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Dying by Degrees: What Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Grand Central Terminal Can Teach New Rochelle

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Dying by Degrees: What Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Grand Central Terminal Can Teach New Rochelle

June 01, 2016 - 23:44
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“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?"

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis learned the lesson of the destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. When you have a building of beauty, value and historic significance you do not tear it down, you will never get it back.

She applied this lesson with extraordinary energy to Grand Central Terminal.

Grand Central Terminal opened to the public on February 2nd 1913. Replete with detailed architectural décor and the latest mechanical and engineering innovations, the facility served as a luxury destination hub for rail travelers for decades.

The glory days of long distance rail travel drew to a close in the fifties with the advent of a national highway system and passenger air travel.

Penn Central Railroad which owned both Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station converted the Beaux Arts architectural masterpiece into a suburban commuter destination, squeezing out revenue with advertising billboards and shoddy retail outlets. The railroad company sold the development rights to Pennsylvania Station, the building was lost forever. Grand Central was next on the chopping block, when Penn Central proposed to demolish parts of Grand Central Terminal to make way for a 55-story office building. 

In 1967, the New York Landmark Preservation Commission stepped in to designate Grand Central Terminal as a landmark, determined that this building would not suffer the same fate as Penn Station. Concerned citizens, notable among them Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, rallied to protect the structure. Demolition of Grand Central Terminal was halted while all interested parties met in court to determine the building’s future.

At a press conference called by members of the municipal arts society at the doors of the world famous Oyster Bar restaurant, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was the last to speak. Her presence provided glamour and celebrity which elevated the cause to national attention.

Onassis famously and eloquently appealed to then-Mayor Abraham Beame.

“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?” wrote Onassis. “If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters.”

The Mayor was inspired to uphold the landmark designation and all its protections under the law.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was instrumental in convincing the Mayor of New York that this was a cause his City should support. Beame marshaled the assets of the City’s law department to defend the designation and all the protections it afforded Grand Central Terminal. The battle lasted nearly 10 years and went all the way to the Supreme Court which sided with the City of New York saying that the city had the right to regulate land use through the landmark laws. 

Metro North acquired Grand Central Terminal in 1982 and reimagined Grand Central Terminal as a shopping and dining destination. A major restoration project was undertaken. Ten years later, commuters could experience first hand, the result. Grand Central Terminal was returned to its structural, architectural and decorative glory: gaudy build boards removed; staircases, shops and restaurants added.

The magnificence of today’s Grand Central Terminal is due in no small part to the efforts of Municipal Arts Society and the Landmark Preservation Commission of New York. But all who appreciate the restored edifice today owe a significant debt of gratitude to a champion of historic preservation, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.