Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was remembered Monday for her grassroots effort that helped save the iconic Grand Central Terminal from demolition in the 1970s.
A bronze relief plaque with the former first lady's portrait was unveiled inside the terminal's Pershing Square entrance on 42nd Street. Onassis was known for her commitment to preserve the city's public spaces and the nation's historic landmarks.
Inside the foyer adjacent to the plaque are two gold-framed video screens that recap Onassis' work in saving the terminal. Her celebrity status helped deter city, state and federal agencies from leveling the Beaux Arts terminal, and she was joined in the effort by architects, historians, art patrons and average New Yorkers.
Joseph Giulietti, MTA Metro-North Railroad president, an assistant conductor at the time, remembers Grand Central, opened in 1913, "was really deteriorating. There were rats running around. It was going downhill fast and it was easy to say let's tear it down and build something new."
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday, Onassis was remembered for her behind-the-scenes work in the restoration phase and fundraising needed to keep the terminal open.
"Jackie renewed our commitment to tomorrow by preserving our history. She was a public voice that protected our national treasures," said William J. vanden Heuvel, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and former assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964.
Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society of New York, who worked to stop government agencies and the courts from demolishing Grand Central, remembers Onassis calling him "to see how she could help." He said she stood for more than an hour taking dozens of photographs with state legislators in hopes of winning their support to save the terminal.
"I knew she was hungry, thirsty and tired -- standing on her feet that long. She was a real pro," Barwick said.
In a 1975 letter to then-Mayor Abraham Beame, Onassis writes: "Americans care about their past, but for a short-term gain they ignore and tear down everything that matters . . . Old buildings were made better than we will ever be able to afford to make them again . . ."
As a result, today "Grand Central is a cathedral," said Thomas Prendergrast, MTA chairman and chief executive. "It is one of the best known and loved transportation hubs in the world."