When it is finished — in 2020, according to the plans — it will be among the 30 tallest buildings in the world. While the building will dominate the skyline, it is more deferential on the street. Its developer, SL Green Realty Corporation, has sought to maintain as many views of Grand Central as possible through the tower’s positioning and design.
“For us, it was important to have a harmonious relationship between our building and the station,” said Robert Schiffer, a managing director at SL Green.
Like many transportation hubs, Grand Central was as much a real estate deal as it was a railroad station. To underwrite the station, New York Central Railroad created more than a dozen parcels over the train yards and tracks, stretching from 42nd to 50th Street and bounded by Lexington and Madison Avenues. It was called Terminal City, and after the station opened in 1913, the blocks became home to some of the city’s premier properties: the Biltmore, Roosevelt and Commodore Hotels; the Yale Club; and the Graybar Building — all connected to Grand Central by tunnels.
“Before the age of the skyscraper, buildings like this were the monuments of the city,” Anthony W. Robbins, the author of “Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark,” said during a recent tour of the station. “When you can see the sides of the station, it really reads as a monument.”
Grand Central’s architects, Warren & Wetmore, planned the buildings that would surround their greatest work, demanding masonry bases that would match the station. In so doing, though, they largely obscured Grand Central, and the station became a victim of its own success, walled off by ever-growing towers.
While the five buildings demolished to make space for One Vanderbilt were among the longest standing in Terminal City, they were some of the least distinguished. One, known as the Vanderbilt Avenue Building, or 51 East 42nd Street, was a six-story office complex that opened a year before the terminal and had another dozen floors added in the 1920s. Designed by Warren & Wetmore, its distinguishing feature in recent times was the Modell’s sporting goods store on the first two floors, its memorabilia-filled windows among the first things people saw when they walked out of Grand Central.
Other properties included the Liggett Building, designed by Carrère & Hastings (renowned for designing the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue) and opened in 1922, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 42nd Street, and the Prudence Bond & Mortgage Building, on 43rd Street and Madison Avenue, which opened the next year. Gov. Alfred E. Smith had his office in the Prudence building, from which he ran his campaigns and, upon leaving Albany, oversaw the construction of a different landmark, the Empire State Building. Rounding out the group of demolished structures were two smaller office buildings wedged on West 43rd Street, which were most recently home to an Irish pub and a T.G.I. Friday’s.
When SL Green’s plans for the block emerged, there was little outcry from preservationists, who knew change was coming. The administration of the previous mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, had pushed to rezone the area to allow for taller buildings and make it a magnet for business. And there was little ambivalence about the demolition of the buildings, which were attractive but unimportant.
“No one seriously thought the Modell’s building was particularly significant in the broader scope of the Terminal City development,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, an advocacy group.
With the block’s fate sealed, the bigger concern became what One Vanderbilt would mean for Grand Central. In some ways, the tower, despite its extraordinary height, was designed to respect the station’s architectural grandeur.
As Warren & Wetmore demanded of surrounding buildings a century ago, the base of the new tower will complement Grand Central, but instead of stone, One Vanderbilt’s designers, KPF, will use glass. Lobbies, atriums and canopies will rise up to 105 feet, inviting spaces that will allow for views of the station. The tower is also set back 10 feet from the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and 42nd Street, exposing more of Grand Central as the building rises away from Madison Avenue.
“The challenge was how can a 1,400-foot glass building relate with this palatial stone box of a neo-Roman design,” said James von Klemperer, the president of KPF. “The two buildings couldn’t be more different, but they still share a bond.”
The local community board had wanted the tower to be more slender at the base to preserve more views of the station. Mr. von Klemperer said the Department of City Planning agreed that some amount of space and views would be good but not so much that it would change the historical character of the block.
“I don’t think we appreciated just how amazing this corner of the terminal is until we saw it,” said Layla Law-Gisiko, the chairwoman of the landmarks committee for Community Board 5. “In a vacuum, maybe the tower could have shaved off more, but we were happy with the compromise. It’s not often that a developer respects the wishes of the community.”
The curious will still also be able to take in Grand Central from a new pedestrian plaza between the new tower and the train station, part of $220 million in upgrades that SL Green has promised to make in exchange for the air rights that allowed it to erect such a tall building.
“In the end,” Mr. von Klemperer said, “we didn’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, it’s too bad they filled this in.’ It’s ‘Oh, I can see how this led to that.’”