Detroit’s Grand Central: Michigan Central Station

May 27th, 2015 by admin

In its much-photographed desolation, Detroit’s Michigan Central Station could be called America’s Ruin, while New York’s restored Grand Central Terminal more than ever lives up to its title as America’s Piazza San Marco.

Grand Central was one of New York’s first buildings to be targeted for landmark designation, sparing it from demolition to become one of the nation’s most celebrated urban icons and the world’s sixth-ranking tourist attraction. Michigan Central’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places protects it only from federally-funded demolition. It has survived a 2009 appeal by Detroit’s mayor for federal stimulus funds to pay for its removal and a City Council resolution that year calling on the Station’s owner to demolish it with his own money. Michigan Central lacks the landmark designation that would give it the protection it deserves, including oversight of alterations or restoration. Political realities often drive preservation decisions and may explain how the Station remains unprotected.

The case for Michigan Central’s landmark status seems obvious: America’s preservation movement was born of the 1963 demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and proven in a battle for the preservation of Grand Central Terminal, Beaux-Arts train stations in the mold of Michigan Central.

Just how closely Michigan Central is related to Grand Central hasn’t received due attention; it’s often observed that they were designed by the same architects, but this only scratches the surface of their bond. The designers of both stations were a contentious team of two firms, Reed & Stem of St. Paul and Warren & Wetmore of New York. They were forced together by the New York Central Railroad, owner of the Michigan Central Railroad, in a shotgun-marriage of a partnership called the Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal, the name by which they also designed Michigan Central. The stations were their only large-scale collaborations and were designed almost at once for effectively the same client.

Renderings of Michigan Central Station with its defining tower (left) and Grand Central Terminal with its unbuilt one (right) show how similar they were in concept. Their trios of monumental arches, each flanked by paired columns and alternating with smaller openings, reveal a more specific level of similarity. Both opened in 1913; Grand Central in February and Michigan Central in December. Michigan Central’s distinctive tower made it the world’s tallest train station, and owes to the idea of one conceived for Grand Central. In both renderings, America’s signature architectural innovation – the skyscraper – grows from a train station modeled on an ancient Roman bath. This duality reflects an underlying battle for the soul of American architecture then led by two Chicago architects: Louis Sullivan, “father of the skyscraper” and “prophet of modernism,” and Daniel Burnham, the “father of the City Beautiful” who made classicism the era’s national style. Beyond their juxtaposition of skyscraper and Roman bath, the stations are permeated by a mix of the historic and futuristic, giving them unique architectural depth.

The shock of Michigan Central’s abandoned grandeur distracts from its oddly conjoined building types and isolation from other large buildings. Grand Central is only the most immediate key to making sense of Detroit’s Station. Its full explanation leads from ancient Rome through Paris and Chicago to New York at its most futuristic.

Richard Morris Hunt designed several houses for William K. Vanderbilt, including his 1892 Marble House in Newport (left). Hunt also designed the Administration Building (right) of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, named the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Fair popularized the classical architecture favored by Gilded Age tycoons like Vanderbilt and imprinted their taste on the American populace.

Vanderbilt was American aristocracy, the grandson of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad. He was himself chairman of the Railroad’s board of directors during the construction of Grand Central Terminal and Michigan Central Station, a time when railroads were a major part of the American economy. According to The Architecture of Warren & Wetmore by Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker, “At the turn of the twentieth century, nearly two-fifths of the shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange were associated with railroads.” The steel industry spawned by the rails themselves would help make America a superpower and provide the structural framework for the skyscrapers by which the world would know its cities.

Richard Morris Hunt was the first American architect to study at Paris’s École des Beaux Arts, the centuries-old school which based education on classical precedents, giving its name to Beaux-Arts architecture. A generation of Americans followed Hunt’s example in studying architecture at the École, often topping off their education with an internship at New York’s most prominent architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White. These “Paris men” included Boring & Tilton, designers of Ellis Island’s main building; Carrere & Hastings, architects of the New York Public Library; and Whitney Warren, of Warren & Wetmore, who set the architectural style for Grand Central and Michigan Central.

Students at the École des Beaux-Arts learned to build upon historic examples like Rome’s Baths of Caracalla (above). While the school promoted rational analysis and planning which would pave the way for modernism, its adherence to classical forms and compositional rules can appear cult-like or even superstitious from a modern perspective. Classical precedents were viewed as pertinent educational models because they had been gradually refined over centuries. Whitney Warren defended their applicability to the New World:

Architecture is always an evolution. Of course, we use old styles; we can’t invent a new one, we can only evolve a new one. So we are taking the best elements in the old styles, and we are attempting to produce from them what is suggested and demanded by our present conditions – a new and American style.

Roman baths and basilicas were the ancient building types best suited as models for large buildings, including metropolitan train stations.

The French architect and theorist Eugène Viollet-le-Duc published this conjectural reconstruction of Rome’s Baths of Caracalla in his 1864 book, Discourses on Architecture. The arched windows at the top would admit light into the complex’s lofty central hall beyond; they are the basis of classical architecture’s half-round window element called the thermal window, after its use in Roman public baths, or thermae. In combination with the central hall’s vaulted ceiling and triple-gable roof, thermal windows became an established Beaux-Arts building block which would become closely associated with train stations. The Baths’ central archway and its flanking apses are the basis of another Beaux-Arts convention, prefiguring countless triple-arch façades in American cities. Implementing the Beaux-Art principle of outwardly expressed building organization, these portal trios would invariably indicate a grand interior space beyond, as they do at Grand Central Terminal and Michigan Central Station. The façade of Detroit’s Station merges the gabled thermal window and triple archway motifs.

The Baths of Caracalla, and perhaps Viollet-le-Duc’s recreation specifically, inspired the architect Charles Atwood in his design of the Terminal Station for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Popularly known as the White City, the Exposition was the largest world’s fair to date.  Most of its 27 million visitors arrived by rail, making Atwood’s station the main portal to the fair’s city-within-a-city and the epitome of the era’s station-as-city-gate metaphor.

The centerpiece of the White City was the Court of Honor, an arrangement of temporary classical buildings lining the Fair’s Grand Basin, focused on Richard Morris Hunt’s domed Administration Building. Atwood’s Terminal Station (at upper left in the visitors’ map above) stood squarely behind Hunt’s centerpiece. The station’s axial placement was in keeping with the Beaux-Arts emphasis on procession and gave it a prominence that may have owed to the role of E.T. Jeffery, General Manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, as chair of the Fair’s Grounds and Buildings Committee. The Chicago architect Daniel Burnham headed the Fair’s Architectural Commission, which favored the style of its contributing east-coast, École des Beaux-Arts-trained architects or their disciples. These men were exclusively responsible for the Court of Honor, where their shared classical language harmonized to a crowd-pleasing overall effect. The Court of Honor established a formula which would influence Grand Central Terminal, inform Michigan Central Station and endure into the 1930s with Rockefeller Center. The Fair’s non-classical Transportation Building by Chicago’s premier modernist, Louis Sullivan, was banished to a location off the Court of Honor. Burnham seemed to sell out his own city’s progressive Chicago School, led by Sullivan, in favor of the consensus of classical architecture’s rule book and of corporate fair sponsors who preferred the style, perhaps for its European pretension and imperial connotations. The architectural historian James Marston Fitch called the White City’s classicism “the approved symbolism of Wall Street.”

In 1909, Daniel Burnham published his Plan of Chicago, based on the Beaux-Arts principles and axial planning so successfully previewed in the White City. It was co-authored by the architect and city planner Edward Bennett, edited by the journalist and historian Charles Moore, and compellingly illustrated with panoramic watercolors by the artist Jules Guerin. Although only partly implemented, the Plan of Chicago had a major influence on the new field of city planning. A few years after the book’s publication, its authors and editor would turn their attention to Michigan Central Station.

Burnham was largely responsible for the historicism cloaking the technological advances of American architecture in the era of Grand Central and Michigan Central. Early in his career, he and his inventive partner John Wellborn Root designed progressive Chicago School buildings which boosted the city’s reputation as a crucible of a new, distinctly American architecture. After Root’s death in 1891, Burnham hired Charles Atwood to replaced him as his firm’s chief designer. Atwood was an adept classicist who had collaborated with Richard Morris Hunt on William K. Vanderbilt’s Marble House. He would design more structures for the White City than any other architect, including its train station and the permanent building that now houses the Art Institute of Chicago. His tenure with Burnham lasted until 1895, when his job and then his increasingly skeletal presence went up in opium smoke. Burnham’s and the nation’s shift to classical dress would persist, arguably as a straight-jacket. In contributing historical designs to the White City, McKim, Mead & White helped fuel a demand for classicism that would force the firm to abandon the free-form American vernacular Shingle Style in which it had designed some of its best early buildings. A major architecture critic of the day, Montgomery Schuyler, wrote that the Fair’s “success is first of all a success of unity, a triumph of ensemble. The whole is better than any of its parts and greater than all its parts, and its effect is one and indivisible.” Schuyler noted that this was appropriate to a temporary fair, but not real architecture up to the demands of modern America. To Louis Sullivan, the Fair’s unity was simplistic and limiting, imposing the orders of the tyrannical Old World’s classical architecture at the expense of a free and natural expression appropriate to American democracy. He wrote that “the damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer.”

His protege Frank Lloyd Wright said of the American clientele converted to classical taste by the Fair, “They killed Sullivan and they nearly killed me!” In his Autobiography, Wright quotes Burnham laying down for him the new post-White City reality:

The Fair is going to have a great influence in our country. The American people have seen the “Classics” on a grand scale for the first time. . . . I can see all America constructed along the lines of the Fair, in noble, dignified, Classic style. The great men of the day all feel that way about it – all of them.

Wright responded that Sullivan – Wright’s “Lieber Meister” – didn’t feel that way, and that Burnham’s old partner Root wouldn’t if he were still alive. Wright claimed the conversation took place as Burnham offered him an all-expenses-paid Beaux-Arts education in Paris and two years soaking up Rome, to be followed by a job with his firm. Wright declined and lived to portray Burnham as Mephistopheles and himself refusing to barter his self-reliant American soul, giving Ayn Rand material for the individualistic architect-protagonist Howard Roark in her novel, The Fountainhead.

Ironically, it was Sullivan, not Burnham, who had attended the École des Beaux-Arts. In his Autobiography of an Idea, Sullivan wrote of leaving it with the “conviction that this Great School, in its perfect flower of technique, lacked the profound animus of a primal inspiration.” He wrote that “beneath the law of the School lay a law which it ignored unsuspectingly or with fixed intention” which he “saw everywhere in the open of life.”  Sullivan institutionalized this law in his 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”:

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change.

Sullivan had the last word: his “form follows function” is so ingrained in modern consciousness it’s hard to believe architects only a century ago modeled train stations on Roman baths.

Burnham’s betting on the tycoons and their taste for classicism paid off. When he died in 1912 while touring Europe with his family, his firm was among the world’s largest. The uncompromising Sullivan is now regarded as one of the three or four greatest architects in American history for his pioneering modernism, easily overshadowing Burnham, but he took the harder road to its bitter end. He died in obscurity in 1924, alone, alcoholic, months behind in rent on his cheap hotel-room home, his last office a couple of student-intern draftsmen in borrowed space.

Burnham’s White City gave impetus not only to Beaux-Arts architecture but ushered in the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s and early Twentieth Century, with its goal of improving the unwashed masses then swelling American cities. The Movement’s proponents argued that architectural harmony, dignity, monumental grandeur and cohesive landscaping would inspire social order and civic virtue. Whitney Warren was a subscriber, stating his faith in “the moral effect of the cultivation of the aesthetic sense.” Ellis Island, where Boring & Tilton’s 1901 Beaux-Arts main building (above) adopted the thermal windows and triple-arch façade of the Baths of Caracalla, insured that this indoctrination began with the first American building immigrants entered. They would encounter reiterations of its edifying portal in the train stations of their destination cities and institutions like the New York Public Library and Detroit Institute of the Arts, where trios of arches marked passage into realms of culture and betterment. A poor excuse for social programs, the City Beautiful movement made great public relations for Beaux-Arts architects and helped justify huge expenditures on their projects.

New York’s Pennsylvania Station was one of the grandest American Beaux-Arts structures and exemplars of the City Beautiful movement. Designed by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White for the Pennsylvania Railroad, its roof-line was dominated by the upper enclosure of its central waiting room, modeled on that of the central hall of the Baths of Caracalla. When the station opened in 1910, it was the world’s fourth-largest building, the largest ever built at once, and a point of reference for all metropolitan stations to come. Penn Station was made possible by new electric train technology that allowed a rail tunnel under the Hudson River without the build-up of smoke that steam trains would have created. The Railroad’s passengers from Pennsylvania and the West could continue straight into Manhattan by train, rather than having to transfer to Hudson River ferries on the New Jersey side. This would soon be paralleled by construction of the electrified train line under the Detroit River which gave rise to Michigan Central Station. Both Penn Station and Michigan Central were problematically tethered by river tunnels to locations well away from their cities’ central business districts, where their presence failed to stimulate counted-upon development of more supportive surroundings.

As noted in Construction News in 1913, Guillaume Abel Blouet’s reconstruction drawing of the central hall of the Baths of Caracalla, published in 1828, prefigures Charles McKim’s even larger waiting room at Penn Station. According to his friend and biographer Charles Moore, McKim was fascinated by the Baths’ ruins on a trip to Rome they made in 1901, going so far as to hire “willing but astonished workmen to pose among the ruins to give scale and movement” as he sketched the scene, apparently for future reference in his own work. His firm’s involvement with the White City would have familiarized him with Atwood’s Terminal Station modeled on the Baths, and his Rome sketches would naturally have come to hand when he received the commission for Pennsylvania Station, where vast numbers of citizens would converge as Romans had in their great bath complexes. The Pennsylvania Railroad at first planned a hotel tower above Penn Station to generate revenue offsetting its cost. No fan of newfangled skyscrapers, McKim convinced the Railroad’s president, Alexander Cassatt, that a tower would compromise the integrity of a building modeled on an ancient archetype.

The New York Central Railroad’s brilliant chief engineer William Wilgus exploited the electrification of trains that made Penn Station possible in his own plans for Grand Central Terminal and Michigan Central Station. Wilgus’s formal education went no further than Buffalo Central High School. Unable to afford college, he apprenticed to a civil engineer for two years and took a correspondence course in drafting. By 34, his native, practical genius had made him Chief Engineer of the entire New York Central Railroad.

Wilgus seized on the opportunity electrification presented to build a train tunnel under the Detroit River, shortening routes from the East to Detroit and Chicago. He personally developed new technology for laying the tunnel that was Michigan Central Station’s reason for being. Detroit’s Station would share much of his innovative planning for Grand Central.

The New York Central’s train yard for its 42nd Street depot was at first north of populated areas. Smoke-belching steam trains required a single-level, open-air rail yard. With New York expanding around the yard, noise and pollution from steam engines prompted the city to ban them even as growing ridership demanded a larger station and more tracks.

Wilgus saw that electric trains could allow the station’s approaching tracks to be stacked two-high and covered with streets and buildings. He conceived a plan by which the cost of electrification and new infrastructure would be paid out of revenue from development of the buildings above, within the Railroad’s “air rights.” The 1903 illustration above from Scientific American shows Wilgus’s vision, called Terminal City, awaiting construction of blocks of buildings above the tracks, with the existing Grand Central Depot remaining in the background.

When Harper’s Weekly published this updated vision of Terminal City in 1907, Park Avenue’s mall was added, on axis with a new classical terminal. These developments showed the influence of the City Beautiful movement.

In 1903, a competition was held to select an architect for Grand Central Terminal. Reed & Stem won with the design entry above, besting far more prominent competitors McKim, Mead & White and Daniel Burnham. It didn’t hurt that Charles Reed was William Wilgus’s brother-in-law and benefitted from privileged conversations with him, although Reed & Stem brought legitimate railroad station experience and an ingenuity that would contribute to Grand Central’s greatness. The choice of the firm put the thinnest possible architectural glove on Wilgus’s controlling hand. Reed & Stem executed a design agenda he had proposed to the Railroad before the competition, in 1902, which included a revenue-generating office tower above the new Terminal, elevated roadways to carry Park Avenue traffic around it, a system of ramps to move large volumes of foot traffic through it, and a grand court over the train yard north of the Terminal. Despite its White City-based grand court, Wilgus’s wildly imaginative and comprehensive mixed-use vision was perhaps the Twentieth Century’s greatest single act of architectural invention. Reed & Stem’s competition entry fleshed out Wilgus’s outline, placing the Terminal and its tower at the head of a grand mall flanked by classical buildings meant to house the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Academy of Design, which would be built over the Railroad’s train yard. This mall was derivative of the White City’s Court of Honor to the point of being called the “Court of Honor.” A poor fit for Manhattan’s implacable street grid, Reed & Stem’s plan concept did not survive the further development of Grand Central’s design, but it would re-emerge as the basis of Michigan Central’s.

Daniel Burnham’s Grand Central competition entry doesn’t survive. It was defeated by Reed & Stem’s entry, featuring a less liquid version of his White City’s Court of Honor, above.

When Roosevelt Park was completed in 1922, its mall approaching Michigan Central Station strongly recalled Reed & Stem’s competition scheme for Grand Central. One can almost see its classical side-buildings willing themselves into being on either side of the mall to complete the Court of Honor ensemble. In 1910, three years before the Station’s opening, the Railroad had proposed that the city “buy some adjacent property and improve it for park purposes so that persons entering the city may at once have a favorable impression of Detroit.” The next year, the City Plan and Improvement Commission announced Detroit’s intention to acquire the land in front of the station to create a suitable approach to it. The Commission was headed by the same Charles Moore who had watched Charles McKim sketch hired extras at the Baths of Caracalla and edited Burnham and Bennett’s Plan of Chicago. A native of nearby Ypsilanti, Michigan, Moore also helped create Washington’s McMillan Commission – made up of White City alumna including Burnham and McKim – to expand on L’Enfant’s original Capital master plan along City Beautiful lines. Moore’s Detroit Commission hired Burnham and Bennett as consultants for what would become Roosevelt Park in February of 1912, bringing Reed & Stem’s Court of Honor solution full circle with the formula’s originator. Bennett completed the project after Burnham’s death four months later.

Where the park’s mall now stands, a 200-foot wide boulevard was first proposed, in one version extending to Woodward Avenue’s then-proposed Art Center which would come to include Detroit’s Main Library and Institute of Arts, Beaux-Arts, City Beautiful monuments. The boulevard idea gave way to plans for Roosevelt Park under pressure from the City Council, but the plots of parkland on either side of its mall might as well be placeholders for Court of Honor buildings to come. This could explain the city’s displacement of blocks of homes and businesses, and investment of $700,000, or about $100 million today, for the park. Detroit appears to have bought into speculation by the Railroad that Michigan Central would spark development which would close ranks with the station and make its tower a money-maker and architectural focus rather than an outlier. The complementary Beaux-Arts character of the buildings that would complete the ensemble would never have been in doubt, as the official future of the time was Burnham’s vision of “all America constructed along the lines of the Fair, in noble, dignified, Classic style.” This if-you-build-it-they-will-come faith would have subscribed to Burnham’s famous maxim:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die.

Daylight showing through the still-unfinished and unrented floors of Michigan Central’s tower in photos taken after the Park’s completion is a troubling sign that no one would be coming to the party, regardless of its plans or diagram. From today’s defeatist attitude toward grand projects, the audacity and optimism on display at Michigan Central is – for all its hubris – impressive.

William Wilgus wasn’t the only New York Central executive with an architect in the family. His boss, William K. Vanderbilt, was a close friend and cousin of the architect Whitney Warren, pictured above on Vanderbilt’s yacht, Tarantula. The society architect responsible for the New York Yacht Club’s fanciful galleon windows, Warren was of a different world altogether from Wilgus or Reed’s. MIT may have been a good enough school for a proletarian railroad architect like Reed, but Warren’s ambitions had him spend his entire twenties touring Europe and attending the École des Beaux-Arts. He then worked for McKim, Mead & White before starting his own practice and taking on a wealthy client, the lawyer Charles Wetmore, as his business partner. Warren could see what a huge impact Grand Central Terminal would have on the face of New York and lobbied his cousin to become its architect, even though Reed & Stem had already competed for and won the job. Vanderbilt acceded, forcing Reed & Stem into partnership with Warren & Wetmore as the Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal. Wilgus would hardly have been in a position to complain, given the taint of nepotism on his brother-in-law’s competition win. The selection of a compliant Reed & Stem had secured the execution of his original vision, keeping at bay the meddling of higher-profile competitors with bigger egos. He can’t have been happy seeing Warren & Wetmore come aboard. For Vanderbilt, Warren’s involvement would assure that his business projected the same level of Beaux-Arts connoisseurship as his homes.

From the start, Whitney Warren challenged fundamentals of Reed & Stem’s design – and Wilgus’s underlying concept – including its ramps, elevated roadway and especially its office tower. When Charles Reed died in 1911, Warren’s partner Charles Wetmore arranged a new contract cutting Reed & Stem out of involvement in Grand Central altogether. In Godfatheresque style, the deal was hatched by Wetmore and Railroad President William Newman on their train ride back to New York from Reed’s funeral. There was rancor in its terms, by which Reed & Stem would be denied payment and credit for work done. The effort was blocked by a lawsuit from Reed’s estate and his partner Allen Stem. Warren & Wetmore were forced to pay damages and Whitney Warren bore the humiliation of expulsion from the American Institute of Architects for breaching its code of professional conduct. None of this made a good case for “the moral effect of the cultivation of the aesthetic sense,” and in Wilgus’s eyes was just another example of “the moral turpitude which marked the course of Warren & Wetmore in their entire relation to the Grand Central Station architecture.”

Despite the collaborating architects’ animosity, a hugely successful project was completed. Differences in design direction were settled by formidable Railroad board members. In New York, these included J.P. Morgan, William Rockefeller and Lewis Cass Ledyard. Ledyard sat on the boards of both the New York Central Railroad and its minority partner, the New Haven Railroad, and was instrumental in retaining the elevated Park Avenue roadway around the Terminal. His brother, Henry Brockholst Ledyard, was chairman of the Michigan Central Railroad’s board and would have guided decisions on Michigan Central Station. Their grandfather had been a Michigan senator, their father a mayor of Detroit. In New York, the board members voted against building Grand Central with a tower, but in favor of including structural capacity to support one in the future. In Detroit, station and tower would be built at once.

On the opposite side of the Court of Honor in Reed & Stem’s winning competition entry, Grand Central’s south face would have been weakly expressed by a flush colonnade and subsumed into the office tower above it. The decision to treat this side as the rear façade may have been driven by the complicating viaduct, seen at right, and elevated roadway diverting Park Avenue around the Terminal, conceived by Wilgus.

Whitney Warren’s 1910 reworking of the Terminal dispensed with the office tower altogether, made its south face its main public façade, and removed the Park Avenue viaduct and raised roadway, allowing for a properly formal center entrance. This turned the Terminal around to face not only the established city and main thoroughfare of 42nd Street, but the sun, allowing the play of light and shadow its main façade’s classically molded features were made for. Warren gave his sketch’s triple arch motif a rationale rooted, like his education, in the classical past:

In ancient times the entrance to the city was through an opening in the walls or fortifications. This portal was usually decorated and elaborated into an Arc of Triumph, erected to some military or naval victory, or to the glory of some great personage. The city of today has no wall surrounding that may serve, by elaboration, as a pretext to such glorification, but none the less the gateway must exist, and in the case of New York and other cities it is through a tunnel which discharges the human flow in the very centre of the town.

Warren’s reference to “other cities” applies his portal reasoning to Detroit and the heroic arches of his design for Michigan Central.

In Warren & Wetmore’s developed Grand Central façade drawing, the Terminal still faces south, but the elevated roadway around it and the Park Avenue viaduct have been restored. Warren’s handwritten notes on the drawing show him raiding his own oeuvre for parts, a common practice for busy architects. The note at top left reads, “put on soffit decorated as in post office building,” referring to an earlier Terminal City building of his design. While neither the coffered post office soffit nor the recessed panels Whitney freehanded onto this drafted elevation drawing were adopted for the façade – to the good of its simple force – elements of Terminal City would be shared with Michigan Central Station.

Whitney Warren’s fingerprints are on the coffered archways of both Grand Central’s main concourse and Michigan Central’s waiting room. In addition to their similar chandeliers and benches, the stations both have interior wall coverings of artificial Caen stone above a marble wainscot. The Guastavino tile vaults of Michigan Central’s waiting room also famously form the ceiling of Grand Central’s Oyster Bar. The Spanish-immigrant architect Rafael Guastavino developed traditional Catalan vaulting into this structurally innovative system, which combines beauty with self-supporting strength. Guastavino vaults are a particular grace note of American Beaux-Arts architecture. At Michigan Central, they stand in for Grand Central’s turquoise celestial ceiling. On a par with the Guastavino vaulted ceiling of Ellis Island’s Great Hall, Michigan Central’s is one of the more impressive ever built. It appears heroically intact in ruin photos.

A rendering published in the April, 1911, issue of Munsey’s Magazine shows “the new Grand Central Station, with the great office-building which is ultimately to be erected over the Concourses,” reflecting the 1909 decision by the Railroad’s board to defer construction of the tower. In placing the future skyscraper above the Terminal’s stacked main and suburban concourses, Whitney Warren ensured that the waiting room would project forward under its own roof and signify the entire station, just as in his design for Michigan Central, and as Reed & Stem had done on the Court of Honor side of their Terminal design. Like his old employer Charles McKim at Penn Station, Warren would have objected to the dissonance of a modern skyscraper rising from a classical monument. One senses Warren, his hand forced, half-heartedly cutting and pasting Reed & Stem’s blocky competition-entry skyscraper with its mansard roof onto his self-contained station rather than making the tower his own. The awkward result would only make his case that the skyscraper didn’t belong. The tower was all Wilgus, a sail raised to catch money and drive the financial side of his grand plan, no skin off his Beaux-Arts-uneducated nose. The idea of skyscraper-as-financial-motor couldn’t have been more current. Cass Gilbert, architect of New York’s Woolworth Building – the world’s tallest skyscraper when it opened in the same year as Grand Central and Michigan Central – famously called the skyscraper “a machine that makes the land pay.”

In Detroit, the Railroad lacked the luxury of a large swath of already-owned land. Its new business model of building speculative real estate over its property appears to have had no other financially feasible outlet than a tower directly over the station. Apparently resigned to this, Warren made an honest effort to integrate them. The projecting waiting room expresses the entire station, the rest of which is contained in the one-story podium from which the tower rises. In contrast to Warren’s visually detachable tower in the Grand Central rendering, Michigan Central’s formal components interlock, and the tower is clearly Warren’s. Architectural Record wasn’t impressed, complaining that tower and station were “architecturally incongruous” and objecting that the casual observer “would never take the two parts of the station to be portions of one and the same building.” This criticism not only failed to acknowledge Warren’s challenge and achievement, but missed the bigger story that Michigan Central, child of the White City and Terminal City, was a new creature which had outgrown single-building ambitions and was operating at the scale of the sub-city.

While Warren & Wetmore’s Biltmore Hotel tower, at left above, was built across Vanderbilt Avenue from Grand Central, it was in a way built over it; the Terminal’s platform levels extend below the Avenue and formed part of the hotel’s basement. Passengers on arriving trains could take elevators from the Terminal’s Incoming Station Waiting Room directly up into the hotel, their baggage carried from train to hotel room by the Biltmore’s porters.

The Biltmore and its underground connection to Grand Central are seen at lower left in these Terminal City section drawings. Even this detail of Terminal City dates from Wilgus’s original vision, which included a luxury hotel so located and linked.

Both Michigan Central Station and Grand Central Terminal have been called predecessors of the megastructure, a term the architect Fumihiko Maki defined as “a large frame in which all the functions of a city or part of a city are housed.” From their earliest ancestors, like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio with its saddlebag dwellings and shops, megastructures have been built on transportation systems. The architectural historian Reyner Banham illustrated his 1976 book, Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, with these same Terminal City section drawings, and captioned them:

A memorable complex of interconnected concourses, hotels, office accommodation, shopping and railway facilities straddling two levels of tracks and interlaced with roads. Grand Central . . . is often cited by New Yorkers as proof that megastructure was invented in that city.

An anecdote from Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives by John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton makes its own case that Grand Central is a megastructure:

The Hotel Biltmore was located directly above the Terminal’s arrival tracks, so that it was possible for a person to book a room at the Biltmore, arrive at Grand Central, and take an elevator from the concourse level or walk up a short flight of stairs from the Incoming Train Station Waiting Room to the hotel lobby without going outside. In the 1940s a honeymooning couple had arrived at the Terminal to take a train to Niagara Falls when a violent storm struck the city, disrupting all service. The couple took a room in the Biltmore, had their meals at the Oyster Bar, shopped in the Terminal’s stores, and spent the weekend without once venturing out into the hostile weather.

Michigan Central had no hotel, but it did have a vast waiting room, reading room, smoking room, lunch counter, elegant restaurant with vaulted ceilings like the Oyster Bar’s, sleeping accommodations and offices for railroad personnel, stores and a barber shop adjoined by eight private dressing rooms equipped with bathtubs “to allow out-of-town patrons to change clothes and dress for evening appointments without going to a hotel,” according to the Railway Age Gazette. This last amenity would enable one to awaken in New York’s Biltmore Hotel, take a train to Detroit – perhaps sleeping overnight in a Pullman car – get a shave from a barber upon arrival, bathe and put on fresh clothes without going outside, all within an architecturally consistent user experience.

To fully appreciate Detroit’s Station as an extension of New York’s Terminal City, Whitney Warren’s Biltmore Hotel tower (left), not the bulky one he reluctantly designed above Grand Central, must be compared to Michigan Central’s tower (right). Their top floors were expressed as multi-story arcades under strong, bracketed cornices. In both, vertical emphasis was provided by narrow wings, the slim faces of which have a three-bay arcade above a projecting balcony. Both towers were clad in brick above high stone bases which projected forward to relate to their neighboring stone-clad stations.

In 1981, new owners stripped the Biltmore to its steel skeleton and sheathed it in shiny anonymity just as it was rumored to be a candidate for landmark designation and the protection it would bring, a loss that makes Michigan Central a rarer piece of Warren & Wetmore’s legacy.

Michigan Central Station was built by the George A. Fuller Company, builder of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and Plaza Hotel. The contractor also built New York’s iconic 1902 Flatiron Building by Daniel Burnham and much of his White City in Chicago. These buildings draped modern steel structural frames in historic forms originally determined by ancient technology. This masquerade worked well enough for low-rise construction approximating the scale of ancient or Renaissance prototypes, but poorly for skyscrapers, which had no adaptable historic precedent. The building type demanded a new style, which Louis Sullivan hit upon in his vertically attenuated Wainwright and Guaranty Buildings of the 1890s. Their influence is seen in the construction photo of Michigan Central Station above, where the tower cladding weaves continuous vertical piers over an implied horizontal underlay of darker window spandrels, marking an advancement on the Biltmore’s non-directional punched openings. The resulting lattice expresses the grid of the steel skeleton while accentuating the vertical in answer to Sullivan’s demand that a commercial tower “must be every inch a proud and soaring thing.” While Michigan Central’s tower shaft is without archaic reference, its base and top floors revert to classical form, clothing a linear steel frame in classical columns and the arches and vaults devised by ancient Romans confined to load-bearing masonry construction. Sullivan associated this denial with east-coast architects like Warren, writing:

The architects of Chicago welcomed the steel frame and did something with it. The architects of the East were appalled by it and could make no contribution to it.

Sullivan was himself appalled by what he saw as deference to the architecture of European empires. He would have seen in Michigan Central’s classical top and bottom not the gradually evolving “new and American style” Whitney Warren peddled, but what he called “the incongruous spectacle of the infant Democracy taking its mental nourishment at the withered breast of Despotism.”

The station at the base of Michigan Central’s tower shares Grand Central’s triple arches, but has its own roof-line with a distinct lineage. The well preserved upper structure of Rome’s Baths of Diocletian (left) is the model for hypothetical reconstructions of the central halls of Roman baths and basilicas, and via Beaux-Arts adoption, of Penn Station’s towering waiting room (right). The waiting room’s upper perimeter of arched windows and rippling gables retains the plainness of the Roman prototype.

In bringing this typically unadorned rooftop form to a street-level, front-and-center position as Michigan Central’s main entrance, Whitney Warren faced the challenge of giving it an appropriately dignified and ornamented presence. His solution made half-round thermal windows into arched portals and their simple gables into proper pediments, a transformation that mixed the metaphors of triumphal arch and temple portico.

Warren had placed monumental arches under a simplified pediment in his design of the bulkhead for New York’s Chelsea Piers, completed in 1910. These measured up to their role as city gates for liners like the Titanic, which was bound for Chelsea Piers when it sank, and the Lusitania, which made its final departure from them. The horizontal entablature that would normally complete the bottom of the pediment’s triangle is broken, leaving headroom for the arch below, an unusual arrangement that would appear again at Michigan Central Station. The bulkheads of Warren & Wetmore’s Chelsea Piers have gone the way of the firm’s Biltmore Hotel, further raising the stakes for Michigan Central’s preservation.

The 1889 Grand Prix de Rome-winning project of École des Beaux-Arts student Constant-Désiré Despradelle might have influenced Chelsea Piers’ pedimented arches and Michigan Central Station’s tripling of them. Despradelle’s design would have been familiar to Whitney Warren, who had begun studying at the École two years earlier.

Albert-Désiré Guilbert’s 1901 Chapelle-Notre-Dame-de-Consolation in Paris is credibly cited as a possible influence on Michigan Central in Jean Paul Carlhian and Margot M. Ellis’s 2014 book, Americans in Paris.

The great arched windows of both Grand Central and Michigan Central have one foot in the ancient past and one in the future. Absent of glass, Michigan Central’s arches clearly display inner and outer mullions spaced widely enough apart for a worker to pass through. They once held double walls of windows operable from catwalks in the space between them, like those at Grand Central.

Michigan Central’s doubled window walls anticipate by a century the high-performance, double-skin curtain walls of such recent buildings as Norman Foster’s 30 St. Mary Axe in London, Jean Nouvel’s Agbar Tower in Barcelona and Renzo Piano’s Jerome L. Greene Science Center (above) nearing completion in New York.

Glass-floored catwalks inside Grand Central’s windows allow access to linkage systems that open or close multiple windows at once and serve as corridors between railroad office levels stacked in the Terminal’s corners.

Operating wheels like this one at Grand Central are visible in historic photos of Michigan Central’s waiting room windows.

Apple’s logo takes national pride of place, centered on the major axis of Grand Central’s main concourse. Its location below one of the Terminal’s innovative habitable windows resonates with the company’s glass-architecture branding and legendary melding of technology and the humanities.

Patrons shop at Grand Central’s Apple Store unaware of the looming ghost of Rome’s Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (left). The spirit of the 1700 year-old marketplace reasserts itself in Grand Central’s adaptation from long-distance rail hub to retail center with food venues serving up to 10,000 lunches a day. Grand Central is also influenced, like Penn Station and Michigan Central, by Roman baths.

The Baths of Caracalla, which opened to the public in 216, are shown in a 1901 rendering by École des Beaux-Arts student Joseph-Eugène-Armand Duquesne. The room at bottom center is the frigidarium, or cold-water bath. Above it is the central hall, which originally had a high, vaulted, upper enclosure with thermal windows all around, rising above surrounding construction. The walls of the smaller rooms and apses around the central hall would have buttressed its roof vaults, resisting their tendency to spread and fall under their own weight. A deep, centered passageway through the zone of small rooms links the frigidarium to the central hall and prefigures the arrangement of Grand Central Terminal and Michigan Central Station. The openness of the Baths’ central hall to surrounding spaces on all sides made it a workable model for the stations and their dispersed circulation needs.

In Grand Central’s plan, the waiting room takes the place of the Bath’s frigidarium, and the larger main concourse that of the Bath’s central hall.

Michigan Central’s plan has a similar relationship of waiting room to central concourse, but emphasizes the waiting room, making it the larger space to be modeled on the Baths’ lofty central hall, and expressing it in the foreground of the station’s tower, which stands above the intermediate zone between waiting room and concourse. As at Grand Central, this zone contains support spaces and circulation and is penetrated by a centered passage like the one at the Baths of Caracalla. Michigan Central’s waiting room is over four-fifths the length and width of Grand Central’s main concourse, and a bit less than half its height. It’s width and height roughly match Ellis Island’s Great Hall, but it is about 30 feet longer.

Both Grand Central and Michigan Central have a formal, centered, front entrance and a side entrance for carriage and car passengers. Michigan Central’s carriage entrance was balanced on the opposite side by a covered streetcar entrance.

Until Grand Central’s Main Concourse received a second stair as an adjunct to its 1990s restoration, there was only one formal, public stair between the two stations. Reed & Stem’s broad, gently sloping ramps are one of Grand Central’s hallmarks, seamlessly connecting floor levels and separating traffic streams. Michigan Central’s ramp from its concourse down to platform level is a capacious 76 feet wide. The Railway Age Gazette wrote of Michigan Central: “The use of ramps to connect different levels of the design is typical of the entire station. There are no steps to be climbed by passengers except those from the [train shed's pedestrian] subway to the station platforms, which could not be avoided.”

Reed & Stem’s concern for traffic flow and seamless connection to city transit was evident in Michigan Central’s canopied link to Detroit’s streetcar system, sweeping across the foreground in the historic photo above. Architecture and Building wrote of Michigan Central’s streetcar link: “It is expected that most of the incoming passengers will use this exit, passing directly from the train shed . . . without conflicting with passengers going to their trains.”

This postcard previewing Grand Central – before finalization of its main concourse ceiling design – dramatized how radically Grand Central’s stacked thoroughfares would be interwoven with the city. Sidewalks appear to flow inside and down to the main and lower suburban concourse on Reed & Stem’s broad ramps, by which the entire terminal can be navigated, as at Michigan Central Station. A 1913 New York Times article on Grand Central titled “First Great Stairless Railway Station” noted that travelers could “go from the point where the red cross-town [street]car dropped them at Forty-second Street straight to their waiting berth in the Pullman, one level below the street, without finding a single step to descend.” Reed & Stem applied the care engineers gave track grades to the Terminal’s foot traffic. In 1912, the year before Grand Central opened, the New York Tribune wrote of its design process:

There is a whole story in the ramps, how the terminal engineers, not satisfied with theoretical calculations, built experimental ramps at various slopes and studied thereon the gait and gasping limit of lean men with heavy suitcases, fat men without other burden than their flesh, women with babies, school children with books, and all other types of travellers. Upon the data thus obtained they were able to construct ramps truly scientific and seductively sloped.

To a Beaux-Arts architect like Whitney Warren, for whom architecture was about procession and stairs were an opportunity to invoke ceremonial ascent, Reed & Stem’s ramps must have seemed like humanity reduced to hydraulics.

This fantasy by the artist William Robinson Leigh was published in the November, 1908, issue of The Cosmopolitan magazine, illustrating a speculative article on the future by the inventor and polymath, Hudson Maxim. Its fluid layers of transportation laced through buildings was likely influenced by contemporary graphic and written descriptions of Grand Central. The Terminal’s advances were quickly extrapolated from Scientific American to science fiction. Maxim’s article predicted: “Instead of individual buildings, disunited and independent in architecture, that great city of the future will be as one enormous edifice.” The description could equally be a forward projection of the White City’s unity or Terminal City’s megastructural self-sufficiency. If the future suggested by Grand Central didn’t arrive as depicted in Leigh’s rendering, it’s to be found in the continuously ramped floors of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 Guggenheim Museum and Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 Seattle Central Library; in Gensler’s design for Shanghai Tower, China’s soon-to-open tallest building, billed as a mini-city within a city, its public spaces and gardens inserted within the 2,073-foot skyscraper’s insulating double glass skin.

Cutaway views of Grand Central and visions like Leigh’s may well have shaped the future city of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. Lang said the film was inspired by his first glimpse of New York from a ship near Ellis Island at night. He wouldn’t have been the only newcomer distracted from Ellis Island’s City Beautiful civics lesson by the world’s most futuristic city.

A monument built for the ages, the privately built and expensively maintained Penn Station was torn down only 53 years after its completion, as the Pennsylvania Railroad found itself unable to compete with car and plane travel subsidized by government built and owned airports and expressways. The rarity and irreplaceability of what was lost still rankles. As Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, “we can never again afford a nine-acre structure of superbly detailed travertine, any more than we could build one of solid gold.” Organized opposition to Penn Station’s 1963 demolition laid the groundwork for America’s preservation movement. According to its website, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was created in 1965 “in response to the mounting losses of historically significant buildings in New York City, most notably Pennsylvania Station.” The New York Central Railroad had begun studying replacement of Grand Central with an office tower as early as 1954, making its protection a priority the new Commission addressed by designating the Terminal a landmark in 1967. Grand Central’s resulting preservation may be the greatest single consolation for Penn Station’s loss.

The greatest challenge to the American preservation movement occurred in 1967-69, when Grand Central’s cash-strapped owner, the newly consolidated Penn Central Railroad, proposed a succession of office tower additions designed by the architect Marcel Breuer. These were positioned well forward of the location envisioned and prepared for at the time of the Terminal’s construction, to allow distance from the Pan Am Building which had been completed just north of the Terminal in 1963. Breuer’s schemes went from bad to worse, eventually consuming the Terminal’s façade and waiting room. They were all duly rejected by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Railroad sued, claiming the Commission had taken its property for public use without just compensation. The case was finally settled in a 1978 Supreme Court decision, finding for the Commission.

While market demand for space above them destroyed Penn Station and nearly ruined Grand Central, only five of Michigan Central’s fifteen office tower floors were ever put to use. The rest were left unpartitioned and continue to let daylight through, contributing to the Station’s famously forsaken image. Detroit’s crisis has left Michigan Central Station high and dry in a receding city forced to prioritize demolition of abandoned buildings. Manhattan’s boom has driven a recent upzoning of the blocks around Grand Central which will ring it with taller-than-ever-imagined development and leave it a monument at the bottom of a well. Immediately across Vanderbilt Avenue, One Vanderbilt, a new 1414-foot tall tower is set to replace Warren & Wetmore’s more sympathetically-scaled 51 East 42nd Street, built as part of Terminal City.

Michigan Central Station closed in 1988, when Amtrak stopped using it. The triple arches of Amtrak’s new Detroit station only serve to parody Whitney Warren’s triumphal city gate metaphor.  The building summons the bitterest remarks on Penn Station’s demise, from Ada Louise Huxtable’s “we want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture,” to Vincent Scully’s, “one entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

Grand Central’s waiting room is undiminished by the loss of a purpose gone the way of long-distance train travel. In the early 1960s, plans were drawn up to fill it with tiers of bowling alleys, an unrealized fate as incongruous as its actual one in the following decades of semi-official homeless shelter. When not rented out for exhibits or events at $25,000 a day, the waiting room still offers the “dignified simplicity” sought by its architects, transporting visitors from Midtown’s tumult into a realm of calm timelessness. History had long taught the futility of building eternal monuments – as might have occurred to Charles McKim when forced to populate the Baths of Caracalla with hirelings – but it took particular arrogance and folly to build for the ages at a time of accelerating technological change and unpredictability; flaws to which we owe a great debt. The exalted space of Roman baths and American train stations never did serve a practical purpose. As the great American architect Louis Kahn said:

If you look at the Baths of Caracalla – the ceiling swells a hundred and fifty feet high. It was a marvelous realization on the part of the Romans to build such a space. It goes beyond function.

Kahn’s intimation of an architectural shadow agenda inspired another of his statements, in which the human instinct to build is projected onto the construction itself:

A building rising from its foundation is eager to exist. It still doesn’t have to serve its intended use. Its spirit of wanting to be is impatient and high. . . . A building built is a building in bondage of use. . . . A building that has become a ruin is again free of the bondage of use.

Preservationism stands on the recognition that useless architecture can be its own reason for being.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis joined the fight to save Grand Central Terminal. Her involvement risked stigmatizing preservation as a hobby of the privileged, but her stature and influence were instrumental to the campaign’s success. She also brought awareness of a value beyond function, writing:

Great civilizations of the past recognized that their citizens had aesthetic needs, that great architecture gave respite and nobility to their daily lives. . . . Their places of assembly, worship, ceremony or arrival and departure were not merely functional but spoke to the dignity of man.

Landmarking Michigan Central Station may seem like the least of Detroit’s priorities, but New York was focused on survival in the 1970s and considered bankruptcy in 1975, the year the photo above was taken. No one at the time could have imagined the city New York has become or Grand Central’s vital place in it.

Even form-follows-function Louis Sullivan wrote that the architect must “heed the imperative voice of emotion,” as he did by emphasizing his skyscrapers’ loftiness and sometimes body-tattooing them with ornament. A later building in his career, the Van Allen Store in Clinton, Iowa, began construction the year Grand Central and Michigan Central were completed, but it could belong to another age. Its modest size and small-town setting speak of Sullivan’s marginalization. The building’s decoration is assiduously non-classical, celebrating nature as a model for organic creation. The crisp rectangular geometry of its all-American steel frame is honestly expressed and its potential freely explored. Steel’s slim strength is showcased in the glassy first floor above which the block of its upper stories seems to float, inviting customers and the ground plane to sweep in. There’s none of Whitney Warren’s “we can’t invent a new style” here. Sullivan took direct aim at the evolutionary approach of Warren and his fellow Paris men – which persists among lucratively historicizing architects to this day – in his 1900 address to the Architectural League of America:

If anyone tells you that it is impossible within a lifetime to develop and perfect a complete individuality of expression, a well-ripened and perfected personal style, tell him that you know better and that you will prove it by your lives.

It’s impressive to see Sullivan still intent on proving it after so much cost to his own life, anticipating the International Style from his Iowa wilderness. The first two floors of his Van Allen Store store might be Le Corbusier’s template for that most iconic of modern houses, the Villa Savoye, completed in 1931. As Lewis Mumford wrote, Sullivan “led the way into the promised land, only to perish in solitude before the caravan could catch up to him.” To Sullivan, the White City’s Beaux-Arts classicism infected the democratic American ideal of personal choice with the tyranny of “the Feudal Idea.” He wrote in his Autobiography:

. . . the virus of the World’s Fair, after a period of incubation in the architectural profession and the population at large, especially the influential, began to show unmistakable signs in the nature of the contagion. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which spread westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.

In this view, Michigan Central is a Midwestern outpost of an east-coast empire in Europe’s shadow. From the perspective of our day’s crushing banality, the Station’s rare and unrepeatable grandeur – like that of the Baths of Caracalla – is no less valuable for its imperial source. What Sullivan might have built but for the White City is as lost as Penn Station and Whitney Warren’s Chelsea Piers and Biltmore Hotel. For all this cost, America is owed a protected Michigan Central Station and the chance to someday restore the last part of Grand Central Terminal.

Image credits:

Michigan Central Station waiting room – Copyright: Jeremy Blakeslee www.jeremyblakeslee.org/photography (CC BY 3.0)

Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse - author

Michigan Central Station Rendering – Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Grand Central Terminal Rendering – MTA/Metro-North Collection

Michigan Central Station photo – Albert duce (CC BY-SA 3.0), altered by author

Marble House photo: Daderot (SA BY 3.0), altered by author

White City Administration Building – The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition by Halsey C. Ives, N.D. Thompson Publishing Co., 1893

Baths of Caracalla photo - author

Baths of Caracalla drawing – Entretiens sur l’architecture by Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, London, 1877-1881

World’s Columbian Exposition, Terminal Station - Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson & Burnham Archives: Archival Image Collection

Birds-Eye View of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893 – Library of Congress

Daniel Burnham portrait photoWikipedia biography page, public domain

Plan of Chicago illustrationPlan of Chicago by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, the Commercial Club, Chicago, 1909

Ellis Island Main Building – author

Pennsylvania Station exterior photo – Pennsylvania State Archives

Guillaume Abel Blouet reconstruction of the Baths of CaracallaBade- und Schwimm-Anstalten, by Felix Genzmer, Stuttgart, 1899

Pennsylvania Station waiting room – Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

William Wilgus portrait photo – The Technical World magazine, February, 1905

Old Grand Central Station and train yards, November 19, 1906 – MTA/Metro-North Collection

Park Avenue and cross streets above depressed old Grand Central Station train yardScientific American, January 17, 1903

Park Avenue and cross streets above depressed old Grand Central Station train yard – Harper’s Weekly, January 12, 1907

Reed & Stem Architects’ Grand Central Terminal “Court of Honor” – New York Public Library

World’s Columbian Exposition Court of Honor – Chicago Historical Society

Michigan Central Station and Roosevelt Park - Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Whitney Warren portrait photo – Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

New York Yacht Club window – author

Reed & Stem Architects’ Grand Central Terminal tower – New York Public Library

Whitney Warren’s 1910 Grand Central Terminal sketch – Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Grand Central Terminal elevation drawing with Whitney Warren’s handwritten notes – New-York Historical Society

Grand Central Terminal main concourse ceiling photo – author

Michigan Central Station main waiting room photo - Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Grand Central Terminal rendering with towerMunsey’s Magazine, April, 1911

Michigan Central Station exterior photoDetroit Free Press Archives

Perspective view of Grand Central Terminal and Biltmore Hotel tower – Architecture and Building, April, 1913

Terminal City section drawings – Engineering News, May 1, 1913

Biltmore Hotel photo – Byron Collection, Museum of the City of New York

Michigan Central Station partial exterior photo – author

Michigan Central Station under construction – Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Baths of Diocletian exterior photoAnthony Majanlahtl (CC BY 2.0), altered by author

Pennsylvania Station detail photo – Pennsylvania State Archives

Michigan Central Station exterior photo - Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Chelsea Piers photo – Warren & Wetmore Collection, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

Constant-Désiré Despradelle project rendering - from Americans in Paris by Jean Paul Carlhian and Margot M. Ellis, Rizzoli, 2014

Chapelle-Notre-Dame-de-Consolation photoMbzt (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Michigan Central Station pediment photo; Michigan Central Station window photo; Jerome L. Greene Center photo; Jerome L. greene Center detail phot; Grand Central Terminal window walkway photo; Grand Central Terminal window operator wheel photo; Grand Central Terminal interior photo with Apple Store sign; Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine photo; Grand Central Terminal Apple Store photo – author

Baths of Caracalla plan – from Americans in Paris by Jean Paul Carlhian and Margot M. Ellis, Rizzoli, 2014

Grand Central Terminal floor plan – Wikipedia, citing 1939 publication

Michigan Central Station floor plan – Railway Age Gazette, January 9, 1914

Michigan Central Station exterior with streetcar – L.S. Glover, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Grand Central Terminal cutaway view – circa 1912 postcard

William Robinson Leigh Great City of the Future illustration – The Cosmopolitan, November, 1908

Metropolis film still – Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, 1927

Pennsylvania Station demolition photo – New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, MAS photo archives

Breuer Grand Central Terminal tower renderings – Marcel Breuer and Associates

Michigan Central Station distant exterior photo; Detroit Amtrak Station; Grand Central Terminal waiting room photo – author

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis photo – Mel Finkelstein, New York Daily News, 1975

Van Allen Store photo – Library of Congress

 

 

 

 

Detroit: City of the Future

August 14th, 2014 by admin

Henry Ford poses in the first car he made. In his 1922 autobiography, he wrote: “Industry will decentralize. There is no city that would be rebuilt as it is, were it destroyed – which fact is in itself a confession of our real estimate of cities. . . . The modern city has been prodigal, it is today bankrupt, and tomorrow it will cease to be.” At the time, Ford was building his vast River Rouge plant miles outside Detroit. Read the rest of this entry »

Saving the Seamen’s House YMCA

August 23rd, 2013 by admin

 

Designed as a waterfront YMCA for sailors, Seamen’s House has scores of multi-colored terra cotta highlights. Stylized ships’ prows, waves, and Jazz Age riffs on the YMCA’s triangle logo are deployed for maximum effect, lighting up the building’s roof line and window heads. They are an integral part of the building’s composition, and their cleaning and minimal restoration would do much to revitalize a work by great Art Deco designers. Heavy-framed, rusty security screens tell of the building’s more recent use as a prison. Their removal would also greatly improve the appeal of this easily overlooked building.

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Looking Over the Bike Share Gift Horse

July 12th, 2013 by admin

Central Park users rub shoulders with cars on the main loop road until 7PM on weekdays, even though Olmsted and Vaux’s 1857 park design is predicated on sunken transverse roads to block out the sight and sound of street traffic. It’s hard to say what’s worse; the exhaust sucked into lungs of joggers or the nullification of a planned and celebrated refuge from the streets. The deference to cars is striking, given that most New Yorkers don’t own one and under a quarter of Manhattan households do.

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Mythical Lower Manhattan, Part 2

May 6th, 2013 by admin

The 2002 World Trade Center competition entry by the team of architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl is shown in its finished form at left, and in an earlier study by Holl, at right. The images are juxtaposed as they appear in Holl’s book, Urbanisms. The finished scheme has the regimentation of Upper Manhattan’s street grid while the study suggests Lower Manhattan’s off-kilter intersections. (One legend has it that the slang meaning of “square” comes from Greenwich Village’s bohemian heyday, when free thinkers lived on its unaligned streets and conformists on uptown’s rectangular blocks.) Holl asserts that the distinction mattered to him, in his book Architecture Spoken:

I had been working on a vision called Parallax Towers years before, in which I envisioned horizontal linkage of vertical thin towers. The notion of these as hybrid buildings, meaning they had offices, living, commercial aspects and they were linked in section, orchestrating what is normally known as a vertical typology into a horizontal one. The flexibility of that idea would work for the program we were given for this new project. Peter Eisenman and I fought until the end on how the horizontals should meet the verticals. I always wanted them to move, as in my original project from the early nineties, but he wanted them straight. The compromise was to keep them straight.

Despite this lost battle, Holl would speak proudly of the end result in a lecture at SCI-Arc on September 11, 2003, and bitterly reject architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s description of its “icy rationality.” Nonetheless, his earlier resistance to the squared-off default, in what he calls “endless and enormously confrontational meetings,” is telling.    Read the rest of this entry »

Mythical Lower Manhattan, Part 1 – In Memory of Lebbeus Woods

January 1st, 2013 by admin

The Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan took this helicopter photo of Downtown blacked-out by Hurricane Sandy. A memorable New York Magazine cover, it resonates with a century-old genre; views of a transformed Lower Manhattan from above New York Harbor.

  

Lebbeus Woods died on October 30th, as Sandy left his downtown neighborhood in the darkness captured by Baan’s photo. His 1999 drawing, Lower Manhattan, shows the Hudson and East Rivers dammed, draining the harbor. “The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed,” Woods told BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh in an interview, continuing:

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lampur or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. . . . I wanted to suggest that Lower Manhattan – not lower downtown, but lower in the sense of below the city – could form a new relationship with the planet.

So it was a romantic idea – and the drawing is very conceptual in that sense.

But the exposure of the rock base, or the underground condition of the city, completely changes the scale relationship between the city and its environment. It’s peeling back the surface to see what the planetary reality is. And the new scale relationship is not about huge blockbuster buildings; it’s not about towers and skyscrapers. It’s about the relationship of the relatively small human scratchings on the surface of the earth compared to the earth itself.

Woods’ follows long traditions in both his speculation on the future of Lower Manhattan and his use of it as a scale reference. His image is prescient in omitting the World Trade Center towers. They are probably left out, along with the Manhattan Bridge, in the interest of romantic effect. Woods says he worked from aerial photographs. Some of these may have predated the World Trade Center and other blocky buildings he also left out. He’d have had plenty to choose from, given the historic popularity of the subject and viewpoint.

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Statue of Liberty or Dipstick of the Apocalypse?

December 27th, 2012 by admin

This image by Owen Freeman illustrated last month’s New York Times post-Sandy op-ed by James Atlas, “Is This the End?” Freeman says in his blog that it was commissioned by Times Art Director Erich Nagler, who “proposed an underwater, Atlantis-type view of New York City.” Freeman shows working sketches for the Statue image as well as underwater views of Grand Central Terminal and a city intersection with skyscrapers. The Times’ selection of his Statue of Liberty image says something about what rattles us most. It also extends a long tradition of using the statue as a post-apocalyptic milestone, one with roots pre-dating the statue itself.

The Statue of Liberty is seen even farther submerged by global warming, but from above the water line, in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 Science Fiction film, A.I. As a sci-fi film device, this image has a clear heritage . . .

Franklin J. Shaffner’s 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, ends with this visual kicker, revealing that – spoiler alert! – the planet ruled by apes is no less than our own future earth, turned into a vast desert by man himself. Same recipe as now, but with sand substituted for water.

Planet of the Apes may have been the first film to show a ruined Statue of Liberty, but the idea has a longer history in print, as documented by the surely pseudonymous Joachim Boaz in his blog Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. He displays no fewer than six pulp science fiction covers showing the statue underwater, buried in desert sand, and discovered by spacemen or post-apocalyptic primitives. Selected above are, left to right, a 1941 magazine cover by Hubert Rogers, a 1953 magazine cover by Alex Schomburg and a 1959 novel cover by an illustrator known only as Blanchard.  These might be assumed to reflect Cold War insecurity, except for the Astounding Science Fiction cover from pre-Bomb 1941, which shows an overgrown statue approached by raft-borne throwbacks. Clearly, there’s something older at work.

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1817 draft of Ozymandias, from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, includes squiggles that might be a premonition of a certain green gown. It reads:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The statue’s arrogance might throw one off the scent, but the use of a shattered human form as a cultural momento mori undeniably sets the stage for our 71 year-old ruined-liberty trope. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” kicks the ladder from under whoever’s currently on the top rung. Shelley, influenced by the revolutionary writings of Thomas Paine, is thought to have been targeting the oppressive monarchy of George III.

Shelley’s poem resulted from a sonnet-writing competition with his friend Horace Smith in which both would take as their subject a ruined statue of Ramses II (photo: Mutjaba Chohan). It had recently been acquired by the British Museum and was then bound for London. Smith’s poem was originally also called Ozymandias, as the Egyptian Pharaoh was known in Greek sources. The Guardian published Shelley’s entry on January 11, 1818, and Smith’s on February 1, 1818. Smith’s version is a more direct warning to his world-dominating homeland:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,

Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws

The only shadow that the Desert knows.

“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,

“The King of kings: this mighty city shows

The wonders of my hand.” The city’s gone!

Naught but the leg remaining to disclose

The sight of that forgotten Babylon.

We wonder, and some hunter may express

Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness

Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,

He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess

What wonderful, but unrecorded, race

Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Smith is no Shelley, but in depicting a future regression of the human race he makes an astonishing leap into modern sci-fi territory, well trod from The Road Warrior to The Road. Sci-fi has always plundered more from the arts than the sciences, as witnessed by the derivation of Hollywood’s Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s novel, published the same year as her husband’s Ozymandias.

What made the Times prefer Owen Freeman’s submerged Statue of Liberty over his underwater Grand Central? It pulls a bigger rug out from under us as an iconic symbol of America and our values, but it has another kind of potency that relates to the sacredness of the human form. Early architects believed God made man in his own image, dignifying classical architecture’s basis in the human body. Imprinted with our own form, classical architecture would no doubt retain its power for us if we learned that God looked like a duck, because the human body is also imprinted on our psyche from day one. This is why so few things disturb us as much as the visible destruction of the body, why decapitation seems more horrible than mere death. Grand Central’s classical forms may be based on the body, but the Statue of Liberty is the body. An assault on it isn’t just symbolic, but ad hominum in a way our bodies register. We identify with the peril of chin-lapping waves.  Thank the personal violence of Shelley’s “trunkless legs of stone” and “shattered visage.” Never mind that the Statue of Liberty stands for the opposite of tyranny; the subversive power and romantic appeal of Shelley’s colossal ruin irresistibly fired the imagination as soon as America brought its ready-made colossus to the center of the world stage. Old Ozymandias was just rubbing his hands in the wings.

The Chelsea Market Deal, brought to you by ULURP

November 5th, 2012 by admin

 

From right to left, Amanda Burden, Christine Quinn, Mayor Bloomberg and Boss Tweed reprise Thomas Nast’s ring of passed blame around Chelsea Market in a flyer that’s started appearing on Chelsea streets.

  

On October 19th, I and others met with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to discuss Jamestown Properties’ proposed rezoning of Chelsea Market, aimed at adding over a quarter-million square feet of office space to the historic complex. I twice asked Speaker Quinn just how she saw the proposal making sense on zoning basics of use, bulk or environmental impact. She would only say that she hadn’t completed her review, but then still had no answer when we met six days later, just before the City Council’s land-use committee voted to support the proposal, surely with Quinn’s endorsement. Only Speaker Quinn could have stopped the project, but she advanced it in the face of overwhelming community resistance and without being able to say how it was good zoning.

If Speaker Quinn is already beholden to real estate interests in her expected run for mayor next year, she promises to bring to that office a fourth term of the Bloomberg administration’s worst feature; a pro-development, anti-oversight bias. In this New York, real estate runs politics and deals trump zoning. In a New York Times article on the Council’s Chelsea Market vote, David Chen wrote that in remaining “conspicuously quiet about the issue” and failing even to attend a public hearing on it, Quinn “left little doubt . . . that she had been the driving force behind the deal.” It’s pretty official when the Times calls it a deal. Read the rest of this entry »

Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies

October 19th, 2012 by admin

A Daily News article on Michael Bolla’s restoration of 436 West 20th Street said “the house was raised 8 inches to become more level.” It appears to be tied to the house next door by a shared party wall. If Bolla raised his house without considering this, it might explain his house’s cracked and sloping façade.  

 

436 West 20th Street, the 1835 Chelsea row house that real estate broker Michael Bolla “restored” and marketed as Chelsea Mansion is for sale. When ArchiTakes first reported on the project’s violations, Bolla swore to a judge that he’d been defamed and trumpeted legal action aimed at me in an obliging press. The press failed to report that he never sued.

ArchiTakes finds Bolla’s row house still has issues at the Department of Buildings that any potential buyer should know about. Drawings have been filed to answer the Department’s objections from an April 7, 2010, audit, but construction hasn’t been modified to match these drawings. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the City Building Google a High Line Skybox?

July 5th, 2012 by admin

Shown in gold at top are Jamestown Properties’ proposed additions to Chelsea Market: 90,000 square feet at Ninth Avenue and 240,000 square feet at Tenth Avenue above the High Line, which is shown in green. Below is what Jamestown’s proposal might look like, give or take a floor, if it were really about needed office space and not about raiding the High Line’s light, air and sky views. Call it Scheme B. Either option would require a zoning change to increase Chelsea Market’s floor area by 330,000 square feet, but Jamestown’s would need a zoning change that would perversely allow construction within the footprint of a public park. City approval of Jamestown’s proposal is nonetheless thought to be a done deal. Read the rest of this entry »

High Noon at Chelsea Market

March 20th, 2012 by admin

 

The west end of Chelsea Market’s concourse incorporates the historic Nabisco complex’s train shed. About eighty feet of its distinctive clerestory window strip would be blocked by courtyard infill from Jamestown Properties’ proposed addition of a third of a million square feet of office space above it and the High Line. Jamestown’s proposal requires a zoning change that would only hurt Chelsea Market, the High Line and the community. The proposal is slated for city certification on March 26th. While this would technically begin the city’s review process, experience says certification would all but guarantee an addition to Chelsea Market, almost certainly including the cash-cow-in-the-sky office addition above the High Line that’s driving everything. By the time a project is certified, back-room handshakes have typically secured its ultimate approval. The subsequent “review process” merely affords limited opportunities for damage control and concession-seeking by the community.

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Jamestown’s Shady Plan for Chelsea Market

November 22nd, 2011 by admin

Last Sunday’s sunshine made the High Line’s “Tenth Avenue Square” a pleasant place to relax, even in late November. The popular grandstand feature would be cast into shadow at the hour this photo was taken if Jamestown Properties builds its planned office tower over Chelsea Market. The effect would be particularly damaging to a park highlight meant for lingering rather than strolling. Read the rest of this entry »

Last Call for Jaume Plensa’s “Echo”

August 28th, 2011 by admin

Echo, a belief-defying work by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa (JOW’-meh PLEHN’-sah) remains on view for only two more weeks, through September 11th. Like Plensa’s own Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka The Bean), both in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Echo is both art and crowd-pleasing phenomenon. Sadly, unlike those works, Echo is not a permanent installation. If you’re a sympathetic ArchiTakes reader with adequate funds, please buy Echo and donate her to the City. If you haven’t seen this sculpture yet, and even if you don’t have the purchase price, do make it to Madison Square Park and take in this wonder before it vanishes back into whatever dimension it came from. Echo isn’t Plensa’s first giant, elongated female head, but it’s hard to believe she wasn’t conceived specifically for the park, with its trees, which she surreally dwarfs, and surrounding skyscrapers, whose vertical attenuation she echos. The sculpture is part of Mad. Sq. Art’s rotating exhibit series. Its accompanying plaque reads: “Inspired by the myth of the Greek nymph Echo, Plensa’s sculpture depicts the artist’s nine-year old neighbor in Barcelona, lost in a state of thoughts and dreams. Standing 44-feet tall at the center of Madison Square Park’s expansive Oval Lawn, Echo’s towering stature and white marble-dusted surface harmoniously reflect the historic limestone buildings that surround the park. Both monumental in size and inviting in subject, the peaceful visage of Echo creates a tranquil and introspective atmosphere amid the cacophony of central Manhattan.” Read the rest of this entry »

Midtown Undone

July 20th, 2011 by admin

Photographed last week, Midtown Plaza’s piecemeal demolition brings the look of a ship breaking yard to the skyline of Rochester, New York. The image may be bracing to those who remember the project’s promise of urban renewal when it was completed in 1962, to the design of urban planner Victor Gruen. According to the Wikipedia entry on Midtown, “Gruen was at the height of his influence when Midtown was completed and the project attracted international attention, including a nationally televised feature report on NBC-TV’s Huntley-Brinkley newscast the night of its opening in April 1962. City officials and planners from around the globe came to see Gruen’s solution to the mid-century urban crisis. Midtown won several design awards.”

A Jewish refugee from Nazi occupied Vienna, Gruen said he arrived in America with “an architectural degree, eight dollars, and no English.” He went from designing Fifth Avenue boutiques to a role as one of America’s premier urban planners. Melding his insights into consumer psychology with a conviction that retail spaces could create communities, Gruen invented the shopping mall. He strove to bring the urbanity of his native Vienna and Europe to America, claiming the Milan Galleria was his model for the mall. In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker that “Victor Gruen may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century” for his creation of the pervasive archetype. Gruen’s impact continues to be registered. Gladwell’s appraisal followed on the publication of Jeffrey Hardwick’s 2004 book, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. A decade ago, the media theorist and concept-coiner Douglas Rushkoff began popularizing the Gruen Transfer, also known as the Gruen Effect, by which shoppers are intentionally disoriented and distracted by the retail environment, so they’ll lose focus and succumb to impulse buying. Since 2008, The Gruen Transfer has been the title of an Australian TV series on advertising. In 2009, Anette Baldauf and Katharina Weingartner released the documentary, The Gruen Effect: Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall.

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Losing Ground at Chelsea Square

June 20th, 2011 by admin

 

Architect Charles C. Haight modeled the General Theological Seminary’s bell tower on Magdalen College’s, Oxford. This view of it from Tenth Avenue and 20th Street would be blocked by Beyer Blinder Belle’s proposed addition to the Seminary’s 1836 West Building. The Seminary’s mid-block grounds were designed to complement set-back garden fronts and distinguished row houses across 20th Street. Together they make one of New York’s best blocks and form the heart of the Chelsea Historic District. The addition will go before a public hearing of the Landmarks Preservation Commission at 11 AM tomorrow, June 21st.

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What New Zoning Could Mean for Chelsea Market

May 31st, 2011 by admin

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has denied a recent community request to add the Chelsea Market block to the existing Gansevoort Market Historic District. In a May 19th response to the Request for Evaluation, the Commission’s Director of Research wrote that “the properties do not appear to meet the criteria for designation . . . in part due to the fact that this block does not have a strong connection to the existing Gansevoort Market Historic District, either geographically or historically.”

This was a second attempt to have the block included in the City designated historic district. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation had earlier gotten the complex listed as part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, but wasn’t able to convince the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to include it in its own smaller version of the district that the City designated in 2003. The distinction between City versus State and National designation is critical. Lacking City protection, Chelsea Market could be legally demolished by a private owner despite its State and National Register status, which only regulates publicly sponsored alterations. The website of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation states: “There are no restrictions placed on private owners of registered properties. Private property owners may sell, alter or dispose of their property as they wish.” Read the rest of this entry »