Grand Central Grandeur, in the Village
Tomorrow, February 1, Grand Central Terminal will celebrate its Centennial. A year-long celebration of events and programming will ensue, marking the milestone of the opening of this Beaux Arts landmark (check out these great little-known facts about the station).
While attention will be justifiably focused on this Midtown landmark tomorrow, we thought we’d take the opportunity on the eve of its centennial to shed some light on another monumental transportation hub designed in equally grandiose style Grand Central’s architects, located (perhaps to your surprise) in Greenwich Village.
Known best for its connection to the Titanic and the Carpathia, Pier 54 on Little West 12th Street was built a few years earlier than Grand Central by the famed architects Warren & Wetmore.
Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore practiced architecture together in New York City. Both society men, their connections allowed them to secure commissions such as the New York Yacht Club and the Biltmore Hotel (they also designed this preservationist’s favorite building on the New Jersey Shore). Grand Central Terminal is considered their most renowned work, famous for not only its grand architectural detailing, but also for its ingeniously engineered layout of platforms, which separate use by level. Grand Central has the largest number of train platforms in the world and, according to Travel & Leisure, is the sixth most visited tourist attraction in the world.
But this was not Warren & Wetmore’s only transportation and engineering triumph. By 1910, the Hudson River waterfront from West 12th to 23rd Streets had been redeveloped into the Chelsea Piers, cementing the Village’s role as a major shipping hub of the City. The Piers were fronted by a row of stately structures, their facades embellished with pink granite. Many of the piers were built as docks for ocean-liners. Pier 54, one such example, was a pier for Cunard, a British shipping line.
In 1907, Pier 54 served as the departure point for the RMS Lusitania’s first voyage. The ship later met its ultimate demise in 1915, when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, contributing to the U.S’s involvement in World War I.
Following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the RMS Carpathia, a Cunard ship, picked up survivors of the disaster. The ship first went to Pier 59 at 18th Street, the pier of the White Star Line where the Titanic was supposed to arrive, to drop off the Titanic’s lifeboats that had been brought aboard. It then traveled south to Pier 54 where it dropped off the survivors, many of whom went to the American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailors’ Home and Institute (today the Jane Hotel). Here, the first inquisition was held as well as the first unofficial memorial. According to the New York Times, the “company of 100 were of the Titanic’s crew, and they had come from their sequestration on the Lapland to attend these services, and to receive aid and comfort from the never-failing friends of theirs, who make up the staff of the institute.” GVSHP held a special event last year at the Jane Hotel marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic– check it out HERE. You can also find out more about the ship’s connection to the Village HERE.
Pier 54 continued to serve luxury liners until the 1930s, when this business moved to piers in the West 40s and 50s. During World War II the pier served as an arrival and departure point for troops and later as a spot for some freight operations.
In the 1980s, plans were made for the WestSide Highway which called for Pier 54 to be demolished and in 1991, it was. The only piece of the historic pier that remains is its entrance archway, which still contains the inscription for the Cunard-White Star Line (the two shipping lines merged in 1934), although it is fading and the arch is rusting.
The pier itself exists today as an open air pier under the Hudson River Park Trust, which uses it as one of its main event venues.
If you’re interested in exploring the work of Warren & Wetmore and celebrating the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, there is a whole website devoted to this historic Centennial.