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New York Puts The 'Grand' Back In Central Station

A $303 million project is restoring New York's landmark commuter hub

William K. Vanderbilt wouldn't have recognized his architectural masterpiece - once heralded as a "secular cathedral" - if he'd wandered through Grand Central 10 years ago.

The train station he built in 1913 at the edge of New York City had become a grimy, refuse-littered shell that 1980s commuters hurried to get through. Long gone were the days when luxury trains unfurled red carpets at arrival and departure and travelers could stop for a Turkish bath.

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But Mr. Vanderbilt will soon find himself in more familiar surroundings. His beaux-arts structure is in the final stages of a campaign to return it to its glory days - albeit without the steam rooms - in a multimillion-dollar facelift that would make the New York aristocrat proud.

"It was high time this place got taken care of," says Marjorie Anders of Metro-North Railroad, which operates Grand Central and railroads that use the terminal, the first historically landmarked building in the country.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a development team of architects, retail consultants, and developers broke ground last February on the two-year project to refurbish Grand Central and its architectural treasures.

Little of their work is visible to the 500,000 people that wend their way through the station daily. Commuters skirt scaffolding that hides work on the ventilation and lighting systems, as well as construction work being done to enlarge passageways and add new ramps, exits, and a staircase on the station's east side.

But there's no hiding the most spectacular part of the renovations: the ceiling.

One hundred and fifty feet above the commuting crowds, a small team of workers has been cleaning the ceiling to reveal the stunning azure and gold constellation mural painted 52 years ago.

The mural, a representation of a winter sky rendered with astrological and astronomical signs and stars, and accentuated by light bulbs, had disappeared under a half century of what architectural conservator Beth Leahy calls "good old-fashioned grease and grime."

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Three or four people work on the ceiling at a time, removing the filth with a chemical wash and then wiping it again to remove any residue. The cleaning has revealed signatures of some of the original muralists, delicately traced on the edge of constellations. "It has been a trip to actually touch this," says painter Thom Piragnoli, lovingly running a finger along a clean line of gold paint.

Just 15 people at a time can mount the custom-made scaffolding, a wood and metal latticework draped in orange netting. They have plenty to do: The light bulbs are being replaced with fiber optics; the five half-moon windows on each side of the station are being vacuumed and repainted their original colors; and the elaborate plaster cornices are being repainted to look like marble - as Vanderbilt had them done nearly a century ago.

Grand Central's transformation is no small achievement, as it barely survived at all. Airplanes eroded the railroad's romance and stature, and with it, the station's. Once the setting for a daily soap opera in the 1920s, Grand Central slid into disrepair.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the building's struggling owners floated plans to demolish it to make way for a sleek skyscraper or to build one directly on top of the station.

The proposals galvanized New Yorkers, who had seen Penn Station fall to the wrecking ball in 1963, and Jackie Onassis, often sporting a "Save Grand Central" button on top of her designer casual wear, made the cause her own.

A 1978 decision by the Supreme Court upholding New York's 1967 move to declare the terminal a city landmark essentially made the station inviolate, and the financially strapped owners filled it with advertising and let the building fall into ruin.

When the MTA took over the building in 1983, ridership was at 47 million and the railway, along with its station, was "on its knees," says Metro-North president Donald Nelson.

"There were trash fires, train fires, no air conditioning, the roof leaked," says Ms. Anders of Metro-North. "The place was a mess! Essentially, we whipped this place into shape."

They'll be finished with the job in 1998 after spending $303 million. Public tax dollars are paying for the safety and infrastructure improvements, while a bond issue and revenue from retail are paying for the cosmetic improvements.

Retail development is playing an important part in the terminal's revival. The famous Oyster Bar will remain, but the retail consulting firm of Williams, Jackson, Ewing - which has worked on Washington's Union Station, Boston's Faneuil Hall, and Baltimore's Harbor Place - is being tight-lipped about who will be serving commuters their morning bagels.

"The most difficult thing," says partner Michael Ewing, "is that we couldn't close the building, and that's been quite a challenge. Getting 500,000 people to their trains on time is a phenomenal task."

Few of them seem to mind, though. Metro-North, which now boasts a ridership of 61.6 million, has kept the trains running on time. Mr. Nelson says feedback has been good, "particularly in the last couple of months. Now that they can see what we're doing, they're telling us, 'What a great thing you're doing.' "

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