Central Terminal: Judging our Age by Eric Miller
Even the trains didn't know her. I guess it might be like outliving all of your friends and relatives, being such a grand building amidst all the decay, not understanding the world around you, not knowing where you belong.
It was the largest wholly owned building in the huge New York Central System and still stands in a vacant and deteriorating condition on the East Side of Buffalo. The fifteen story buffcolored brick and stone tower has turned black with age. In the past the once dramatically lit structure had been visible for fifteen miles, yet is hardly noticed today.
Walking up to her could have involved a scene after a nuclear war, but it wasn't. Rust doesn't kill as fast as a bomb might and like outliving the world you know, there she stood, a decaying giant from a magnificent age.
The scene couldn't have been more revealing. The nearly twenty story art-deco structure was like a medieval castle surrounded by the homes of peasants, but the disease had spread beyond the villages and into the castle.
About three miles removed from the sky-line of Buffalo, the station was placed in a field like a diamond in a bucket of sand. A thick haze in the sky made her seem black against a setting sun rather than the light color seen on an old post card. The unconcerned trains rolled through the overgrown weeds and shabby neighborhoods surrounding the building. Part of an elaborate walkway that had lead passengers from the station to the platforms had been cut off, removing her from her purpose like a photographer losing his sight or a pianist becoming crippled with arthritis. But it seemed worse than that, as if a tube connecting a life-saving blood supply had been mercilessly cut. More dramatically the source of creative power could no longer move outside the stone walls, and began to die.
The bricks in the reinforced concrete structure had indeed turned black over the years, and no window was left unbroken. A sculpture depicting two morbid spirits moaning while floating around some sort of elongated star stood in front of the grand doorway and could almost be heard screaming in desperation. Spotlights which had once cast electric beams of light on the building showcasing the pride of a powerful railroad, and the progress of an unstoppable nation had been mangled until they pointed at the ground.
A basement window allowed light to illuminate the shambles of papers, wood and pieces of furniture, the remnants of what was perhaps a desperate attempt to re-organize just to survive. Inside, sunlight from above revealed a wide marble staircase, that littered with decaying plaster and asbestos, couldn't possibly remember the foot steps of rushing passengers.
When the building was built, the decline had probably already begun. The market crash in 1929 brought the frivolous admiration of class and style and the age of luxury back to necessity. No longer could a temple to the age of capitalism, industry, the god of progress be afforded, when commodities such as food became so dear.
Built at the onset of the art-deco period, the tower showcased some Romanesque features and escaped the streamlining often adapted to later deco structures as they developed to embrace Modern styling. At a 1929 cost of fourteen million, the New York Central spared little expense on a building that would soon become a burden to a struggling railroad.
The vaulted ceiling of the 225' by 66'concourse rose 58+' above the marble floor. Art deco details abounded in the form of metal and frosted glass sconces, metal grillwork in geometric patterns and metal finials atop pilasters flanking the eighteen ticket windows. A neighboring waiting room was decorated almost as lavishly and featured New York State scenes cased in giant plaster medallions.
A restaurant and coffee shop in the station could seat 250 people in a lavish setting. The 100' x 56' eatery was centered around a "W" shaped Carrara glass counter. Black and gold vined marble lined the walls. Silver and bronze grillwork formed dividers in the room.
Designed by Alfred Felheimer, who was also involved with Grand Central Terminal, the station opened at midnight on June 22, 1929, after nearly three years of construction. Two hundred trains a day began to serve that station. Yet within four years, New York Central passenger revenues fell by 60% and by the 1950's only half as many trains stopped in Buffalo.
The New York Central put the building up for sale along with over 400 other stations. Even at 1/14th of the original cost no takers came for the lavish building plagued by high taxes, maintenance and heating costs.
The station saw it's last passenger train, the East Bound LakeShore Limited, in 1979, eleven years after the demise of the New York Central. The 271 foot office tower had long since been abandoned. The building was sold to a developer for $75,000. Even as the building made the list of National Historic Places in 1984, the building was being stripped of everything that could be sold. From the magnificent restaurant to the elevator buttons nearly all was lost. Tax default then left the tower in the hands of the City of Buffalo, who sold the building to a new developer in 1986.
That transfer, like all the others, hasn't lead to any brighter days for the station which once served as a meeting point for sections of perhaps the most prestigious train the world has ever seen, The Twentieth Century Limited. Neither has being placed on the National Register of Historic Places done anything to stop the decay.
Today it isn't clear what the future of the building will be. Unlike the impact Pennsylvania Station in New York City had on the neighborhood it was built in, the large project that was Central Station had almost no impact on the neighborhoods east of Buffalo.
Penn Station, for example, impacted property values to such a height in mid-town Manhattan that it was rendered obsolete and gave way to more efficient use of space. Central Station on the other hand remains to this day the only building of that magnitude in the area. Instead of becoming an extension of Downtown Buffalo, the neighborhood remains relatively unchanged. That of course did allow the station to survive up to this point.
While some consider the building beyond repair, and no plans for use or restoration are apparent, it still exists as a monument to a more promising age, a time when the future was to look forward to. The age might be gone, but as a long lost letter might reveal intimate thoughts of an unknown person, so the still grand style of the concourse shown through the debree to reveal a seemingly unstoppable future the world had known. From the bronze colored designs over the ticket windows, to the shields depicting powerful steam locomotives in a space so large that the size might diminish man if he were in a church, instead was able to give a feeling of empowerment only known to the strongest among us to every chance passer by.
What a time it must have been to provide the resources for such a structure to be built. Not the bricks or the bronze and concrete, those materials still exist, but the resources that have somehow become lost in the drain swallowing ability in a dependent, can't do time. Consider what a statement it would be to the world to uncover the dignity the station still possesses. Whether or not the building, and likewise passenger travel survives into the Twenty-First Century might later be used as an instrument to render judgment on our time. Today the structure is not so much as sealed from the elements.
Eric Miller is a writer based in Akron, Ohio. He covered "City News" for a weekly paper in Pittsburgh until recently taking up Urban Studies for his Masters in Akron. Miller works in the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and has been an advocate for urban renewal, pedestrian-oriented environments, developing mass-transit links and the re-use of existing buildings and infrastructures. His study of Central Terminal is part of a project entitled "Alternative Urban Futures" which he is completing for his Masters.
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