Grand Central Terminal, built in 1913 to replace a previous outdated structure, stands as a grandiose Beaux-Arts edifice. Beaux-Arts, the academic architectural style taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 1830s-90s, was based on the aesthetic principles of neoclassicism. It became popular in America as a result of the City Beautiful movement, which championed the idea that civic architecture had to be beautiful. Beaux-Arts architects employed a classical vocabulary with decorative flair, frequently incorporating elaborate carvings and and architectural sculpture into their work.
Though the competition for the design of Grand Central Terminal included such big names as McKim, Mead & White and Daniel Burnham, they were bested by the firm of Reed & Stem, known for its strong engineering capabilities. The Vanderbilts, owners of New York Central, decided to add another firm to the project: Warren & Wetmore, renowned for its Beaux-Arts designs. Both Warren and Wetmore were very well connected socially. (Whitney Warren, one of the firm’s principals, happened to be related to and traveled in the same circles as the Vanderbilts.) Even though the decision to use two architectural firms was highly unorthodox, the plan worked well; Reed & Stem took on responsibility for functional aspects of the design while Warren & Wetmore concentrated on its aesthetic features.
Grand Central, designed to serve the complex function of a major train terminal and gateway to New York City, was conceived in the spirit of the City Beautiful movement. With its Corinthian columns, semicircular arched windows, strictly symmetrical composition, and grand entrance, the terminal was built to resemble an ancient temple.
Reflecting its function, the Grand Central facade was designed to symbolize the triumph of the railroad; the imposing sculptural group on top of the 42nd Street entrance entitled “Glory of Commerce” is designed by Jules Coutan. It depicts Mercury, the god of commerce, flanked by Minerva—Wisdom and Hercules—Strength. Right underneath it is the largest Tiffany’s stained-glass clock in the world.
The two eagles perched above the Lexington Avenue and Vanderbilt Avenue entrances were a part of a larger group of eagles—about ten—that adorned the Grand Central Depot, Grand Central’s predecessor. While the rest of the eagle group eventually got scattered throughout New York, these two have remained and still keep watch over this magnificent example of Beaux-Arts architecture.