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How a Former First Lady Helped Save Grand Central Terminal

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New Yorkers are passionate about many things—proper sidewalk etiquette, their pizza vs. every other city’s pizza, the Mets vs. the Yankees—but near the top of that list for many residents is the preservation of historic buildings and other iconic structures. This year, as the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission celebrates its 50th anniversary, blogger Jeremiah Moss has been spearheading a campaign called #SaveNYC, which is aimed at stopping the destruction of New York City’s quirky, one-of-a-kind establishments. Given the current focus on preservation, it seems an appropriate time to look back to when that concept was still brand-new, and an unlikely rescuer stepped in to save a decaying train station.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the old Penn Station in 1963—a move that The New York Times described as “a monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance”—the Landmarks Preservation Commission was created by then-Mayor Robert F. Wagner. The idea was to protect the city’s iconic, historic structures, with the Astor Library (now the Public Theater) becoming one of its first landmarked buildings in 1965. But even with the new organization in place, Penn Station’s east side counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, nearly suffered a similar fate.

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Though it opened to great fanfare in 1913, welcoming more than 150,000 visitors on its first day, Grand Central Terminal lost its sparkle as the decades wore on. Its Beaux-Arts beauty—which had once helped spur the growth of Midtown (indirectly leading to the construction of icons like the Chrysler Building and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel)—had become something of an eyesore by the mid-20th-century. The ceiling of the main concourse, with its massive mural of constellations, was blackened from grime and tobacco smoke, the roof leaked, and a giant Kodak ad loomed large over the station. Train revenues were declining, leaving the station’s future uncertain.

Rumblings about tearing down Grand Central Terminal first began in 1954, when New York Central (the rail company that owned Grand Central Terminal) first proposed replacing the downtrodden station with a money-making skyscraper. Architect I.M. Pei even proposed a cylindrical behemoth called the Hyperboloid to be built in the terminal’s place, though it ultimately never got off the ground. So what did end up getting built? The Pan Am Building, now known as the MetLife Building, a 58-story glass-and-steel tower that stuck out like a sore thumb against Grand Central’s Beaux-Arts façade. (The New York Times' architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called the building “gigantically second rate” upon its completion.) Luckily, the train station was spared—at least for the moment.

When the Landmarks Preservation Commission was created in 1965, it gave Grand Central’s protectors more ammunition in the fight to preserve the space, especially once the terminal was designated as a New York City landmark in 1967. But its opponents fought back: In 1968, a new conglomerate, the Penn Central Transportation Company (a merger between New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad) doubled down in its attempts to build on top of the terminal, getting architect Marcel Breur to design a 55-story skyscraper that would essentially sit on top of Grand Central Terminal. Advocates shut that down, and Penn Central eventually sued New York City to try and move forward with plans to alter the structure.

That’s when a famous face stepped in to help: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had moved to New York City after her husband’s assassination, partnered with the Municipal Art Society to create the Committee to Save Grand Central Station. She spoke at meetings and appeared at press conferences, and even sent then-Mayor Abe Beame a letter urging him to help preserve the station.

“Americans care about their past, but for short-term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters,” Kennedy wrote. (Ouch.) Most importantly, her fame and continued popularity in the public eye meant that the preservation of Grand Central became a cause célèbre. Even though Penn Central’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was ultimately a lost cause, and Grand Central Terminal lived on.

Sure, Jackie Kennedy wasn’t solely responsible for the station’s continued existence (and its eventual restoration, which took another couple of decades to complete), but her involvement definitely gave the cause more cachet. (NYC’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which now runs Grand Central Terminal, paid tribute to Kennedy’s perseverance in 2014 by naming the station’s main entrance at 42nd Street and Park Avenue after her.) Kennedy would later go on to champion other preservationist causes, including saving the Modernist Lever House building and opposing the construction of a massive building near St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. The next time you stroll underneath the terminal’s gorgeously tiled Guastavino ceilings, or admire its celestial main-concourse mural, remember that you have the former First Lady to (partially) thank.

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9 Notable Buildings With Secret Floors
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Secret floors have long captured the imagination; conspiracy theorists love to imagine that government buildings keep their darkest secrets within sealed-off stories. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours,” the ninth floor of a department store is where the mannequins mysteriously come to life. Meanwhile, the hidden 7th-and-a-half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in New York was a portal for John Cusack into the actual brain of John Malkovich in the movie Being John Malkovich.

While these mysteries may have come from a writer’s imagination, there are notable buildings that have whole secret floors right under your nose—if you know where to look.

1. THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, NEW YORK

One of the world’s most iconic and recognizable skyscrapers, the Empire State Building is also one of Manhattan’s premiere tourist destinations. The gleaming Art Deco elevators speed thousands of visitors to the observation deck on the 86th floor every day, and there’s also an observation pod on the 102nd floor. But just above, hidden out of sight, is the secret 103rd floor. Off-limits to the public, there is no glass protecting visitors from the elements, just a narrow walkway surrounding the top of the building. Original plans are thought to have allowed airships to dock to the top of the Empire State Building, with passengers disembarking on the 103rd floor, and the 102nd being their official port of entry into the United States. The plan never came to fruition, however, and the hidden 103rd floor remains sealed off high above New York City.

2. THE FIFTH FLOOR OF THE YANGGAKDO HOTEL, PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA

For Calvin Sun, of the adventurous travel blog Monsoon Diaries, a hotel in the world’s most isolated nation held a particularly odd secret. The hotel Yanggakdo’s elevator has no 5th floor. Getting out of the elevator on the 6th and walking down, his group reached something peculiar: an entire concreted hidden floor, filled with locked doors and no people. The floor was covered with what looked to be government-issued propaganda posters, with messages like “Let’s prepare thoroughly in order to defeat the invaders” and “Our General is the best.” Other intrepid adventurers have reported bunkers, steel doors, official-looking men with computers, and others listening to headphones. Some have speculated that there is another floor hidden within the 5th, but its purpose remains unknown.

3. THE GREENBRIER RESORT, WEST VIRGINIA

The Greenbrier is a luxury hotel and resort located amid the mountains of West Virginia. The local waters have been attracting guests since 1778, and the glittering guest list of the hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, has included 26 presidents. But hidden under the glamorous rooms and sprawling grounds is a massive underground complex, codenamed Project Greek Island. During the Cold War, it was built to hold the entire United States Congress in safety—just in case Washington was attacked by a Soviet nuclear strike.

The 112,000-square-foot bunker was big enough to hold both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and came complete with six months’ worth of food, 25-ton blast doors, decontamination chambers, water purification equipment, and its own hospital. The government’s construction of Project Greek Island was covered up by the building of a new west wing added to the existing hotel. To avoid detection, the huge amounts of land unearthed in the creation of the project were used in a new golf course, while the army of workers posed as employees of a fake audiovisual company called the Forsythe Associates, who “maintained” the hotel's 1000 television sets.

Project Greek Island fortunately remained unused, and was never officially acknowledged until a story in the Washington Post in 1992 exposed the secret. Today tours of this remarkable relic of the Cold War are given at the hotel, which still operates as a luxury resort.

4. OUR LORD IN THE ATTIC, AMSTERDAM

Luke Spencer

There’s an old house in Amsterdam that looks much like the other Queen Anne-style homes along the canals that give this old part of the city its distinctive character. This particular house, however, holds a remarkable secret hidden away in the attic: a miniature, fully functioning church. Complete with marble altar, pews enough for 150 worshippers, and elaborate gilt decoration, the church was hidden due to the persecution of Dutch Catholics in the 17th century. Access to the clandestine church is gained by a false wall in the living room that leads to a narrow spiral staircase. Today the church is a museum, but still regularly holds services hidden away in the attic, as they have done for nearly 400 years.

5. THE NEW YORKER HOTEL, MANHATTAN

Luke Spencer

When the New Yorker Hotel opened on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in 1930, it was one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world. It came complete with its own in-house radio station, printing press, 50-chair barber salon, and a dining room that featured a retractable ice rink and skating show to entertain the guests. With 2500 rooms, it was promoted as a “vertical village.”

Underneath the lobby was a giant power plant, occupying a hidden floor around 80 feet below the sidewalk. The DC generating plant was so huge, it was powerful enough to provide electricity for a city of around 35,000 people. The plant was also so sophisticated that one of the hotel’s most famous long-term residents, the inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived there for the last decade of his life, is reported to have wandered down under the lobby to tinker with the plant and talk with the engineers. Remarkably, the plant is still down there, the switches for the old skating rink, coffee shop lights, and ballroom silent and unused. (Much of the plant was modernized in the 1960s, however, and switched over to the alternating current Tesla championed.)

6. WALT DISNEY WORLD, FLORIDA 

Observant visitors to the Magic Kingdom, upon disembarking from the monorail and heading toward Main Street, USA, may notice that they are walking on a slight incline. Indeed Cinderella’s Castle, which lies ahead, appears to be on a hill. In reality, the thousands of daily guests are unknowingly climbing over a vast hidden complex of secret floors, rooms, walkways, and tunnels. Disney World itself is built on top of an intricate hidden infrastructure that Cast Members consider the first floor. (The entire Magic Kingdom itself is technically the second and third floor.)

The story goes that Walt Disney was walking through the original Disneyland in California, and saw a Cast Member dressed as a cowboy walking from Frontierland through to Tomorrowland. Thinking that this would ruin the fantasy illusion for the visiting children, Disney World was designed on top of a hidden 9-acre system that would house walkways for Cast Members, trash collectors, kitchens, and break rooms. Today, tours are available for adults to see behind the curtain of the Magic Kingdom.

7. JOHN HANCOCK CENTER’S 44TH FLOOR, CHICAGO

The John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks. When it was completed in 1969, it was one of the tallest buildings in the world, second only to the Empire State Building in New York. But what many people don’t realize is that it is actually possible to live inside one of America’s most famous skyscrapers. The residential floors run from the 45th to the 92nd floor, but it is the 44th floor that holds all the secrets. Off-limits to all but the residents, the 44th floor is home to a vast 5200-square-foot supermarket. There is also a library, concierge service, a high-ceilinged sky lounge, and the highest swimming pool in the United States. During elections it even has its own polling station.

8. PLYMOUTH CHURCH OF THE PILGRIMS, BROOKLYN

Luke Spencer

Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights is a church steeped in history. One of the oldest Congregationalist Churches in New York, it was once presided over by the inspirational orator, minister, and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Described then as “the most famous man in America,” his fiery anti-slavery rhetoric was so renowned that Plymouth was the only church in New York visited by Abraham Lincoln. Beecher would hold mock slave auctions on the site, where parishioners would raise money to free slaves.

But the extraordinary events on the church floor covered a remarkable secret below it: a hidden floor, with the entrance through a door behind the organ. Dry, dusty chambers, brick archways, and tunnels are all that remain of one of the principal stops on the Underground Railroad. This hidden floor provided a sanctuary for so many escaping slaves that it became known in hushed voices as the Grand Central Depot. At great risk to themselves, the brave parishioners of Plymouth Church, led by Beecher, vowed to help as many slaves as possible. “I will both shelter them,” Beecher said, “conceal them or speed their flight.” The church is still vibrantly active today, and tours are available to visit what was once one of the most secret places in America.

Luke Spencer

9. THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE AND HERB GARRET, LONDON

Luke Spencer

Hidden in the roof of St. Thomas’ Church in London is something as chilling as it is fascinating. Climbing the circular staircase of the old church to the garret (or attic) leads to one of the oldest known operating theaters still in existence. Once part of the ancient St. Thomas’ Hospital, visitors today can crowd into the tiny theater and stand on steep wooden terraces overlooking the operating table. Here 19th-century medical students would watch the pre-eminent surgeons of the day practice their craft; one notable surgeon was said to be able to amputate and cauterize a limb in under a minute.

In the attic above the theater is the old herb apothecary and garden where herbs were stored and cured. Still well-stocked today, the Herb Garret resembles a Victorian cabinet of peculiar curiosities, featuring wormwood, poppies for opium, and a “bath of sheep heads for Woman suffering from unknown illness.” After St. Thomas relocated, the church garret was sealed up and forgotten for decades, until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today operating as a museum, tours are available for those who want to experience the lancets, blades, and bone saws of over a hundred years ago. 

Luke Spencer
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7 Surprising Buildings That Were Once the World’s Tallest
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When it was completed in 1931, the Empire State Building instantly became the tallest in the world. Standing an impressive 1250 feet tall, it was the first 100-story building in history and held the record as the world’s tallest for the next 41 years, until the completion of One World Trade Center in 1972. After that, the title moved to Chicago, and then to a number of super-tall buildings in Asia, until the current world’s tallest—Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—took the title in 2007.

Precisely what constitutes the world’s tallest building is debatable, with arguments raised over whether or not uninhabitable structures (like telecommunications towers) qualify for inclusion, and whether the extra height gained by the addition of radio masts and flagpoles should be taken into account. But using a straightforward list of habitable structures measured from ground to roof as a yardstick, the back catalog of former World’s Tallest Building title-holders actually includes some quite surprising entries.

1. THE PYRAMID OF GIZA // EGYPT

When the Great Pyramid at Giza was completed after 20 years of construction in around 2500 BCE, it stood an imposing 480 feet tall—although erosion has knocked a full 25 feet from that total so that it stands 455 feet today. Precisely what held the title before then is debatable, although contenders include several more of Egypt’s pyramids, the 28-foot Tower of Jericho completed around 10,000 years ago, and Göbekli Tepe, a mysterious site in Southern Turkey that dates back to the 10th millennium BCE.

2. LINCOLN CATHEDRAL // UNITED KINGDOM

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When construction of the immense central spire of Lincoln Cathedral in England was completed in 1311, it is believed to have stood an impressive 525 feet, easily surpassing the Great Pyramid’s height by more than 40 feet and breaking its run as the world’s tallest building after a staggering 3800 years. Sadly, all three of Lincoln’s spires have been lost: the two smaller spires were removed in 1807, almost a century after concerns about their safety were raised by the architect James Gibbs, while the taller central tower was destroyed by a storm in 1548. Its collapse also meant that Lincoln Cathedral’s title was temporarily handed over to …

3. ST. MARY’S CHURCH // GERMANY

The 495-foot-tall Marienkircher or St. Mary’s Church in the town of Stralsund in northeast Germany was completed sometime in the 13th century. It might have unceremoniously snatched the title from Lincoln Cathedral after the disaster of 1548, but the Marienkircher has had its own share of bad luck throughout its long history: its bell tower collapsed in 1382, and its central steeple blew down in a storm in 1478 and had to be replaced. The replacement, however, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1647—handing the title of world’s tallest building over to …

4. STRASBOURG CATHEDRAL // FRANCE

After a run of bad luck for ecclesiastical buildings, Strasbourg Cathedral—at 466 feet tall—managed to hold on to the title of world’s tallest building for the next 227 years (although some in the 19th century thought it was shorter than the Great Pyramid). But in the late 19th century, improvements in building techniques and architectural engineering led to a flurry of tall buildings completed all across Europe.

In 1874, a rebuilt St. Nicholas’s Church in Hamburg was completed after the previous building burned down 30 years earlier; standing 482 feet tall, it took the title from Strasbourg (but went on to be all but destroyed during the Second World War and is now in ruins). In 1876, a cast iron spire was added to Rouen Cathedral in France, which stole the title from Hamburg. Then in 1880, work was finally completed—after a 407-year hiatus—on Cologne Cathedral in Germany: construction had originally begun in 1248, but was halted in 1473. The finished building stood 515 feet tall, enough to steal the title from Rouen and return it to Germany. But just like its predecessor, Cologne Cathedral only held the title for the next four years.

5. WASHINGTON MONUMENT // UNITED STATES

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On its completion in 1884, the 555-foot Washington Monument became the world’s tallest entirely stone-built structure, the tallest obelisk anywhere in the world, and the first known structure in North America to hold the title of world’s tallest building. Despite that impressive record, however, Europe reclaimed the record just five years later with …

6. THE EIFFEL TOWER // FRANCE

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The 986-foot Eiffel Tower was the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair. Although its designer and namesake Gustave Eiffel had a permit allowing it to stand for a total of 20 years, it was originally intended to be dismantled when the fair was over. Thankfully, aside from its popularity, part of the reason the Tower still survives is that it proved an excellent telegraph transmitter, and even proved useful in intercepting German radio signals during the First Battle of Marne in 1914.

On its completion on March 31, 1889, the 984-foot Eiffel Tower instantly became the world’s tallest building (although, astonishingly, it shrinks by up to 6 inches during cold weather). It held the record for the next 41 years, until finally it was beaten by …

7. THE CHRYSLER BUILDING // NEW YORK

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When it was opened on May 27, 1930, New York City’s Chrysler Building broke the Eiffel Tower’s record by a full 60 feet—it stands an impressive 1046 feet tall, making it the first building in history to break the 1000-foot mark (thanks largely to a 185-foot spire constructed in secret to prevent any competition from beating it). It remains the tallest brick-built building in the world (although it does have a steel frame), despite holding the record as the world’s tallest for just 11 months: the Empire State Building was completed on April 11, 1931.

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