New Yorkers marked the 100th birthday of Grand Central Terminal and ended up celebrating the legacy of another emblem of the city, former Mayor Ed Koch, who died early Friday and who supported efforts to spare Grand Central from demolition.
The always bustling terminal was even more crowded than usual as tourists and commuters leaned in to hear birthday speeches under the twinkling constellations that adorn the main concourse's soaring ceiling.
The ceremony started with a moment of silence for Koch, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg then praised both his predecessor and Grand Central.
"We almost lost this extraordinary building, if you remember, back in the '70s," Bloomberg said. "And as a matter of fact, at that time the whole city was crumbling, and then we elected Ed Koch."
Bloomberg said Koch "really would have wanted us to celebrate his life and the life of the city he loved. So I think it's only fitting that we're gathered here today to celebrate the life of another New York City icon, Grand Central Terminal."
Friday's party took place exactly 100 years after the keys to Grand Central were first given to the stationmaster on Feb. 1, 1913.
Conceived as a palace of train travel, the majestic Beaux Arts building now houses the Metro-North Railroad, a commuter line serving New York's northern suburbs, with connections to the subway system. It is also a shopping and dining destination and one of the world's most popular tourist attractions.
But as several speakers recounted, Grand Central was in danger of being demolished in the 1970s to make way for a new office tower. It was saved by preservationists including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Caroline Kennedy said her mother was a native New Yorker who cared deeply about the city and mourned the loss of buildings like the old Penn Station, torn down in the 1960s and replaced with Madison Square Garden.
"She understood how great public spaces can help build community," Kennedy said.
Kennedy read from a letter Onassis wrote to then-Mayor Abe Beame in 1975 urging him to support saving Grand Central. "It would be so noble if you were to go down in history as the man who was brave enough to stem the tide," Onassis wrote.
Robert Tierney, chairman of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, said noted that a newspaper recently ran a 1970s photo of Onassis and Koch, then a member of Congress, "leading the charge, leading the fight to save this building." He called it "a poignant memory."
The fight for Grand Central went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1978 that saving Grand Central under the city's Landmarks Preservation Act did not constitute a "taking" but was a reasonable use of regulatory power. The decision was the first time the court ruled on a preservation issue and paved the way for saving other historic structures.
"There are so many great buildings and neighborhoods that could well not be here today but for the landmarks law being upheld," Tierney said.
The birthday party started with a performance by the West Point Brass and Percussion Band, which played a "Grand Central Centennial Fanfare" commissioned for the occasion. Melissa Manchester sang Cole Porter's love song to the city, "I Happen to Like New York," written in 1930 when Grand Central was just 17.
Speakers included actress Cynthia Nixon and former New York Mets star Keith Hernandez, who said he often took the No. 7 subway train from Grand Central out to Shea Stadium.
"Welcome, everybody, to New York's other great playing field," Hernandez said. "I love this building."
A high school choir from the Bronx sang "Happy Birthday" as bakery workers wheeled out a cake shaped like Grand Central's famous clock, which has served as a meeting place for generations of New Yorkers.
Patricia Stacey of New Rochelle paused on her way to work and said she never tires of Grand Central.
"I stop each day and look up because it's such a pleasure to come through here," she said.
The celebration will continue with events throughout 2013, including a performance piece by artist Nick Cave in March and a parade of historic trains in May.
Several of Grand Central's businesses were offering 1913 deals for Friday's birthday celebration, including a 75-cent cocktail at Michael Jordan's The Steak House NYC and a 19-cent slice of cheesecake at the Oyster Bar. There were long lines at most of the businesses offering the price rollbacks.