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August 25, 2023 17 mins

On this episode of Our American Stories, before she was an iconic First Lady, Jackie Kennedy was a born-and-raised New Yorker. By 1975—when she settled full-time back into Manhattan—Grand Central Train Station seemed doomed. The story begins there. 

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Speaker 1 (00:10):
This is Lee Habib, and this is our American Stories,
the show where America is the star and the American people.
Before she was an iconic First Lady of the United States,
Jackie Kennedy was a born and raised New Yorker. By
nineteen seventy five, when she settled full time back into Manhattan,

(00:30):
Grand Central Station seemed doomed. Its owners, the Penn Central Railroad,
had some grand plans. A decade earlier, Penn Central had
demolished Penn Station, replacing its fabulous wrought iron concourse with
a cramped terminal squashed beneath the newly built Madison Square Garden.
Here to tell the story is Natasha Wing. Natasha's best

(00:53):
known for her The Night Before children's series. She's here
to share this story from her book How Jackie Saved
Grand Central. Here's Natasha with the story.

Speaker 2 (01:07):
I was traveling in Paris, and I believe it was
two thousand and five, and I remember going to the
Musee d'orse and I had discovered that it once used
to be a train station, and at one point it
became a museum, an art museum. But it's because the
building was going to be demolished, so the people rose

(01:30):
up and said, you are not going to demolish this building.
We're going to save it, and it finally became an
art museum. So when I got back from my trip
from Paris, I talked to my agent and I mentioned
the muse d'orse and she said, well, that's interesting, because
did you know that Grand Central Terminal was set to

(01:52):
be demolished but Jackie Kennedy on NASAs stepped in and
helped save it. And I grew up in can I
live in Colorado now, but so we would go into
New York City, and you know, it's just part of
the architectures, part of the flavor of being in the city.
And I never associated it with a former first Lady.

(02:14):
But in the Grand Central Terminal, I did come across
the plaque, and I'll read it to you in memory
and honor of Jacqueline Kennedy O NASAs. In an age
when few people sought to preserve the architectural wonders that
are a daily reminder of our rich and glorious past,
a brave woman rose in protest to save this terminal

(02:35):
from demolition. Because of her tireless and valiant efforts, it
stands today as a monument to those who came before
us and built the greatest city known to mankind. Preserving
this great landmark is one of her many enduring legacies.
The people of New York City are forever grateful. And

(02:55):
I saw that, and I'm like, oh my gosh, I
have to write this story because billions of people probably
passed by this little plaque every day and didn't even
connect that she was involved in saving this wonderful building.
So just a little bit of background about Grand Central.

(03:15):
It was one of the largest and grandest railroad terminals
in the world, and it opened in nineteen thirteen, and
I'm going to read it excerpt. Some called it a
work of art with its pink marble steps, majestic sculptures,
dazzling chandeliers, towering windows, and cerulean vaulted ceiling painted with

(03:39):
gold leafs constellations. So it was the hub of people
coming in and out of the city. It took ten
years to build and cost sixty five million dollars. So
in the nineteen forties, which was the peak of train track,

(04:01):
sixty five million passengers came in and out of New
York City every year via the trains. So not only
did Grand Central Terminal act as a way to get
people in and now the city. It was also a
big community gathering spot and so this is where politicians made,
you know, important speeches. This is where they would close

(04:23):
it down and have a New Year's Eve dances and
artist Andy Warhol actually through an underground party there. And
there has been movies film there, like probably the most
memorable one was north By Northwest by Alfred Hitchcock. Cary
Grant was in that one. In The Cotton Club by
Francis Coppola was filmed there in the Fisher King. So

(04:45):
again it was another example of this wasn't just a
train station. This was a community center and it was
almost like having a miniature village within a city. So
there was another station that was actually considered even more
beautiful than Grand Central Terminal, and it was Penn Station.

(05:07):
And Hen's Station was also built in the Bazart style.
It was considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest
architectural works in New York City. In nineteen sixty three
it was demolished and people were just shocked. They were
kind of caught off by surprise by the developers they

(05:27):
ended up building well now today is Madison Square Garden.
And then when they heard that Grand Central Terminal was
going to suffer from the same they rose up and said,
oh no, this is not gonna happen twice. So in
nineteen seventy five is when the committee to say Grand

(05:48):
Central was formed, and shortly after is when Jackie O
became involved in it. So I believe you have a
recording of Jackie's speech she gave January thirtieth, nineteen seventy five,
in Grand Central Terminal to plea for saving the buildings.
So take a listen.

Speaker 3 (06:10):
I think if we don't care about our past, we
can have very much help for our future. And we've
all heard that it's too late, or that it has
to happen, or that it's inevitable. But I don't think
that's true because I think if there is a great effort,
even if it's at the eleventh hour, you can succeed.
And I think and I know that that's what we'll do.

Speaker 2 (06:32):
Truly, it started when she was in the White House
and when she became a First Lady in nineteen sixty one,
her and President John F. Kennedy and their children moved
into the White House. So she looked around and the
walls needed painting, the furniture was all shabby, and she
also was like, well, where's all the momentos of all

(06:53):
the presidents that came before us. So she took it
upon herself to renovate the White House because it is
the people's home essentially, so she wanted to make it
a place that Americans could be proud of and then
also visit and learn a little bit about the past presidents.

Speaker 1 (07:11):
And you're listening to Natasha Wing tell the story of
how Jackie Kennedy Onassis saved Grand Central and what a
save it was. When we come back, more of Natasha
Wing the story of how Jackie Kennedy Onassis saved Grand Central.
Here on Our American Stories, Lee Habibe here the host

(07:33):
of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're
bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from
our big cities and small towns. But we truly can't
do the show without you. Our stories are free to
listen to, but they're not free to make. If you
love what you hear, go to Ouramerican Stories dot com
and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

(07:56):
Go to Ouramerican stories dot Com and give and we
returned to our American stories and the story of how
Jackie Kennedy Onas has saved Grand Central. Let's continue when

(08:19):
Natasha Wing. Let's pick up when we last left off.

Speaker 2 (08:23):
So what she did is she went down into the
basement of the White House and drug up furniture. Like
a history detective, Jackie tracked down lost presidential treasures, the
desk used by Rutherford B. Hayes, candelabras purchased by James Munroe,
a chandelier bought by Ulysses S. Grant. Room by room,

(08:45):
she restored the dreary mansion into a stately home that
made Americans proud. She was really meticulous about the details
and then working with designers to get the house back
up to a very present home that Americans could be
proud of. So Jackie led preservation efforts beyond the walls

(09:07):
of the White House too. When the neighborhood across the
street from the presidential residence was set for destruction to
make way for modern court and office buildings, Jackie persuaded
the developers to stop. She used her position as first
Lady to get the plans changed. Old buildings were preserved
rather than torn down, and new buildings were built to

(09:28):
match the original architectural style. The restoration of the White
House and the neighborhood of Lafayette Square led to the
National Historic Preservation Act of nineteen sixty six, which helps
develop National heritage treasures. In nineteen seventy, Lafayette Square became
a National Historic Landmark. So a lot of the challenges

(09:53):
with this story were trying to figure out how to
make a building interesting and I knew. So that's what
the Committee to Save Grand Central Terminal was feeling like.
They were looking at this as something more than just
a building to save. It was history, it was people,
it was transportation. It was a community gathering place. It

(10:15):
was a place you can shop and meet your friends
for lunch. And what it actually represented to people of
New York City and actually people around the world. If
you think about it, it's called, you know, the gateway
to the city that never sleeps, but it's also a
gateway to United States. A lot of people fly into
New York City or they take the train or subway

(10:35):
into Grand Central Terminal and then they go from there
to discover America. So it is a gateway. It started
off as a court case that was set in New
York City, and not many people knew about what was
going on, you know, with the wanting to build a
skyscraper or demolished Grand Central Terminal as far as Americans,

(11:00):
so it was more like a New York City story.
When Jackie read about the demolition on the front page
of the newspaper, she was like, Oh no, this is
not going to happen. I am going to get involved.
And once she became involved and put out a plead
to Americans to help save the building, they would mail

(11:20):
in five dollars checks or one dollar checks, anything to help.
And it kind of became America's fight too, because, like
I said, it was a gateway to America, and everybody
knows what the Grand Central Terminal is, and so it
then elevated the fight to the Americans want to save this,
not just New York City residents. So this case went

(11:44):
back and forth, and so at one point Jackie was desperate.
She was a very good writer. She sat down and
I found this letter she wrote to the mayor, Mayor Beam,
the mayor of New York City, and it's really for me.
It was like a chill moment to see her handwriting,
because it wasn't a typed letter. It was she sat

(12:05):
down at her desk and wrote it out by hand.
And so she wrote, I write to you about Grand
Central Station with a prayer that you will see fit
to have the City of New York appeal Judd save
Palus's decision? Is it not cruel to let our city
die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments until
there will be nothing left of her history and beauty

(12:27):
to inspire our children. If they are not inspired by
the past of our city, where will they find the
strength to fight for her future. Americans care about their past,
but for short term gain, they ignore it and tear
down everything that matters. And this is a court case

(12:49):
that the interesting thing about it is it went. It
ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court,
and it was the first case that was about historic present,
and that's why everybody was holding their breath. Like Jackie,
she was super nervous about which way this was going
to go, because we all know the Supreme Court is

(13:12):
pretty much the final word. So in nineteen seventy eight
it was six to three rule in favor of saving
Grand Central Terminal and that's how the preservationists looked at it.
They're like, oh my gosh, now we have the ability
to save buildings that we have in our own cities
because of Jackie. So after the Supreme Court ruled in

(13:35):
favor of the preservation group to save Grand Central Terminal,
then that's when the work began. Because what was left
of years of neglect was the ceilings were just covered
in soot. Smoke from the trains would come up and
get stuck on the ceiling. More people smoked back then,
so there's a lot of cigarette smoke. And during World

(13:57):
War Two they blacked out the window so if planes
flew overhead, they wouldn't identify the building and bomb it.
So windows were blacked out and really ugly advertisements were
set up all over the place, so they were covering
the beautiful details of the woodwork and the marble and
the walls and everything. And then the homeless were starting

(14:20):
to take over and sleep in there, and it was
just not a really pleasant place to visit, and people
felt if they had to go there, they would try
to get through there as quick as possible. And then
when the restoration started, Jackie also was involved in that
and she helped the architects who were working on it

(14:42):
look at original drawings and photos of the building when
it was in its glory, and so their intention was
to try to restore it as much as they could
back to its initial glory. So it took about two
hundred million dollars and a team of craftsmen to get
the work done, and it took about two decades before

(15:05):
they could make the place shine again. So it was
not until nineteen ninety eight that it was rededicated. But
during the restoration period, in order to convince the people
of New York City that it was worth putting all
this money into restoring this building, is they just cleaned
a small little square of the ceiling and suddenly people

(15:29):
could see that beautiful blue underneath and they were like, wow,
I didn't even know that was there. You couldn't see
there's golden constellations painted up on the ceiling. And the
funny thing about that is they're actually backwards. So the
artists who did the constellation artwork on the ceiling had

(15:50):
it backwards. So the way they explained it was, it'says
if you're looking at the constellations, if you're way out
in the solar system and looking down at the constellations,
maybe like a god's eye view of the constellations. So
that was their kind of excuse of why they're backwards.
So it was a big deal. In nineteen ninety eight

(16:11):
when it was rededicated, most New Yorkers had never seen
Grand Central looking so glorious, and it was time to celebrate.
Yet one person was missing. Jackie had died four years earlier.
Many people honored her memory by visiting Grand Central to
write messages in memorial books and linger in the beautiful

(16:31):
space she had helped preserve.

Speaker 1 (16:37):
A terrific job on the production, editing and storytelling by
our own Greg Hengler, and a special thanks to Natasha Wing.
He's the author of the well known and best selling
children's series The Night Before, and she's also the author
of How Jackie Saved Grand Central, the true story of
Jacqueline Kennedy's fight for an American icon and praise God,

(17:00):
she fought with this beautiful space in one of our
great American cities. If we don't care about our past,
we won't care about our future. And then, of course
what she did that letter to the mayor, just how
beautiful and in the end using all of her credibility
and her popularity, and in nineteen ninety eight it was

(17:23):
saved two hundred million dollars, two decades worth of work,
and Jackie Kennedy Onassis never got to see it. She
died in nineteen ninety four, but her work and her
efforts live on, and by the way, we try to
do the same thing Jackie O did right here with
this show, preserving the good and beautiful things in life

(17:46):
so we can remember who we were. The story of
Jackie Kennedy and how she saved Grand Central here on
our American stories
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