In 1902, William J. Wilgus, an engineer for the New York Central Railroad, came up with the concept of roofing over the yards around Grand Central and building hotels, offices and apartment houses. Among the earliest concepts were a 20-story tower over the terminal itself, and an adjacent hotel, later erected as the Biltmore, from Vanderbilt to Madison Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets. In 1910, The New York Times published a design for a ceremonial Park Avenue showing tall, income-producing office buildings, but also new structures for the National Academy of Design and the Metropolitan Opera, their cultured imprimatur blunting the nakedness of the railroad’s commercial quest.
In the next 20 years, Mr. Wilgus’s plan remade the dozen or so blocks north of the terminal. The Biltmore was the best known, 26 stories high but set back along Vanderbilt Avenue to give the terminal breathing room. With no stores on Madison Avenue, a main dining room 120 feet long and a terrace on Vanderbilt, it was a particularly debonair work. Inside, the Palm Court had a timepiece on a wooden screen; “under the clock at the Biltmore” became a legendary meeting place.
Vanderbilt filled up with structures like the high-rise Yale Club, at 44th and Vanderbilt, and the Roosevelt Hotel, from 45th to 46th. Along Lexington, buildings included the giant Commodore Hotel at 42nd and the streamlined Graybar Building at 44th.
But it was the width of Park Avenue that offered the canvas for a much grander design, something really worthy of the name Terminal City. There were a few commercial buildings, like the New York Central Building, with its signature tower, spanning Park at 46th; and the crisp, cool Postum Building at 250 Park from 46th to 47th.
Office construction here was premature, though — the newly developed apartment house was in demand, as the well-to-do began to abandon town houses and pare their servant rosters.
Just north of the Postum Building rose 270 Park Avenue, with 3,000 rooms and, according to the magazine Buildings and Building Management in 1920, 100 millionaires. Its arcaded central courtyard, with triumphal arches, struck a particularly civilized note.
Directly opposite rose 277 Park Avenue, a colossal 12-section apartment house organized around a central court and 432 apartments.
The Hotel Chatham went up on Vanderbuilt Avenue, from 48th to 49th, with a delicious terra cotta frosting along the top stories. Opposite, at 299 Park, the discreet Park Lane opened in the mid-1920s, an apartment hotel whose central dining room had tapestries and a coffered ceiling. In 1924 Arts & Decoration magazine referred to these as “the new apartment buildings which now constitute the social background of New York.”
They were, it is true, enclaves of the rich and well born, with names like Aldrich, Betts, Dodge and Rutherfurd. But there were also those whose families and fortunes were newer, like the developer Charles Paterno, the actor Rudolph Valentino and Frederick T. Ley, who started work in construction at age 15 but later was the contractor for the Chrysler Building.. The development of the residential section of Terminal City continued up to 50th Street, and was matched by construction farther north.
Terminal City began to dissolve after World War II, when commerce swept the avenue almost clean of residential buildings. The construction along Lexington has survived, except for the old Commodore at 42nd Street, refaced around 1980 for a new Hyatt. But its original gritty black smokestack still juts up from its back corner.