Grand Central Terminal - usually called Grand Central Station - is 100
years old this month, a living symbol of New York City. A year-long
celebration is planned for the Beaux-Arts landmark - "beloved, glowing,
indispensable," as a new book describes it - that is also one of the
worldís most visited tourist destinations.
Visitors marveled at the ornate limestone building when Grand Central
opened on February 2, 1913. They still do. It is the largest train
station in the world, by the number of platforms: 44, serving 67 tracks,
all underground. About 750,000 people pass through its halls each day,
whether to shop, sightsee, or catch a subway or commuter train.
The immense main concourse, with its arched windows, jewel-like
four-sided clock and old-fashioned ticket-seller windows has appeared in
many movies, as well, from the 1950s thriller North by Northwest, to a
scene in the 1995 The Fisher King, where weary commuters crossing the
marble floor are briefly transformed into waltzing couples.
"Grand Central is the kind of temple, cathedral that testifies to the
magnificence of rail transportation, the kind that God would have built
if heíd had the money," says Dan Brucker, a transit authority docent who
has worked at the terminal for three decades. "But He didnít. The
Vanderbilts did," he adds, referring to the family whose fortune,
derived from sea and rail transportation, built the station.
"Look at how beautiful it is," he says. "This is the beginning of
20th-century architecture. And as people come through this terminal,
they donít even realize that the magnificent celestial ceiling above
them, the very roof of heaven, is exactly wrong, is exactly opposite:
Itís a mirror image."
It is true: the turquoise October sky painted on Grand Centralís
cylindrical ceiling, with pinpricks of light for stars, reverses the
Zodiac, whether through the painterís error or choice. "Some suggest the
stars are the firmament as God would see the heavens from His or Her
side of the firmament, and I sort of like that version," says urban
historian Justin Ferate, who has been giving tours of Grand Central for
Ferate says the station was designed to make travel pleasurable: a
journey, not a slog. "The amazing thing about Grand Central is that it
processes many, many more people than most airports in the world, in a
way thatís gracious, and friendly," he says. "Looking up at the starry
sky of Grand Central, you know youíre a traveler, youíre going off on a
great adventure, youíre going to follow your stars and find your dream.
Youíre also going to find your train where itís supposed to be."
Each architectural element was sized with human perception and anatomy
in mind, Ferate adds, from the steps to the blocks in the Tennessee
marble floors. He demonstrates by walking backwards down the concourse
steps, taking off on a looping run through the crowd, and then sitting
down on the floor.
"One of the amazing things about why people donít run into each other in
Grand Central is something very simple," he says. "Each block of stone
in Grand Central is the length of your leg. Each block of stone is a
different color, so itís a checkerboard, based on you. So, when you run
across the floor, you subliminally know exactly where everyone is
The terminal is full of secrets and rooms that few people ever see. Deep
underground, on a disused track that runs a few blocks to a space
beneath the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, sits a rusting railway car. It was
used by former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who hid the fact of his
paralysis from public view by transferring directly from the train to a
private automobile on his visits to New York.
In the Grand Central Oyster Bar, a restaurant thatís been part of the
terminal from the beginning, an acoustical anomaly means that private
conversations donít always remain private: the tiled ceiling makes even
whispers at some tables audible on the other side of the room. The
whispering gallery, which has the same tiled ceiling, is a favorite
stage for marriage proposals, according to Ferate.
Little-remembered now is that Grand Central Terminal was the target of a
Nazi plot during WWII: Two German agents were dispatched to sabotage the
giant rotary convertors in a deep subbasement that supplied electrical
current for the railways. The two were found out and arrested before
they reached New York. In 1976, a group of Croatian nationalists planted
a bomb in a locker at the station, hijacked a plane, and issued a set of
demands. The New York Police Departmentís attempt to disarm the bomb
according to their instructions went awry, however. Thirty people were
wounded and an NYPD bomb squad member killed when the bomb exploded.
of Justin Ferateís favorite aspects of Grand Central is its exterior:
not only the statue of the Roman god Mercury standing atop the Tiffany
clock on the facade - flanked by statues of Minerva and Hercules - but
the raised road and tunnel that shunt traffic around the terminal. "As
you go through the tunnel, youíll see daylight at the end of the tunnel
and then youíll rise high above the city," he explains, "And youíll have
buildings on the right and left that are holding you, just like a roller
coaster ride at Coney Island!"
Grand Central narrowly escaped destruction when plans for topping it
with an office tower were unveiled in 1968. The 10-year battle to save
the terminal helped create the modern architectural preservation
movement around the U.S. Now, no one would think of tampering with its
classic beauty. In fact, in 2019, Grand Central will become even larger,
adding a new subterranean station serving the Long Island Railroad, and
cutting the travel times of thousands of commuters. The escalator ride
down to what Dan Brucker says will be the deepest station on earth will
take two and a half minutes.