The crowd psychology of Grand Central Station

New York's Grand Central Terminal, as it currently stands today, was built between 1903 and 1913. But it is the third Grand Central. Two earlier buildings — one called Grand Central Depot, and the other known as Grand Central Station (which remains the colloquial name for the Terminal) — existed on pretty much the exact same spot. But neither lasted nearly as long. The Depot opened in 1871, and was drastically reconstructed in 1899. The new building, the Station, only stood for three years before it began to come down in sections, eventually replaced by the current building.

That's a lot of structural shuffling, and at the Anthropology in Practice blog, Krystal D'Costa explains some of the history behind it. Turns out, the rapid reconfiguration of Grand Central had a lot to do with crowd control — figuring out how to use architecture to make the unruly masses a little more ruly. One early account that D'Costa quotes describes regular mad scrambles to board the train — intimidating altercations that could leave less-aggressive passengers stranded on the platform as their train left them behind.

The problem it seemed was that the interior of the depot did nothing to manage the Crowd—which could resume the same patterns of movement as they did on the street—and believe me, it was just as unruly out there. In the depot, where passengers were confronted with the unbridled power of locomotives, it was necessary to impose some sort of structure to the meeting: the Crowd had to be domesticated.

... A deadly collision in 1902 preceded public demand for an even safer, more accessible terminal. Warren and Wetmore won the bid for reconstruction, and the plan they produced included galleries, which added yet another transition area but, more importantly, rendered the Crowd into a spectacle. This design, which is the one visitors experience today, preserves the Crowd in a central area, providing raised balconies from which there are plenty of opportunities to people-watch. Being placed on display is not lost on the subconscious of the Crowd: what appears to be hustle and bustle are manifestations of many synchronizations happening at once. So what appears to be chaos to the casual observer is actually a play directed by design that makes the Crowd a key feature of the space even as it is minimized by the architectural elements that Grand Central Terminal is known for: the grand ceiling, the large windows, and the deep main concourse. These items add perspective to the Crowd and diminish its psychological power as an uncontrollable mass.

Read the rest of the story at Anthropology in Practice

Image: Grand Central Terminal, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from maha-online's photostream


  1. Maggie,

    About that headline: you do, of course, mean Grand Central Terminal.  You may call Station “colloquial”; I call it simply wrong.  Only if one is speaking of the subway station or the old structure that predated the 1913 building would “Station” be correct.

    1.  You are so correct!

      A good book on the amazing construction of the current structure is:   “Grand Central Terminal:Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City”  by Kurt C. Schlichting, isbn: 9780801865107

    2. FWIW, the United States Post Office located next to Grand Central Terminal is officially called Grand Central Station.

      1. A good point.  In general, of course, one may expect any USPS Post Office station to include “Station” in the name.  And a postal terminal wouldn’t make much sense, unless perhaps it’s a dead-letter office: as with a roach motel, stuff would come in but not go out!

      1. Yes, it can be somewhat confusing that in railway terms station can refer either generically to a stop along a rail line or specifically to such a stop that is not a terminal — i.e., a structure that a line passes through rather than an end point.  Which is all the more reason, I’d say, to stick to terminal when talking about terminals — such as Grand Central.

        Besides, they put the place’s name right out in front, in big letters….

        1. Where is a ven diagram when you need one.

          A terminal is a kind of station.  So really both terms are right.

          In the sense that Grand Central Station is at the Grand Central Terminal building….

  2. “rendered the Crowd into a spectacle”! I wish we had people-watching opportunities like that in Seattle. Would have to include a roof, preferentially a transparent one. (We also need more skylights and balconies, and periscopes to keep our tunnel-like apts. and cafés from blinding you in the front and being too dark everywhere else.)

  3. If Grand Central exists to passify and calm passengers, Penn Station exists to enrage and destroy souls. Damn you Robert Moses.

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