Under Our Feet

Everyone knows that New York has subways, so even people new to the city who are fascinated to hear the sound of a train though a grating in the sidewalk are not surprised by it. The underground structures for other trains, including the station yard for Grand Central, are something else entirely. The yard is two blocks wide (stretching from Lexington to Madison Avenues) and extends in some form from 43rd Street to well north of 50th Street. The picture above shows the “Merchants & Manufacturers Exchange Bldg.” more popularly known as the Grand Central Palace, an exhibition hall later used as office space. Underhill made a mistake in his labelling: he says it’s Lexington Avenue and 45th Street, but the Palace was between 46th and 47th Street.

I expect no one is looking at the building, even though it’s a reasonably good-looking Beaux Arts mid-rise, because of the bizarre appearance of the train yard sticking out from below. The building was directly above the Grand Central yard, and after completion in 1911 it was the first building constructed on the yard air rights. The tracks and platforms are clearly visible, and since air-conditioning in 1911 meant “opening the window” I suspect noise was an issue, even with the newly-electrified train service. The canopies over the platforms were removed as the air-rights buildings were constructed, and eventually the entire yard was buried below street viaducts and buildings, depriving us of views like that above.

The first round of air-rights, completed in the 1920s, had some commercial buildings but also a number of hotels and apartment houses on the newly-renamed Park Avenue. The area north of the station, which had been a mess of train tracks covering Fourth Avenue and coal smoke a few years earlier, was now a brand new neighborhood. Midtown became an office district, eventually with far more square footage than downtown, in part because of the effect of the Grand Central air rights development, and the smaller air-rights office buildings and apartments were mostly town down in the 1960s and 70s to be replaced by a second generation of much larger offices. That’s what happened to the Palace, replaced by 245 Park Avenue in the mid-1960s. The first of the second generation of buildings, the former Union Carbide building at 270 Park, is currently being replaced by the first of the third generation of even bigger buildings. But all three generations have had their foundations below the tracks, some 20 feet below the bottom of the lowest floors, with the train yard sandwiched in between.

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