodiac pattern, as if viewed from the sky. The sound of Grand Central is the rhythmic clack, clack, clacking of the mechanical time tables.   Like a giant deck of cards constantly shuffled, the slats update departure time and platform numbers for travelers gazing aloft. “Meet me at the clock,” has been a refrain for generations. That timepiece is a jewel-like embellishment atop an octagonal information booth under those same stars.  On the lower concourse, one finds the Whispering Gallery, a tiny vaulted pocket where the acoustics allow one’s hushed voice spoken toward a wall to be heard at the opposite wall.  But these aren’t the secrets unknown or facts brushed aside. Those are found in Grand Central’s Engineer.

What few people realize is the stunning transformation Grand Central made both as a building complex and as a destination.  Kurt C. Schlichting, Professor of Sociology and the E. Gerald Corrigan Chain the in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Fairfield University, weaves a fascinating tale of the lobbying, jockeying, negotiating, and strategizing that resulted in the creation of this edifice.  William J. Wilgus, a high school educated and self-made man who came to New York as an engineer and rose to become chief engineer of New York Central, was the visionary and main agitator behind the complex that became Grand Central Station.  Wilgus overcame the geographic, political, financial, commercial, and public health hurdles necessary to move goods and people to and through Manhattan via this structure.  On Wilgus’s watch, trains were electrified, and the complex became a bi-level terminal surrounded by elevated railways.  Streets were re-routed or—in the case of Park Avenue—built over train tracks.  Wilgus also brought an end to the “West Side problem”, carnage resulting from collisions between trains running along Manhattan’s West Side and pedestrians, and horse-drawn drayage ferrying freight along the same avenues.

A New York Central freight train on West Street along the Hudson River, circa 1910, looking north from 30th Street. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan City of New York. (New York, G.W. Bromley, 1916)

Wilgus pioneered the use of air rights to finance the colossal undertaking that would become Grand Central’s Terminal City.  Numerous office buildings, apartments, and hotels were built adjacent to the behemoth terminal and were accessible by underground passages.  These corridors were lined by retail shops, another novel concept.  Schlichting writes, “A traveler arriving in New York by train could proceed to a hotel room and later walk a corridor to an office building for a business meeting, perhaps stopping to shop along the way—without ever venturing outdoors.”   That in itself was revolutionary.

Grand Central’s Engineer is replete with maps, archival photographs, and tales of how Wilgus exploited the power brokers, industrial titans, and inventors of the era in order to turn his dream of Grand Central into a reality.  This book documents what a monumental accomplishment the visionary Wilgus championed. That said, Grand Central was only the beginning of Wilgus’s accomplishments.  He went on to work on the Holland Tunnel, to propose subways and rail tunnels under New York Harbor, and to argue for the creation of a bi-state agency out of which the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was born.  As we near the centennial tributes to Grand Central, I am telling any who will listen that her most stalwart champion, William J. Wilgus, also deserves his due.