A middling account of the architectural splendor that is Manhattan’s Grand Central Station.
“Modern time began at Grand Central,” writes New York Times urban affairs correspondent Roberts (A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society's Toughest Problems, 2009, etc.), an aperçu he repeats a few times in his paean to what is certainly America’s definitive, if not greatest, railway terminal. The author observes that it was the need of the new railroads to observe an established schedule that resulted in standardized time—no news to readers of Wolfgang Schivelbusch, that great historian of technology, but a useful gauge all the same in explaining why a railroad station should merit our attention. There are other reasons, which Roberts attentively enumerates: In the instance of Grand Central, which indeed pioneered standardized time and has lived through a few incarnations since ground was broken for the modern structure 110 years ago, it contains the world’s largest piece of Tiffany glass, to say nothing of “the largest sculptural grouping in the world” and a ceiling that famously invokes the vastness of the firmament. Roberts closes his rambling, almanaclike narrative with an account of where the ceiling painter went wrong; apparently, railroad officials explained that “the celestial mural represented God’s view.” There’s nothing wrong with an assemblage of oddments and answers to common questions, as any trivia buff will tell you, but at times, Roberts’ book resembles an infodump of semidigested notes; this is nowhere more true than in the section on Grand Central in popular culture. Still, the book is inarguably populated by a fascinating cast of characters, from the barons of the late Gilded Age to Jackie O.
Grand Central deserves a deep history as good as the World Trade Center got with James Glanz and Eric Lipton’s City in the Sky (2003). This isn’t it, though railway-history buffs may enjoy this book.