WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Grand Central Station, New York City

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

When the New York City Guide lavished praise on Grand Central Station in 1939, it gave no hint that this extraordinary building would face destruction thirty years later. In a city chock full of interesting architecture, Grand Central merited three full pages of text in the Guide. Here is some of what the writers had to say:

“Huge GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL, set squarely athwart Park Avenue on the north side of Forty-second Street, is one of the great railway passenger terminals of the world. Long-distance travelers use the terminal [as do] daily commuters. [On] an average of every four seconds during the day, three  subway lines discharge and receive passengers in stations connected with the terminal. The number of people who pass through Grand Central in a year approximates the total population of the United States. (Now, 750,000 persons pass through each day!)

The terminal covers three blocks between Forty-second and Forty-fifth Streets.  The monumental Forty-second Street front of the terminal is surmounted by Jules Coutan’s massive statuary group, forty-eight feet high, in which figures representing Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva are arranged about a clock thirteen feet in diameter […]

Indoor ramps lead from the terminal’s entrances to the impressive main concourse, 125 feet wide and 385 feet long… Around the sides, great square piers rise 125 feet to support a vaulted blue ceiling in which illuminated constellations of the zodiac twinkle […] The enormous size and lavish use of marble on floors as well as walls give the concourse an aspect of grandeur that is emphasized by shafts of sunlight pouring through the seventy-five-foot windows. Ticket windows line the south wall, while directly opposite are the gates to the track platforms. The circular information booth in the middle of the open floor is one of New York’s most popular meeting places. 

During the nine o’clock and five o’clock rush hours, this great hall swarms with scurrying crowds in which the red caps of [495 porters] stand out. Shortly before the Twentieth Century 

Limited leaves for Chicago at six in the evening, a gray and red carpet is unrolled between the gate and the platform.”

p. 221-23

Built in 1913, Grand Central was a magnificent presence in New York City although its beauty became steadily dimmer. Blackout paint was applied to the windows during World War II and never removed. By 1998, the Main Concourse ceiling had accumulated a half-inch-thick layer of residue from cigarettes, diesel fumes, steel dust, and lead, obscuring the constellations almost entirely.

In the mid-1970s, a developer sought to partially demolish the station and build a 53-story office tower on top. The construction would have obscured the original façade and demolished the Main Concourse. The Municipal Art Society of New York (which included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mayor Ed Koch) sued the developer but lost in the New York state courts. Kennedy was undeterred; she was quoted in the New York Times saying “We’ve all heard that it’s too late … Even in the 11th hour, it’s not too late.” The Municipal Art Society pressed its case, appealing to the US Supreme Court and, in 1978, the Court ruled in its favor.

Grand Central Station was saved and the case was a landmark victory for preservation efforts across this country. But there was considerable work left to be done. In 1998, the station underwent a $113.8 million renovation. Art restorers cleaned the Main Concourse ceiling revealing the original azure blue sky and gold stars. A grand staircase (designed in 1913 but never built) was constructed at the east end of the main concourse. At a rededication ceremony in October, 1978, the main entrance on the 42nd street side was renamed the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Lobby. 

Grand Central is even more beautiful now than it was in 1939. The constellations twinkle at night; the lobby glows with light from its enormous, now clear windows; marble floors and brass fixtures gleam; you can have drinks at a restored jazz age library/cocktail lounge on the mezzanine and the posh, Edwardian Grand Central Oyster Bar still serves the best oyster stew in town. Good outcomes like this one give hope to those who fight for the preservation of our cherished architectural legacy. They signify that, when the stars align,  passionate, committed advocacy can succeed. 

July, 2021