Great public buildings don’t dwarf people; they enlarge them. And for 100 years–it opened on Feb. 2, 1913–one of the greatest has been Grand Central Terminal in New York City. It was a conceptual bank shot. In a nation of wide-open spaces, it carried the American sense of nature’s vast scale indoors, framed it in a serene Beaux Arts classicism and put both things in the service of a signature of the modern age, the railway. It is, by any measure, one of the most gracious public places in the world.
And we nearly lost it. In the late 1960s and ’70s, with railroad ridership in steep decline, Grand Central had a prolonged near-death experience. Its then owner, Penn Central, proposed building a 55-story tower atop the terminal and sued the city to revoke its landmark status. New Yorkers, still mourning the demolition of Penn Station, rallied to save the place. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis joined the fight. Though in 1976 they won, the station was still suffering from decades of neglect and cluttered with commercial signage. But by 1998, a sublime restoration led by the firm of Beyer Blinder Belle had scraped away the grime and restored the exquisite vistas and magnificent ceiling–and more than that, reawakened the agreeable sense that even just making your train can be a noble experience.