Bruce Guthrie
October 26, 1998 12:00 PM

As the crowds gathered under the star-studded ceiling in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal on Oct. 1, John F. Kennedy Jr. strode to the microphone. Gazing out at the bright and burnished main concourse, he told his audience of dignitaries, commuters and the just plain curious, “My mother would be happy today.”

Triumphant too. For, 20 years after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis successfully opposed the construction of a 59-story building atop America’s most famous train terminal, Grand Central was gleaming anew. The ceremony marked the near-completion of an eight-year, $196 million renovation. “We’ve made this place into a great train station once again,” says architect John Belle, 66, whose firm, Beyer Blinder Belle, oversaw the restoration of the magnificent Beaux Arts building. “It’s a gateway to the city.”

In fact, when Grand Central opened at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 2, 1913, it was billed as the “gateway to a continent,” and for much of its early history it lived up to the boast. During the golden years in the mid-’40s it serviced 107 destinations and carried 178,000 travelers a day, but patronage began to wane in the ’50s, when long-distance train travel lost its appeal. So steep was the decline that in 1954 plans were drawn up for demolition of the building. These persisted in various forms until the ’70s, when outraged preservationists, led by Onassis, battled for Grand Central’s permanent protection. “If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for our future,” Onassis said in 1975. Three years later the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the terminal’s status as a protected landmark.

Through it all Grand Central has remained a favorite of Hollywood. Scenes have been shot there for numerous films, including 1944’s Since You Went Away, starring Shirley Temple and Claudette Colbert, Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest and last summer’s blockbuster Armageddon, which saw asteroids succeed where developers had failed by destroying the terminal.

The building’s leaseholder, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, started developing restoration plans a decade ago, when Grand Central’s growing shabbiness was making it seem more a de facto homeless shelter than a great public building. The first stage saw workers use cotton swabs, suds and old-fashioned elbow grease to uncover the sky ceiling, with its zodiac signs and 2,500 gold stars etched on a brilliant bluish green background. Later, intrusive advertising signs and nonoriginal walls and ceilings were ripped out, and a magnificent new marble staircase added.

When complete early next year, the terminal will have 117 stores and restaurants, including basketball star Michael Jordan’s just-opened steak house. Visitors, such as Jeanne Sondheim, 42, who lives in midtown Manhattan, already seem to like what they see. “It had been decaying,” she says, “and now it’s beautiful again.”

Another part of the renovation is a small brass plaque honoring the contribution of Onassis, who died in 1994. Unveiling it at the rededication ceremony, her son noted, “She was determined to keep this building something all New Yorkers could be proud of and in awe of.” Mission accomplished.

Bruce Guthrie

Bob Meadows in New York City

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