Fun Places to Visit
The Unknown Grand Central Terminal, New York City, New York
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — December 8, 2010
Manhattan's 48-acre Grand Central Terminal (not “Grand Central Station” which is actually the name of both the adjacent post office and nearby subway station) is currently the world’s largest railroad station in the world in terms of the number of platforms: 44 (and 67 tracks). The platforms and tracks are below ground but are on two levels: 41 tracks on the upper level and 26 on the lower level. (However, if you could all of the tracks along platforms and in the rail yards, you’ll end up with a figure of over 100 tracks.) Below these two levels workers are laboring on a new terminal for the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), “the East Side Access project,” that will bring the Grand Central’s totals up to 75 tracks and 48 platforms.
Exterior of new york city's grand central terminal at night.
(Photo © Sepavo | Dreamstime.com)
Grand Central, which opened in 1913, covers 48 acres and serves three commuter railroads: the Metro-North Railroad to Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties in New York State, and Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut.
There are many interesting aspects of Grand Central:
The $20 Million Clock over the Information Booth
Above the marble and brass pagoda-like information booth on the Main Concourse is a unique four-faced clock dating from the original opening of the building in 1913.
The four faces of this clock at grand central terminal are made of opals and may be worth as much as $20 million.
(Photo © 2004 Metropolitan Transportation Authority.)
Many people don’t realize that the four white clock faces are made of a semi-precious stone, opal. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have estimated the clock’s value at between $10 million and $20 million. The clock (like all clocks at Grand Central) is set by the atomic clock in the Naval Observatory in Bethesda, Maryland, and is accurate to within 1 second every 20 billion years.
The Whispering Gallery
Grand Central’s Whispering Gallery is situated outside of the Oyster Bar & Restaurant, between two ramps that take you down to the Lower Level. It is an arched hallway, essentially a 4-cornered Catalan vault, sunken slightly from the main floor. It was designed by the father and son team of Rafael Guastavino and Rafael Guastavino Jr., who apparently didn’t realize what they had achieved acoustically.
Two visitors to new York City's grand central terminal test the "whispering gallery" and the ability for two people to carry on a conversation at a distance by having them speak into diagonally opposite corners of this vaulted space.
(Photo © Richard Grigonis.)
There is no sign to indicate the Whispering Gallery’s presence or how to make it work, so here are its “operating instructions:” If you stand at one corner of the area and face the ceramic wall (the bottom of a diagonal arch), and if another person stands at the opposite corner and faces the wall, you two will be able to talk to each other across a distance of about 30 feet! It will sound as if both of you were face-to-face, only a foot or two away from each other. Moreover, the thousands of people passing buy will not be able to hear your conversation, nor will they have any effect on it.
What’s the secret of the Whispering Gallery?
Whispering galleries occur whenever a building incorporates a dome, vault, or some kind of circular or elliptical area. Sonic “foci” areas appear along the room’s circumference. Stand in one and talk or even whisper, and the sound will reflect along the curvature of the ceiling or wall (called “telegraphing”) and converge at the other “focus” where the other person is standing. Thus, conversations can be carried out between people standing in different parts of the building and over relatively great distances.
The Grand Central Whispering Gallery is a favorite locale for marriage proposals (jazz composer Charles Mingus proposed to his wife there). Couples also frequent it on Valentine’s Day.
The Guastavinos also did similar ceiling work in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Guastavino’s restaurant under the 59th Street Queensboro Bridge the Food Emporium grocery store, and the adjacent Oyster Bar, which also has “foci,” so don’t try to carry one any private conversations in there.
The Astronomical Mural Ceiling
125 feet above the 275-foot long by 120 foot wide Main Concourse is a huge astronomical mural, from a design by the French painter Paul Helleu. It was originally a painted fresco of star constellations in the Mediterranean sky; the zodiac constellations shown are visible from October until March. Inadequate ventilation and negative effects of time faded the fresco, so in the 1940s it was replaced with sections of painted canvas. The 2,500 stars are painted in gold leaf on a cerulean blue oil background. The ceiling darkened again, this time because of a coating of grime generated by tar and nicotine from commuter cigarettes, cigars and pipes. This was cleaned during the 1990s restoration, but a small untreated patch was left to show what it looked like previously.
The constellations painted on the ceiling of new york's grand central terminal are reversed from what you would see looking up at the mediterranean night sky.
(Photo © King Ho Yim | Dreamstime.com)
The 60 brightest stars mark the constellations and used to be lit with 40 watt light bulbs (replaced from a space above the ceiling), but are now illuminated with fiber optics.
The “scandal” of this mural centers on the fact that, shortly after the terminal opened, anyone with any knowledge of astronomy could see that the zodiac appears backwards. The best explanation is that artist Paul Helleu based the mural on a medieval book that depicted the heavens as they would be seen by God from “above” the celestial sphere. Thus, like the denizens of heaven, you’re actually looking down on the stars, not up at them.
Mysterious Track 61
The underground Track 61 does not appear on a map of Grand Central Terminal. Originally it was not meant for passenger service but was probably used by a 19th century freight and cargo transport company at that location called the Adams Express Co. Also in the area (between 47th and 50th Streets and Park and Lexington Avenues) was the old Grand Central Palace exposition area, and railroad heating and power facilities. Some of this was torn down in 1929 and in 1931 the Waldorf-Astoria erected a 40-story hotel there. The Waldorf is coincidentally directly over the tracks and there is a small basement near the remaining two platforms for the powerhouse and the former location of Adams Express.
track 61, used by franklin delano roosevelt as a secret New York train station and siding. here we see Heather Alexander of the bbc taking a tour of Track 61 and its platform beneath the Waldorf Astoria.
(Photo © bbc.)
Since a stairway and a freight elevator run from the platform to a 49th Street entrance, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used Track 61 as a sort of private railroad station, a way to clandestinely make his way in and out of Grand Central Terminal without leaving his armor-plated Pierce Arrow limousine. The car would drive off the train onto the platform and right into the freight elevator, which would then whisk him up to the Waldorf’s garage. The whole process could be reversed and FDR could depart for his residence in Hyde Park once again without having to leave the auto. (FDR suffered from polio and didn’t want anyone to see his actual crippled condition.)
Another stairway exit, sans elevator, can be found on the 50th Street side of the Waldorf. Although FDR was the only U.S. President known to use Track 61, in theory any wealthy individual with a private rail car could probably persuade the railroad to let them use this secret subterranean railway siding. It is said that Andy Warhol used the platform for a party in 1965.
Also at this location is what has been called a “mysterious bulletproof Secret Service railroad car,” which is actually just a Penn Central baggage car left there for service as a work train.
The “Kissing Room”
Unlike Track 61, there was a railroad platform actually used by a hotel. The hotel in question was the old Biltmore, now the Bank of America building. A room beneath it was officially called the Biltmore Room, but it was nicknamed the “Kissing Room.” It was where the 20th Century Limited train would arrive and celebrities, soldiers and politicians would disembark to meet their loved ones and do the usual hug-and-kiss routine in the room before ascending the stairs to the Biltmore Hotel.
Huge roughly spherical chandeliers can be found on both sides of the Main Concourse and several in Vanderbilt Hall. They look a bit like weather balloons or giant gilded melons.
large gold plated chandeliers at GRand central terminal in new York.
(Photo © Arenacreative | Dreamstime.com)
For years everyone thought these chandeliers were thought to be made of bronze. However when the chandeliers were restored, removal of decades of grime revealed a surface of nickel and gold. The use of electric lights was also an exercise in opulence back in 1913.
A Slightly Delayed Construction Project: the Second Grand Staircase
Grand Central Terminal’s original architectural plans (by Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore) called for two grand staircases in the Beaux-arts style, modeled after the grand staircase at the Paris opera house. (The architect Whitney Warren trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France.) However, when the building opened on February 2, 1913, only a single staircase was to be found, the one on the west side, adjacent to the author’s favorite restaurant, Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse.
The West staircase of New York city's grand central terminal is modeled after the one at the paris opera house. A STAIRCASE ON THE EAST SIDE WAS CONSTRUCTED AS PART OF RESTORATION WORK DONE IN THE 1990S.
(Photo © King Ho Yim | Dreamstime.com)
Apparently, there was nothing interesting on the east side of Manhattan in 1913. When the building was restored in the 1990s, the second staircase was built (it has slightly less elaborate balustrades than the west stairs to signify to archaeologists of future generations that this was a modification).
The Subliminal Acorns-and-Oak-Leaves Motif
A pervasive, subtle design motif at Grand Central is that of acorns and oak leaves. It can be seen in French sculptor Sylvain Salieres’ headpieces above each departure track entrance, in the water fountains stonework, in the design of the chandeliers, and in the green metal windows frames seen from the Main Concourse and Vanderbilt Hall. Vanderbuilt did not come from a moneyed family having a family crest, so he created one, settling on the great oak tree’s acorns and oak leaves, adopting as his family motto the old saying, “great oaks from little acorns grow.”
The Sculpture, “Transportation”
On the 42nd Stree exterior of Grand Central Terminal can be found the massive sculpture “Transportation,” by yet another French artist, Jules-Alexis Coutan. “Massive” is perhaps an understatement. When completed, it was the largest sculptural group in the world: carved from Indiana limestone, the group stands 50 feet high and 60 feet wide, weighs 1,500 tons, and surmounts a clock 13 feet in diameter.
The 1,500-ton sculpture "transportation" that sits atop new York's grand central station. french artist Jules-alexis coutan designed it.
(Photo © Sepavo | Dreamstime.com)
The triumphant figure standing at its center is the Roman god Mercury (the Greeks called him Hermes), the swift messenger of the gods, who here symbolizes both the speed of locomotives and Manhattan’s rapid growth of commerce. Mercury is flanked by the goddess Minerva to his right (who represents wisdom and the thought and planning that went into the building) and the mighty hero Hercules on the left, who stands for the strength and perseverance of the men who built it. There is also an eagle present, which signifies the United States.
Ironically, Coutan’s greatest masterpiece wasn’t finished by him—he simply sent over a quarter-size model, and the full-sized version was fashioned by Donnelly and Ricci, and William Bradley and Sons. The group was constructed in sections, and these were pieced together atop Grand Central.
Grand Central Station in New York at Rush Hour, looking west.
(Photo © Andrew Kazmierski | Dreamstime.com)
We've just scratched the surface when comes to all of the interesting things about Grand Central Terminal. When in New York, take a tour of it (live tour guides and audio tours are available).