In honor of the opening of Grand Central Terminal in 1913, I'm posting in full two essays from Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. The first is on the sculpture of Cornelius Vanderbilt that stands in front of the Terminal, at the level of the Park Avenue Viaduct; the second (below) is on the enormous sculpture that's the focal point of the same facade: Hermes or Glory of Commerce.
For more on railroads in New York and the United States, see the essays in Outdoor Monuments on Peter Cooper (who built the first successful steam locomotive in the United States), Alexander Lyman Holley (who introduced mass-production of steel to the United States), and Samuel Rea (who was in charge of the Pennsylvania Railroad when the original Pennsylvania Station was built).
Numbers in parentheses in the text below refer to other essays in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan.
The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistles shrieking.
All night there isn't a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming
But I see its cinders red on the sky
And hear its engine steaming.
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take
No matter where it's going.
-- Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1921
Did you ever wonder what these figures are doing atop a twentieth-century railroad station? The figure at the center is Mercury (Hermes), recognizable by his winged hat and caduceus. From his role as messenger to the gods, he became identified with travel, commerce, business and wealth.
Looking up at Mercury from our left is an older, muscular man, stripped for action and grasping a hammer. Surrounding him are an anchor, a cogwheel, an anvil and a beehive, representing the technology by which man has conquered the earth and seas. On Mercury's other side, an elegantly dressed woman is intent on a long scroll; she holds a quill pen in her right hand, as if about to take notes. Behind her is a globe. This woman represents intellectual endeavors, as the man opposite represents physical ones. We can say, therefore, that the sculpture as a whole represents business supported by physical and mental effort. So logical is this idea that it's a shock to see, in Coutan's original proposal, that he had mirror images of the man and the mechanical devices on left and right. The woman didn't appear.
The sculptor not only shows that business requires both physical and mental effort; he seems to consider business in a positive light. Mercury is handsome, physically strong and healthy, and rising upward - not bowed by cares or hunched over, scheming like Scrooge. Hercules looks up to him; Minerva is relaxed in his presence. An American eagle nuzzles Mercury's knee, suggesting that business is compatible with patriotism and the nation's welfare. This complex message - that successful, thriving business requires physical and mental effort - is the sort of abstract theme that only top-notch allegorical figures seem able to convey.
Today far fewer travelers respond to Mercury's beckoning hand, but for some, no other mode of transportation inspires Wanderlust as intensely as railroads:
There isn't a train I wouldn't take
No matter where it's going. (See Sidebar.)
Few places evoke the excitement of the great era of railroads as does Grand Central Terminal. Not only is it a beautiful space, it's a magnificent engineering accomplishment.
Vanderbilt's 1871 Grand Central Depot (see #25) was a tangle of platforms and tracks through which commuters, long-distance travelers, freight and mail swarmed helter-skelter. Its successor, Grand Central Terminal, was by comparison a marvel of efficiency. Passengers could descend from the street to the lower levels via gentle ramps: no stairs or elevators required. Baggage was handled separately. Commuters were segregated from long-distance travelers. Convenient transfers to New York's new subway system were incorporated. Mail went directly to the neighboring Post Office, express freight by elevator to a separate building. Perhaps the most remarkable engineering feat was the fact that from 1903 to 1912, while the Terminal was being constructed on the site of the Depot, trains continued to operate on regular schedules.
North of Grand Central, tracks that stretched from 42nd to 50th Streets and from Madison across to Lexington Avenues were electrified and buried, making a huge area north of 42nd Street available for commercial and residential development. Income from "air rights" on this property was a significant source of revenue for the New York Central Railroad in the coming decades, as railroad traffic declined in the face of competition from automobiles and airplanes. In 1970, after the Pennsylvania Railroad had merged with the Central and gone spectacularly out of business in the largest corporate bankruptcy in United States history, the biggest asset remaining to the company was not its trains, tracks or buildings, but the air rights north of Grand Central Terminal. That income was a major reason that Grand Central wasn't demolished as the original Pennsylvania Station was. (See Rea, #20.)