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Is There a Dark Side to the Preservation of Grand Central Terminal?

While the rescue of Grand Central seems like a clear-cut case of good over evil, the role of historic preservation in the 21st-century city can be more complex.
Commuters and train passengers walk through the main concourse of of Grand Central Station.

Commuters and train passengers walk through the main concourse of of Grand Central Station.

Few public buildings grab you by the lapels quite like Grand Central Terminal—the blonde stone and marble, the light pouring in through vast windows, the starry night of constellations on the ceiling. Crowds surge and flow around the bulbous four-faced clock at the center of the cavernous main hall. It's astonishing to think that the 1913 Beaux Arts building, lovingly restored and creatively re-invented in recent years, was almost destroyed.

As the Municipal Art Society of New York reminded us in a recent special exhibit, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of cities to restrict development in the name of historic preservation. Then-Mayor Ed Koch called it a landmark decision in every sense, a triumph over the wrecking ball and bulldozers that had laid waste to so much else in the metropolis over the 20th century. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis famously helped lead the campaign against the redevelopment of the site, inspiring other cities to celebrate and renovate their historic structures.

But while the rescue of Grand Central seems like a clear-cut case of good over evil, the role of historic preservation in the 21st-century city can be more complex. In the years that followed the Supreme Court ruling, hundreds of buildings and neighborhoods have been given landmark status, protecting them not only from rapacious developers but from other, less ill-intentioned forces of change. Some argue that the preservation impulse can sometimes go too far, with unremarkable buildings, gas stations, and even vacant lots barred from any alteration: the city under glass. In the darkest view, historic preservation has become a front for NIMBYism—not in my backyard—curtailing affordable housing, green building, jobs, and economic development.

In his 2010 essay "Preservation Follies" in City Journal, Harvard University's Edward Glaeser pointed out that the growing amount of protected land in historic districts was rendering large tracts "unable to accommodate the thousands of people who would like to live in Manhattan but can't afford to." Preservation, he concluded, "turns the city into a preserve of the prosperous."A 2013 report by the Real Estate Board of New York agreed, calling for a better balance between growth and preservation.

Is there really such a troubled flip side to this otherwise remarkable preservation success story? The full story of Grand Central holds many clues.

Few remember, but when it was constructed, Grand Central Terminal was itself a redevelopment project—it replaced a tangle of open-air railroad tracks for accident-prone steam engines. A design competition in 1903 led to the construction of the Beaux-Arts monument 10 years later, including all kinds of features that were extraordinary for the time, such as massive electric chandeliers. The south-facing façade was topped by Jules-Felix Coutan's sculpture, The Glory of Commerce, featuring Greek gods and a stained-glass clock face by Tiffany.

But after World War II, the building's heyday came to a close. The terminal's owners—originally the railroad run by robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, New York Central, and later consolidated as Penn Central—sought to redevelop the site to raise revenue. In the 1950s, they considered several proposals, including a futuristic, swirly 80-story tower by I.M. Pei. In 1960, construction began on the Pan Am (now MetLife) building, perched atop the back of the station and providing the now-familiar termination of the vista down Park Avenue. Then Penn Central got truly feisty, with two proposals for skyscrapers designed by the 20th century modernist Marcel Breuer, plunked down on the roof of the main passenger hall.

New York City parried those plans, citing the fact that Grand Central had been designated a landmark in 1967, and the property owners sued. That's when the Municipal Art Society launched its campaign, recruiting Onassis, celebrities like Tony Randall, Benny Goodman, Dick Cavett, and Bess Myerson, architect Philip Johnson, and other critics and politicians to the cause. They were all inspired by the demolition of Grand Central's crosstown twin, Pennsylvania Station (McKim, Mead & White, 1910), which had been reduced to rubble in 1963 and ultimately replaced by a dreary subterranean station under the new Madison Square Garden.

In Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of New York's landmarks law, effectively not only for that city but for all 50 states and 500 municipalities. The ruling has great significance in property rights jurisprudence and is relevant to this day. Preserving the building did not, the majority said, constitute a "taking" of the property, depriving the owners of the opportunity to build to such an extent that they should be compensated. A greater good—preserving history—was seen for the entire city. That has been an important theme in the continuing challenges to alleged regulatory takings, from preserving wetlands to creating more affordable housing.

What happened next sheds some light on how historic preservation and redevelopment can go hand in hand. The protected building didn't just sit there; the much-celebrated restoration of Grand Central began in 1982, scrubbing the tobacco stains from the ceiling, adding a planned but unbuilt staircase, and introducing copious retail, dining, and arts programming. The transformation, completed in time for the building's 100th birthday in 2013, has turned Grand Central into a much-visited destination by tourists and New Yorkers alike—and a center of gravity for new development all around. The city allowed the sale of air rights, under an arrangement known as the transfer of development rights, such that growth could be shifted from protected areas to more buildable land. The more recent Midtown East rezoning initiative further paves the way for tall towers in the area of 42nd Street, Grand Central's address.

In that sense, far from restricting building, the preservation of Grand Central could be interpreted as "too much of a good thing," according to Shelby D. Green, co-author with Nicholas A. Robinson of the recently published Historic Preservation: Law and Culture. The protection and restoration was so successful, it served as a catalyst for other development—which in turn casts shadows and otherwise substantially alters the historic character of the neighborhood. The modern city has Grand Central surrounded.

All the while, tensions continue between old and new. Traditionalists remain vigilant against proposed contemporary additions to established structures. One such drama is playing out right now at the Frick Museum on the Upper East Side, where a contemporary expansion threatens the exterior and two interior rooms, including a stately chamber music salon.

Compromises tend not to satisfy anyone. Some architects bemoan constraints on the reuse of older buildings, calling such gut jobs a "façade-omy"—a patina of authenticity, pretending to remain historic though 21st-century activity is going on inside. In Boston, for example, only the exterior of a two-century-old Charles Bulfinch building was landmarked, so that's all that will remain as part of a new condo development. There's a Facebook page dedicated to criticizing this practice, with many other examples from cities around the world.

In an additional twist, there is growing contention over the historic significance of mid-century modern projects—the very buildings the historic preservation movement once fought against. Marcel Breuer's tower, had it been built, might itself be vying for landmark status now. The proposed demolition of other 20th-century office towers in Manhattan, including the JP Morgan building on Park Avenue and a since-tabled bid to raze and replace Kushner Co.'s 666 Fifth Avenue, has made it more complicated to understand where the recent past should be honored, and where history should end. Philip Johnson's postmodern AT&T building in midtown—not universally loved by any means when it arose in 1984—became the city's youngest landmark this summer, after plans for a re-do of the lobby alarmed preservationists.

Historic preservation, by definition, must be disciplined, if not ruthless; exceptions add up rapidly. But because so much of 21st-century city-building is about redevelopment, a marbling of old and new seems appropriate. And that requires some flexibility. I tend to agree with both Glaeser and Jane Jacobs (it's possible; he's a fan): Cities must be allowed to evolve, even as the most cherished assets are protected.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.