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A review of Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by Sam Roberts

"Was your dad in the army?"

That's the first question people ask after they hear how often I moved when I was a kid. (Lots.) No, my father had a corporate job. And at the top of many industries, the corporate ladder narrows to New York. When I was nine, we moved to a Connecticut town located seven minutes from the New York state border. Each day, my dad drove to the Metro-North station in Goldens Bridge, NY, and took a 45-minute train ride to downtown Manhattan. Terminus: Grand Central, after which he would walk two blocks to his office on Park Avenue.

Prolific Brooklyn-born reporter and author Sam Roberts has written Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America (Grand Central Publishing, $30, January 22), about the impact of this iconic structure. In the book, he and legendary newsman Pete Hamill -- who wrote the forward -- tell stories of their first visits to Grand Central. (Hamill's in particular materializes like a molten memory, but perhaps I'm biased; he was once a mentor.) In 17 chapters, Roberts chronicles a saga.

The original Grand Central Depot opened in 1871, under the aegis of Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt. Fed up with city stipulations which slowed construction and spurred costs, Vanderbilt and the New York & Harlem Railroad leased it to New York Central.

Already dilapidating by 1900, William J. Wilgus, New York Central & Hudson River Railroad's chief engineer, wanted to start anew, ixnaying steam engines for electric trains and eying valuable air rights.

Two architectural firms, Warren & Westmore and Reed & Stem, collaborated on a colossal, cathedral-like design completed in 1913 - Grand Central as we know it. Electricity lured the center of New York industry and infrastructure to 42nd St.

When cars and planes provided transportation alternatives, Grand Central started to unravel again, this time into bankruptcy, merging with a fellow bankruptee, Pennsylvania Railroad. Denied landmark status at first, the station was saved by courtroom luck plus advocates such as Metro-North president Peter E. Stengel and Jackie O.

An extreme renovation began in the late 1980s, and with vigilant upkeep, tourists may never realize that Grand Central fell into decrepitude.

When metropolitan studies professors put Grand Central on their syllabi, the discussions may morph into college show-and-tell of students' earliest footsteps under the Grand Central cosmos. Be excited for the uninitiated: what they have to look forward to is wondrous.  

A lot of lovely adjectives are used in these pages to describe this 100-year-old triumph in American architecture: "gorgeous," "iconic," "magical," "imperial," "brilliant," "beloved," "prestigious," "magnificent," "splendid," "synonymous with a bustling urban ballet."

Roberts's hardcover is surprisingly small - 6 inches by 8 inches. I was underwhelmed with the photos. Release the second edition as a pop-up book!

Composing a biography of a building is much more difficult than an oral history or even a cultural study. You need to see what words cannot convey.

The author jumps between decades and even centuries, and I thought the chapter order should have been adjusted. For example, "The Secrets of Grand Central" - the payoff! - should have come at the very end. Also, I was craving a front-of-the-book directory of important names and dates.

Grand Central's tone is astute despite the preening. It's an ideal reference book for New Yorkers past, present and future. Occasionally it reads like a Grand Central-endorsed brochure, with a couple oy veys thrown in "...aw shucks, the Oyster Bar says it sells 5 million bivalves a year."

Whether I'd recommend reading it cover-to-cover depends on your personality. I majored in history, but I'm partial to memoirs, high-stakes literary journalism, and the amalgam of antiquity and wise-cracking practiced by Sarah Vowell and her peers. The target audience here is adults who grew up reading The Little Engine That Could as opposed to The Polar Express; individuals who can recall how neglected the station was before its revitalization.

Regardless, this book is slam-jammed with facts; The Guinness Book of Grand Central. "F.H. Lahm of Yonkers bought the first ticket." A total of 24,691 items were dropped off at the station's lost and found in 2011. Mary Lee Read, Grand Central's former organist, was informed that a man planning to commit suicide changed his mind after hearing her play an evocative hymn. He moved to Cleveland instead.

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Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure