May 11, 2017

This Children's Book Introduces Preservation To A Young Audience

  • By: Meghan White
  • Photography: Natasha Wing/Alexandra Boiger
Cover art for Natasha Wing's children's story. Credit: Natasha Wing/Alexandra Boiger

In 1975, 12 years following the demolition of the iconic Penn Station landmark, New York City's Grand Central Terminal came under a similar threat. To be fair, by this time the Beaux-Arts train station's glamour was dimmed by dust and grime, and it was well known by locals as a place where one could find illegal transactions of various sorts taking place below the historic windows that were covered up with advertisements.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, however, worried that losing Grand Central in favor of a modern office building could begin a bleak trend in the city she loved. Though certainly not the only person involved, she brought national attention to the issue that became one of the preservation community's greatest achievements.

I spoke with Natasha Wing, author of When Jackie Saved Grand Central, published in 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The children’s book addresses the controversy behind the proposed demolition of New York City’s Grand Central Station in 1975 and Jackie Kennedy’s efforts to save it, all while introducing children to historic preservation.

What inspired you to become a children’s author?

I’ve been an author for 25 years. I began in advertising where I did a little bit of copywriting, but I was looking for something where I could be more creative. One day I picked up The Polar Express at a Christmas bazaar in Phoenix, Arizona. I was intrigued by the cover. It was one of those moments where everything else sort of fell away and I heard a voice say “I want to make this magic for kids!”

How did you find out about how Grand Central Terminal's story?

I visited Paris and went to the Musée D’Orsay, which is a train station turned into an art museum. It was almost demolished, but the Parisians rallied around it. I told my agent who then said, “Did you know that Jackie O. helped save Grand Central Terminal?” I thought, “How could they even think about tearing down that building?” My curiosity was piqued.

What is your connection to Grand Central?

Grand Central sticks with you. I grew up in Connecticut so I’ve gone through it a few times. It almost feels like I’m in a church. It has that sound to it. It’s a place of respect to me.

How did Jackie save Grand Central?

The Municipal Art Society was very active in preventing its demolition. People were still heartbroken over Penn Station in 1963, and they knew Grand Central couldn't go too. [Editor's Note: The Municipal Art Society contributed to the establishment of the Landmarks Law in 1965, 2 years after Penn Station was demolished.] Once Jackie became involved, it hit the national stage. She could make pleas to the world or reporters, and then it would get picked up by people who didn’t live in New York City.

What were some of the challenges with turning this topic into a children’s story?

I had to be careful about my wording when explaining historic preservation because it’s a sophisticated topic. I would write “we wanted to save this building,” for example, to make it understandable.

It’s a challenge writing non-fiction because you find a really cool fact and want to throw it in, but my editor helped me make sure I wasn’t burdening the story with facts or complicated explanations. We added an endnotes section with additional information.

At one point I was having a little trouble making the emotional connection, and a friend gave me a great piece of advice. “Think of the building as a character,” she said. “You’re not just saving a building, you’re saving what it means for the people who use that building, who go there to eat lunch, to meet their girlfriend, to meet a long-distance friend under that clock.”

An interior illustration of Natasha Wing's new children's book. Credit: Natasha Wing/Alexandra Boiger
An interior illustration in Natasha Wing's new children's book of Grand Central Terminal. Credit: Natasha Wing/Alexandra Boiger

What do you hope children get out of this book?

I’d like for them to gain an appreciation that there are people trying to save buildings that are in their own cities. I want them to realize how expensive it would be to replace a building made with marble and stained glass windows—you can’t just knock it down, you’ve got to save it and reuse it. It’s a connection to the past.

Do you have a favorite architectural style or building?

I love the Beaux-Arts style of the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. A few years ago I moved into a Midcentury Modern house [in Colorado], though, and I love its simplicity and clean lines.

Are you planning another children’s book about preservation?

It’s been suggested that I write a book on all of the places Jackie saved! We’ll see how this book goes.

You can purchase Wing's book, When Jackie Saved Grand Central, on Amazon—and support the National Trust along the way!

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and an editorial assistant for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

mwhite@savingplaces.org

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