The Grandest Destination

Hurry into, but not through, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal to discover a bevy of secrets
lifestyle, travel, history
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Stephanie Lipscomb

The click of heels on marble reaches its crescendo, amplified by the carved stone cavern at the heart of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. The pulsating rhythm generated by the rise and fall of thousands of boots and wingtips, stilettos and pumps blends together into an almost deafening echo.

The din fades quickly as the wave of men and women wearing those shoes reach their train platforms, exit doors, or staircases leading to a favorite refreshment stand or watering hole. Silence falls, causing the ears of those left in the hall to ring and to wonder why so many of the hundreds of thousands of daily visitors to Grand Central neglect to stop and smell … everything, from the intoxicating aroma of brewing coffee and baking bread to the subtle scent of 103 years of history emanating from the terminal’s gleaming metalwork, polished floors and sun-streaked windows.

“As many as 750,000 people a day pass through here, and most don’t realize what they are missing,” says Daniel Brucker, spokesman for Grand Central’s operator, the Metro-North Railroad. “They hurry, hurry, hurry. But this is not a place to dash through. This is a destination.”

Approximately 750,000 commuters a day pass through Grand Central Terminal’s main concourse.

A terminus, in fact. A place where journeys start and end. More than 750 trains, carrying mostly commuters from Connecticut and New York’s Hudson River valley, arrive and depart daily. That many riders then transfer to or from buses, taxis or the subway—correctly referred to as Grand Central station because it is but a waypoint for seven different New York City subway lines—for another leg of their trip does not alter the sense that they have arrived in a special place. If New York’s other transportation epicenter, Times Square, is the “crossroads of the world,” Grand Central is the crossroads of the New York City vibe.

And like all great roadside attractions, Grand Central rewards those willing to explore and learn its secrets. Hidden within the terminal are US$10 million worth of opals; a tennis club once the realm of acting greats Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns and Groucho Marx; the classiest cocktail lounge in New York; a 49-acre basement that is the city’s deepest; an acoustical architectural wonder; the largest Tiffany glass clock in the world; and an amusing example of how even rocket scientists sometimes struggle with basic math.

The terminal is also home to a century-old restaurant, a fresh food market, a ceiling mural that would wow Michelangelo, chandeliers dipped in liquid gold and bearing 4,000 bare lightbulbs and, of course, an Apple Store.

“Anything you want, anywhere you want to go, you need only ask,” says Audrey Johnson, who for a quarter-century has manned the information booth that is the centerpiece of Grand Central’s main concourse. “We have it all here at the terminal.”

Seeking Out Secrets

Step atop this overturned milk crate, Grand Central’s “docent in chief” says. Now wriggle your torso in between these clock gears and that granite beam. Take a look out the window.

The view is impressive—a bird’s-eye look down iconic Park Avenue. But the window itself is what Brucker, a man in his seventh decade of life, climbed two vertical steel ladders, stooped under several chin-high support beams and hopped across a crevasse in the floor in order to show off.

“As many as 750,000 people a day pass through here, and most don’t realize what they are missing.”

Made of Tiffany glass, the circular window doubles as the face of a clock that measures 13 feet in diameter. The legendary artisans of the Tiffany Studios designed an intricate golden sunburst as the window’s centerpiece and surrounded it with sky blue glass and white Roman numerals on red backgrounds to showcase the time.

“Worth the climb, yes?” Brucker asks.

Physical stamina is a prerequisite to discovering many Grand Central mysteries. The terminal encompasses 2.3 million square feet on 12 levels, many connected by either long sloping ramps, switchback stairwells or gilded yet slow-moving elevators. Deep in the terminal’s bowels lays an inaccessible hideaway as vast as the main concourse—a subbasement housing machinery that converts the alternating current electricity dispersed on the public electrical grid into the direct current electricity needed to power the rail lines.

This level, known as M42, gained notoriety during World War II when the U.S. Army guarded the room against saboteurs. Grand Central was the epicenter of military troop and supply movement in the Northeast United States, and the electricity converters of the time could be irreparably damaged by a single pail full of sand—the heat and pressure generated inside the rotary turbine would turn the sand into solid glass in minutes.

“Orders were to shoot anybody who entered the room on sight,” Brucker says. “Rumor is nobody got shot, but a few civilians who ended up near there by mistake were forced to stay and bunk in with the troops until the war’s end.”

Grand Central’s chandeliers were dipped in liquid gold and together bear 4,000 lightbulbs.

Back above ground and high overhead, the terminal’s most distinctive feature—the zodiac mural painted upon the main concourse’s barreled ceiling—harbors a trio of mysteries. The first involves the designer, Paul Helleu, depicting the constellations in reverse order, as if viewed from heaven’s perspective. The second secret is a single spot darkened by more than 80 years worth of cigarette smoke. Crews left the small section untouched during a 1990s restoration as a testament to the significance of the ceiling’s cleansing.

The last piece of ceiling confidential is the rocket hole. The United States government decided at the height of the space race to display a rocket in the terminal’s main concourse. The spaceship turned out to be nearly as tall as the room and required a hole be punched in the ceiling.

“Makes you wonder how we later put a man on the moon, doesn’t it?” Brucker says.

Sit, Sip and Shop

The plaque at the entrance to Grand Central’s hallmark watering hole reads “Proper Attire Required” and the waitress, cloaked in Prada and pearls, attests to how the proprietor enforces the dress code. But then to set foot in The Campbell Apartment in anything less than slacks and polished shoes would feel blasphemous.

If walking into Grand Central reminds visitors of a bygone era, entering The Campbell Apartment whisks them back to the days of Gatsby. The 3,500-square-foot space was not a pied-à-terre but the grand office of financier John W. Campbell. Today, Campbell’s work desk is gone but the mogul’s architectural oddities, such as intricate woodworking, a painted-beam ceiling, and a stone fireplace home to a large steel safe, remain.

Those willing or able to alter their course between train platform and exit door, and vice versa, do discover something special.

The Campbell was but a piece of the transformation of Grand Central that took place in the late 1990s. For all the activity the terminal saw throughout the 20th century, the building lost its splendor as other transportation options—specifically the interstate highway system and airlines—supplanted rail as the main mode of interregional travel.

By the time Metro-North was founded in 1983 as the New York area’s major commuter transportation provider, Grand Central was no longer grand. Neglect left the terminal leaky and crumbling, an unwelcoming place for businesses and travelers alike.

Yet the new operators saw potential. Metro-North developed a US$425 million master plan for Grand Central’s restoration, selling investors on the terminal’s potential as a retail magnet. They ultimately spent US$500 million.

The gambit proved wise. Grand Central today is among the most successful shopping centers in the United States in terms of income per square footage. The terminal counts retailers such as Vince Camuto among its tenants and converted an alley where the janitorial staff once stacked garbage for pickup into an enclosed fresh food marketplace featuring meats, cheeses, spices, produce and baked goods.

“People told us you don’t go to Alcatraz to buy a diamond ring, and the public would never be able to get it out of their brain that this was once an ugly, dirty place,” Brucker says. “Yet now, we get 10,000 people a day here just to eat lunch.”

Catch That Train

“Walk, don’t run,” the conductor bellows from the platform. The schedule in the concourse and the clock on the wall agree that the train is about to depart, but both are liars.

Each and every commuter gets an extra minute to catch his train—the railroad intentionally manipulates the timetable to aid stragglers and increase safety.

“It’s the real New York minute,” Brucker says. “And it cuts down on falls and collisions.”

Such is the character of Grand Central. Despite the constant chaos, the terminal retains its stateliness. Hundreds of thousands tread the ornate halls daily for a practical purpose—to get from one point to another—yet the building never feels utilitarian. Those willing or able to alter their course between train platform and exit door, and vice versa, do discover something special.

As Johnson, the information booth guru, tells visitors, Grand Central is “the most fascinating place in the world.”

Grand Central Confidential

VIP Rail Line

The terminal holds many secrets, many of them hidden in plain sight.

Glass Catwalks
These architectural marvels provide ventilation (by absorbing and retaining heat), illumination (by allowing sunlight to pass through) and transportation (by connecting office spaces).

VIP Rail Line
President Franklin Roosevelt was among the notables who once used this short, private track to move covertly between Grand Central and the nearby Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Priceless Clock
Flawless opals make up the four faces of the giant clock that is the terminal’s centerpiece and are worth an estimated US$10 million.

Whisper Gallery
The sound of a whisper in one corner carries across the Guastavino tile to the other corner of this vault-like portal outside the Oyster Bar restaurant.

Vanderbilt Tennis Club
This single-court indoor tennis facility, once home to a CBS television and radio recording studio, is tucked among the terminal’s upper levels.

The Rocket Hole

The Rocket Hole
Caretakers punched a hole in the main concourse’s barrel ceiling to accommodate a rocket put on display at the height of the space race.

Marble Details
The Italian quarries that supplied the building’s original Botticino marble were mined to furnish fresh stone for Grand Central’s rebirth in the mid-1990s.

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