Historical Echoes: What Do the New York Fed and Grand Central Terminal Have in Common? -Liberty Street Economics
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May 10, 2013

Historical Echoes: What Do the New York Fed and Grand Central Terminal Have in Common?

Amy Farber

These two fine old entities—the New York Fed and Grand Central Terminal—have at least three things in common: they are both about 100 years old, they both feature beautiful vaulting in some part of their structure by the same “designer” masons, and they both go very deep into the ground.

     100 years old: The Federal Reserve System will celebrate its 100th anniversary in December 2013, and the New York Fed will celebrate along with it (although the New York Fed and its building are technically a little younger). Likewise, Grand Central Terminal celebrated its 100th birthday this year, in February. The media covered this event and the history of this edifice nicely with pieces from CNN, the Wall Street Journal (click tabs for video and slideshow) and The Daily Beast (an almost poetic 100 facts), as well as a great video from CBSNewsOnline. In 1968, the terminal was condemned to be demolished but found a champion in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who spearheaded a movement to save it from demolition. She said, “If you destroy your past, something in people dies.”

     Designer vaulting artists: Both the New York Fed and Grand Central Terminal have beautiful vaulting in the Catalan style by the Guastavinos (father and son)—“vaulting” as in ceilings, not “vault.” We are not talking about the well-known gold vault here, folks. (Not yet, anyway.) At the New York Fed, the vaulted ceiling (see also older picture) can be seen on the first floor by visitors to the Fed’s museum. In Grand Central Terminal, this vaulting may be seen in the famous Oyster Bar (try to watch the ceiling, not the food!) and the attached Whispering Gallery (tour guide Dan Brucker does an amusing demonstration of how to communicate using the Whispering Gallery, but it sounds like he’s whispering none too softly). The Guastavinos, father Rafael from Spain (1842-1908) and son Rafael Jr. (1872–1950), have become the object of intense study by an enthusiastic professor of engineering at MIT: John Ochsendorf. In a two-part lecture (Professor Ochsendorf starts speaking about ten minutes in; here is Part 2), he describes the history of the Guastavinos, the many buildings in the United States that have examples of their vaulting, and why the structures are so strong (still a mystery—he is having his engineering students study and build them). Other examples of this special vaulting that are “closer to home” include the Ellis Island Registry Hall, the Queensboro Bridge Market, the City Hall Subway Station (never actually used for subways), the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (bottom picture), the Prospect Park Tennis Pavilion (seen at the lower part of this blog entry), and the Bronx Zoo elephant house. A traveling exhibit called “Palaces for the People,” began at the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, the first major American public commission for Guastavino Sr. The exhibit (along with a scale model of a Boston Public Library ceiling vault constructed by contemporary masons) will find its way to the Museum of the City of New York in fall 2013. NPR has a recent story about this exhibit and John Ochsendorf's role in the revival of interest in the Guastavinos.

     Deep into the ground: The New York Fed and Grand Central Terminal both have subbasements of considerable depth, but for very different reasons. The Fed’s basement is 50 feet below sea level and 80 feet (five stories) below street level and is home to the famous gold vault. The gold, much of which belongs to foreign governments, arrived around the time of World War II when countries wanted a safe place to store their gold reserves. Other account holders who store gold at the New York Fed are the U.S. government, central banks (but not the Federal Reserve itself), and official international organizations. All this gold needs to be stored atop something that is strong enough to support its great weight: bedrock. As for the basement at Grand Central Terminal, according to the same amusing tour guide already mentioned, one of the reasons for Grand Central’s extra deep subbasement (160 feet down!) was so that FDR could have his own private train (he called it FDR’s “emergency egress out of New York City”). There is also quite a lot of machinery down there.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

Posted by Blog Author at 07:00:00 AM in Historical Echoes

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