Perched across Park Avenue at 42nd Street, Grand Central Terminal is the only building in New York to obstruct a grid avenue and force a detour around itself. This anomaly relates to the history of railroad access to Manhattan. In 1831 New York State chartered the Harlem Railroad to operate in Manhattan, and it chose Fourth Avenue as its route. The terminus of the line was the Harlem Depot at 26th Street and Fourth Avenue, and in 1837, when steam locomotives were introduced, the Harlem Railroad established a maintenance barn at 42nd Street, then remote from the built-up city. In 1859 an act of the state legislature banning steam engines south of 42nd Street led to the primacy of the uptown location and the eventual abandonment of the 26th Street Station.
In 1871 Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad, opened the Grand Central Depot. The three-block structure—it faced 42nd Street, and the train shed extended to 45th Street—was the largest train station in the world. Funded by the commodore, the depot was a personal monument as well as a remarkable investment in the city’s transportation infrastructure. It also began the slow process of turning the station into an urban design opportunity. In 1872 neighborhood dissatisfaction with the booming rail traffic along Fourth Avenue inspired the Fourth Avenue Improvement, which involved sinking the tracks below grade. From the station to 48th Street, the tracks ran in an open cut, crossed by street overpasses, and from there to 96th Street, the subgrade tracks were covered by a landscaped and ventilated median. The station was no longer just the end of the tracks but the visual anchor of the renamed Park Avenue.
The commodore’s depot was demolished in 1910 and replaced by the beloved current station, Grand Central Terminal (1903–12), including the ramped street that loops around the building and connects the two parts of Park Avenue.