Soon after Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, it was viewed as an one of the great public spaces in America, an icon of modern travel. By the 1940s, a popular radio drama bearing its name would open with a blast from a locomotive whistle and an announcer crying, “Grand Central Station! As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, part of the nation’s greatest city.”

Thirty years later, developers wanted to take a wrecking ball to Grand Central and replace it with an office tower.

In truth, the place was seedy. That’s according to Kent Barwick, a former head of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and a key player in the effort to prevent the destruction of the terminal to make way for an office tower. “It was pretty dusty and the windows were broken,” he recalled of Grand Central back then. “It was dark and and littered with advertising everywhere. And there wasn’t any retail except for a couple of newsstands that had near-poisonous sandwiches and undrinkable coffee.”

(We’ve done some terrific coverage of Grand Central in the past year: a tour of the Grand Central clock tour with The Invention of Hugo Cabret author Brian O. Selznick here and a cool behind-the-scenes video of Grand Central’s secrets here.)

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The Fight Is On

The terminal was owned by the Penn Central Railroad, a company in decline because of America’s move to the suburbs and car-dependent travel. The much vaunted Interstate Highway Bill also spelled death for long-distance rail travel. In 1975, Penn Central was careering into bankruptcy and desperate to squeeze a windfall from its prime Manhattan real estate. So it proposed to do to Grand Central what it had done to Penn Station: sell the development rights to a company that would tear down the Beaux-Arts masterpiece and erect a steel and glass tower.

But Grand Central, unlike Penn Station, was landmarked.

The owners sued in state supreme court, claiming the new landmark law was unconstitutional. The railroad won, and moved to demolish Grand Central. The preservationists scrambled.

Barwick and his colleagues at The Municipal Arts Society called a hasty press conference in the terminal at Oyster Bar. Barwick’s boss, Brendan Gill spoke first. “If we can’t save a building like this, what can we do?” he asked.

The preservationists knew they were fighting to save not only the building but the landmarks law itself. And they knew from press descriptions of them as “a troop of well-known New Yorkers” that some of their opponents were painting them as elitists who wished to suspend New York in amber. Former consumer affairs commissioner Bess Meyerson spoke next, and addressed the issue.

“It’s not really a question of change,” she said. “If any city understands change, it’s our city. But I think it’s high time that we ask that very important question, ‘Change for what?’”

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Cause célèbre

The next speaker was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose presence transformed preservation from a stuffy to a glamorous pursuit. “I think if there is a great effort, even if it’s at the eleventh hour, you can succeed and I know that’s what we’ll do,” she said.

The New York Times prominently featured her in its coverage the following day, noting her “eleoquence,” as well as her “two-piece tan dress adorned with heavy long gold chain.” The effort to save Grand Central was, from that moment, a national issue.

Barwick recalled that Onassis also wrote a letter to Mayor Abe Beame, and that the letter began, “‘Dear Abe, How President Kennedy loved Grand Central Terminal.’” Barwick laughingly added that, “I don’t know, and I don’t need to know, whether President Kennedy had ever expressed himself on that subject.”

Not long after, Beame told the city’s lawyers to appeal the state supreme court’s decision, an appeal the city won. The case then moved, in 1978, to the U.S. Supreme Court.Penn Central again argued it should be able to do what it wanted with its property. New York’s lawyers said the city had the right to regulate land use through the landmarks law.

The verdict

The justices sided with the city. Grand Central Terminal was saved and, in the early 90s, underwent a restoration that brought back its luster. Penn Central Railroad eventually became Metro-North, which last year saw near-record ridership of 83 million passengers.

Barwick said that today, the city can’t imagine being without Grand Central Terminal. “You see New Yorkers all the time, staking a claim in that building, pointing up to that cerulean sky and saying, ‘Hey. this belongs to us,’” he said.

Grand Central Terminal turned 100 years old on February 1st.