Impermanence In Fixed Positions

by Don Friedman on April 24, 2017

Work proceeds on Midtown’s newest supertall, behind the construction fence. One Vanderbilt, not yet above grade, will eventually be about 1300 feet high. The demolition of some medium-size and, honestly, forgettable office buildings has exposed the west face of Grand Central Terminal (the wall on the left) to long-distance views for the first time in decades. Vanderbilt Avenue, which separates the One Vanderbilt site from Grand Central, is only 60 feet wide, so being able to see this wall in elevation (as opposed to at an acute angle along its face) is a treat.

Meanwhile…the building on the far left, vertically striped in brown, was the Biltmore Hotel, converted to offices and reskinned in the 80s. The big building past the end of Grand Central is the Met Life (nee Pan Am) building, which replaced the small office building that was built simultaneously with Grand Central above the underground train platforms. The bottom “block” of Met life is basically the exact same size as that 50-years-gone building. The tall building just to the right of Met Life is an office building that was constructed directly over the Grand Central post office, which is not visible from this angle. The glass-facade building on the right, with the big chimney, is the Grand Hyatt, which is the Hotel Commodore with a new skin from the 80s. The chimney serves Grand Central’s underground boilers, which replaced a power plant on east 49th Street on the site of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

If you peel back another layer of history, the story is similar. The names Biltmore and Commodore were both derived from the Vanderbilt family, which controlled the New York Central Railroad, which constructed and owned Grand Central. Obviously, so was the name for the five-block-long Vanderbilt Avenue, which was added to the street grid to ease traffic around the first Grand Central, which blocked Park (then Fourth) Avenue. There’s a stub street, Depew Place, that mirrors Vanderbilt on the other (east) side of Grand Central and provides access for trucks to the post office. In other words, everything is laid out around the ground plan created when the first grand Central was constructed in 1871.

One Vanderbilt will be the third building on its site, Grand Central is the third on its site, Met Life is the third (or so…it’s over a rail yard) on its site, and the Grand Hyatt and 335 Madison (the old Biltmore) are the second on their sites. Everything is different, but it’s all sort of the same.

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