Hmmm, so many choices!
We can never go wrong with tiramisu!
Little Puffles and Honey are enjoying lunch at Cipriani Dolci after exploring Grand Central Terminal.
Look, that’s the clock that got stuck on Melman’s head! The four-faced clock on top of the information booth is perhaps the most recognizable icon of Grand Central. The clock is synchronized to the US Naval Observatory’s atomic clock. Each of the four clock faces is made from opal, and both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have estimated the value to be between $15 million and $20 million. On top of the clock, there is an acorn. It is the Vanderbilt family symbol: “From the acorn grows the mighty oak.” Grand Central Terminal, the most recognizable transportation hub in the US, is a legacy of the Vanderbilt family.
Cornelius Vanderbilt wanted everyone to know he was responsible for the magnificent station, so he adopted the acorn and oak leaves as a Vanderbilt emblem and had French artist Sylvain Saliéres create decorative flourishes of bronze and stone laden with oak leaf and acorn motifs. You can spy them on ornamental carvings in Vanderbilt Hall, on the arches reaching up to the ceiling in the main concourse, and on the giant bronze chandeliers positioned throughout the station. The terminal’s acorns and oak leaves, the architect John Belle observed, are as discreet as “Ninas” in an Al Hirschfeld caricature.
The information booth is a perennial meeting place of the station. When it is open, staff at the information booth deal with more than 1,000 questions an hour. The information booth is also known for having a “secret” door – although rather less secret now it has a reference on Wikipedia – that conceals a spiral staircase leading to the lower level information booth.
Many movies have captured the impressive grandeur of Grand Central. Going Hollywood was the first of many films shot at the terminal. The 1933 movie starred Marion Davies and Bing Crosby. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 psychological thriller Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck kiss and make their getaway from Grand Central. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant makes his escape from New York City in a sequence filmed at night inside the real station.
One of the most recent films to feature Grand Central is Men in Black III, which also has one of the most original interpretations of the terminal. A race of tiny aliens is kept inside a Grand Central locker, while at the end of the film, a locker in an enormous alien version of the terminal is shown to contain the human world.
Grand Central is not a station; it’s a terminal. Trains terminate there. Railroad people like to recall the apocryphal rube who asked a conductor whether his New York Central train stopped at New York City. To which the conductor replied, “There’d be an awful crash if it didn’t.” The point is, David Marshall wrote in Grand Central in 1946, you couldn’t tell that story about Pennsylvania Station, which, for all its splendor, reduced New York “to a two-minute stop on the line from Long Island City to Rahway, New Jersey”.
The original station on the site was known as the Grand Central Depot, the brainchild of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the American industrialist and philanthropist who built his wealth in shipping and railroads. It was finished in 1871. In its second incarnation as Grand Central Station, the most prominent feature was an enormous train shed, made of glass and steel, which some said rivalled the Eiffel Tower and Crystal Palace. Still, in 1899 The New York Times called Grand Central Station “a cruel disgrace”.
After almost ten years of renovation and reengineering, and at a cost of more than $2 billion in today’s dollars, the new Grand Central Terminal opened to the public precisely at midnight on February 2, 1913. Its image had changed dramatically. “The Grand Central Terminal is not only a station,” The Times declared, “it is a monument, a civic center, or, if one will, a city. Without exception, it is not only the greatest station in the United States, but the greatest station, of any type, in the world.” More than 150,000 people from all over the city visited the New York’s newest landmark on its opening day.
The idea for the new Grand Central Terminal came to William J. Wilgus “in a flash of light”, he recalled decades later. “It was the most daring idea that ever occurred to me,” he said.
Wilgus, the New York Central Railroad’s chief engineer since 1899, had supervised the costly renovation of Grand Central Depot just a few years before. For decades, New Yorkers had complained about the unhealthy soot and smog coughed up by the steam locomotives crisscrossing the city, but it took a fatal accident to create lasting change. On January 8, 1902, a commuter train travelling from suburban Westchester County crashed into the rear car of a Danbury, Connecticut, train stopped on the tracks of the Park Avenue Tunnel, killing 15 passengers instantaneously, had convinced Wilgus that it was no longer possible to run a chaotic railroad yard two avenue blocks wide in what was becoming the very heart of the nation’s largest city.
In a three-page letter to W. H. Newman, the railroad’s president, dated 22 December, 1902, the Wilgus recommended an audacious and extravagant remedy: Raze the existing Grand Central and replace the egregious steam locomotives with electric trains.
The technological advantages were clear-cut. Electricity required less maintenance. Unlike steam or, later, diesel locomotives, electric trains did not need the fuel or machinery to generate power on board. Electricity let trains accelerate more quickly, a decided amenity for short-haul commuter service. Another advantage, an obvious one in retrospect, provided the rationale that made Wilgus’s suggestion so revolutionary and, in the end, so inevitable. Electric motors produced fewer noxious fumes and no obfuscating smoke or steam. Moreover, as Wilgus explained, electricity “dispenses with the need of old-style train sheds”, because it made subterranean tracks feasible. To accommodate ever-growing rail traffic into the restricted Midtown area, Wilgus proposed a novel scheme: a bi-level station below ground. Arriving trains would go underground under Park Avenue, and proceed to an upper-level incoming station if they were mainline trains, or to a lower-level platform if they were suburban trains. In addition, turning loops within the station itself obviated complicated switching moves to bring back the trains to the coach yards for servicing. Departing mainline trains reversed into upper-level platforms in the conventional way.
Wilgus envisioned a 12-story building above the terminal that could generate rents totalling $2.3 million annually. Those advantages not only benefited “humanity in general”, as Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as the Commodore, would have put it, an ingratiating by-product, but also fulfilled the primary mission of his New York Central and Hudson River Railroad: that “we first see that we are benefiting ourselves”. Wilgus’s overarching remedy to the “Park Avenue problem” – the ‘Chinese Wall’ that bisected the city for 14 blocks and obstructed Fourth Avenue (now Park) – “marked the opening of a remarkable opportunity for the accomplishment of a public good with considerations of private gain in behalf of the corporation involved.”
The terminal, he explained later, “could be transformed from a non-productive agency of transportation to a self-contained producer of revenue — a gold mine, so to speak.”
Wilgus was asking the railroad’s directors to accept a great deal on faith. His projected $35 million price tag for all the improvements nearly equalled half the railroad’s revenue for a full year. Moreover, the railroad made most of its money hauling freight, not people. Why invest so much in a project that benefited only passengers? But the chief engineer was persuasive. By January 10, 1903, the Central’s board of directors had embraced the project and promoted him. Six months later, on June 30, 1903, the board — whose directors included the Commodore’s grandsons Cornelius II and William K. Vanderbilt, as well as William Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan — in a daring validation of the chief engineer’s vision, formally empowered Wilgus to proceed with his bold agenda for a regal terminal that would be a gateway to the continent.
Even before the first spadeful of earth was turned, before the first boulder of Manhattan schist was blasted, a forest of exclamation points began sprouting with what was dubbed the city’s largest individual demolition contract ever. On 17 acres bought by the railroad, 120 houses, three churches, two hospitals and an orphan asylum would have to be obliterated, as would the stables, warehouses and other ancillary structures.
Wilgus devised an ingenious construction strategy. The arduous process of demolishing existing structures, excavating rock and dirt 30 meters deep for the bi-level platforms and utilities, razing the mammoth train shed and building the new terminal would proceed in longitudinal “bites”, as he called them — troughs bored through the middle of Manhattan, one section at a time and proceeding from east to west. Construction would take fully 10 years, and by the time it was barely halfway finished, Wilgus would be gone and his guess as to the cost of the project would have doubled, to about $2 billion in today’s dollars.
William Wilgus was an engineer, not an architect, but he hoped to impose his own aesthetic on the new terminal. He knew what he didn’t like about the old depot: its “unattractive architectural design” and its “unfortunate exterior colour treatment”, as well as the “great blunder” of dividing the city for 14 blocks and obstructing Fourth Avenue.
In 1903, the Central invited the nation’s leading architects to submit designs for the new terminal. Samuel Huckel Jr. went for baroque, a turreted confection with Park Avenue slicing through it. McKim, Mead & White proposed a 60-story skyscraper — the world’s tallest — atop the terminal (a modified version was later incorporated into the firm’s design for the 26-story municipal building, completed in 1916), itself topped by a dramatic 90-meter jet of steam illuminated in red as a beacon for ships and an advertisement (if, even then, an anachronistic one) for the railroad.
Reed & Stem, a St. Paul firm, won the competition. The firm began with two big advantages. It had designed other stations for the New York Central. Moreover, like the Central itself, Reed & Stem could count on connections: Allen H. Stem was Wilgus’s brother-in-law. Yet in the highly charged world of real estate development in New York, another firm’s connections trumped Reed & Stem’s. After the selection was announced, Warren & Wetmore, who were architects of the New York Yacht Club and who boasted society connections, submitted an alternative design. It didn’t hurt that one of the firm’s principals, Whitney Warren, was William Vanderbilt’s cousin.
The Central’s chairman officiated at a shotgun marriage of the two firms, pronouncing them the Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal. The partnership would be fraught with dissension, design changes and acrimony and would climax two decades later in a spectacular lawsuit and an appropriately monumental settlement.
To Wilgus’s dismay, the Warren & Wetmore version eliminated the revenue-generating office and hotel tower atop the terminal. It also scrapped proposed vehicular viaducts to remedy the obstruction of Fourth Avenue, now Park, created by the depot.
Once the design was agreed upon, building Grand Central was a gargantuan undertaking. Wheezing steam shovels excavated nearly 2.5 million cubic meters of earth and rock to an average depth of 14 meters to accommodate the subterranean train yards, bi-level platforms and utilities — some as deep as 10 stories. The daily detritus, coupled with debris from the demolition of the old station, amounted to 800 cubic meters and filled nearly 300 railway dump cars. The lower tracks were 12 meters below street level and sprouted “a submerged forest” of steel girders. Construction required 118,597 tons of steel to create the superstructure and 53 kilometres of track. At peak periods, 10,000 workers were assigned to the site and work progressed around the clock. Beneath the 235-meter-wide valley he created in Midtown Manhattan, Wilgus dug a 2-meter-diameter drainage sewer about 20 meters deep that ran 800 meters to the East River.
The maze of tracks and trains was commanded from a four-story switch-and-signal tower south of 50th Street. On one floor was a machine with 400 levers, the largest ever constructed, to sort out the suburban trains. On the floor above, another machine with 362 levers controlled the express tracks. A worker was assigned to each battery of 40 levers, and tiny bulbs on a facsimile of the train yard would automatically be extinguished as a train passed a switch and illuminated again when it reached the next switch.
Fifteen hundred columns were installed to support the street-level deck and the buildings that would rise on it. Another $800,000 was spent on steel reinforcement, not needed for the terminal itself, but to support a skyscraper that eventually might rise above it. The terminal alone cost $43 million to build, the equivalent of about $1 billion today; the entire project set the Central back about $80 million.
Passengers’ comfort was of paramount concern. When it was finally completed, Grand Central could boast a separate women’s waiting room with oak floors and wainscoting and maids at the ready; a ladies’ shoe-polishing room “out of sight of the rubbernecks” and staffed by “colored girls in neat blue liveries”; a telephone room for making calls; a salon gussied up with walls and ceilings of Carrara glass, “where none but her own sex will see while she had her hair dressed”; a dressing room attended by a maid (at 25 cents); and a private barbershop for men, which could be rented for $1 an hour, and a public version where “the customer may elect to be shaved in any one of 30 languages”.
No amenity was spared. “Timid travelers may ask questions with no fear of being rebuffed by hurrying trainmen, or imposed upon by hotel runners, chauffeurs or others in blue uniforms,” a promotional brochure boasted. Instead, “walking encyclopaedias” in gray frock coats and white caps were available. Passengers would be protected from unwanted contact as well as glances. “Special accommodations are to be provided for immigrants and gangs of labourers,” The Times reported. “They can be brought into the station and enter a separate room without meeting other travellers.” Grand Central, the brochure proclaimed, is “a place where one delights to loiter, admiring its beauty and symmetrical lines — a poem in stone.”
Grand Central was billed as the first great “stairless” station, one in which the flow of passengers was sped by gently sloping ramps that were tested out at various grades and ultimately designed to accommodate everyone from “the old, infirm traveller, to the little tot toddling along at his mother’s side, to the man laden down with baggage which he declines to relinquish to any one of the most cordial attendants, to the women trailing a long and preposterous train.” The flow would now empty from 32 upper-level and 17 lower-level platforms (fed from as many as 66 and 57 tracks) into a main concourse that was 84 meters long, 36 meters wide and 38 meters high and flanked by 27-meter-high transparent walls that were punctuated by glass walkways connecting the terminal’s corner offices.
The main concourse would have two grand staircases inspired by the Palais Garnier, the elegant Paris Opera House. The original blueprints called for matching east and west marble stairways. Only the west staircase was installed, however. Several theories survive as to why its counterpart was not. The most logical suggests that the shanties, tenements and industrial buildings that dotted the East Side then offered little lure to pedestrians and that the East Balcony was supposed to have been the lobby for the unbuilt office tower. The staircase was belatedly completed in 1998, when the terminal was renovated, prompting a debate over whether a restored landmark should precisely mirror what existed before or what was originally proposed. The east stairway varies slightly from the original version as a subtle signal to architectural historians and to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires 28cm wide treads and handrails that meet strict specifications. But the marble for the east staircase was brought from the same quarries in Tennessee and Italy.
Behind the stairs in the main concourse, both the terminal’s east and west sides feature large windows. But surprise — they’re not just windows. If you wait long enough, you can catch someone walking inside the glass in one of the five catwalks on each side, designed for those working in adjacent buildings to pass quickly through Grand Central. Though public access is highly discouraged, the walkways are accessible if you know how to find them!
Once the proposed office and hotel tower atop the terminal was scrubbed, architects considered enclosing the main concourse with a skylight but settled on an artificial sky instead. A concave ceiling in the main concourse created a view of the heavens from Aquarius to Cancer in an October sky, 2,500 stars — 59 of them illuminated and intersected by two broad golden bands representing the ecliptic and the Equator. For several months, painters debated how to squeeze the heavens onto a cylindrical ceiling, because the artist Paul Helleu’s version seemed more fitting for a dome, and they experimented to find just the proper shade of blue. The ceiling designs were developed by J. Monroe Hewlett and executed largely by Charles Basing and his associates. As many as 50 painters under Basing’s direction worked to ensure that there was no variation in colour tone. Lunette windows were ornamented with plaster reliefs of winged locomotive wheels, branches of foliage symbolizing transportation, and clouds and a caduceus (the short staff usually entwined with serpents and surrounded by wings and typically carried by heralds).
While all the focus was on the colour, nobody paid attention to the representation of the constellations. On March 22, 1913, a little more than a month after the terminal opened, an amateur astronomer commuting from New Rochelle alerted railroad officials that the constellations were backward! So much for the artist Paul César Helleu’s gleeful comment to the critic Frederick Mordaunt-Hall at the Ritz barbershop the morning after the ceiling was completed: “J’ai eu des ennuis, qui m’ont presque bouleversé, mais maintenant tout est bien—car les étoiles brillent au firmament” (I have been nearly bowled over with worries, but now all is well—for the stars shine in the firmament). The alert commuter’s discovery was doubly embarrassing because the railroad’s recently published official guide boasted, “It is safe to say that many school children will go to the Grand Central Terminal to study this representation of the heavens, which places the celestial bodies within close range of vision. To insure astronomical accuracy and beauty of form, the highest authorities were consulted, among them Dr. Harold Jacoby of Columbia University, and the research was carried back to manuscripts and treatises of the Middle Ages.” Oops!
Among the explanations given: It was painted from God’s point of view, above the heavens! That explanation might fly if all the constellations were reversed, but while the stars within some constellations appear correctly as they would from earth, other constellations are reversed left-to-right, as is the overall arrangement of the constellations on the ceiling. For example, Orion is correctly rendered, but the adjacent constellations Taurus and Gemini are reversed both internally and in their relation to Orion.
The original ceiling was replaced in the 1930s, but the “mistake” remained, though for many years most New Yorkers couldn’t have seen it if they tried — the entire surface was covered in grime and dirt. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a restoration project began to remove the gunk, long thought to have been caused by the arrival and departure of thousands of trains. In fact, it was man — not machine — that caused the damage, which was the result of millions of cigarettes smoked by waiting commuters! Preservationists left a small patch of the ceiling untreated as a reminder of its former condition.
While we are talking about the ceiling, there is another mark on it. There is a small dark circle amid the stars above the image of Pisces. In a 1957 attempt to counteract feelings of insecurity spawned by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, an American Redstone missile was set up in the main concourse. With no other way to erect the missile, the hole was cut to allow a cable to be lowered to lift the rocket into place. Historical preservation dictated that this hole remain (as opposed to being repaired) as a testament to the many uses of the Terminal over the years.
Five chandeliers festooned with bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling of the old waiting room, now Vanderbilt Hall. The hall was once filled with benches for those waiting to catch long distance trains. It’s hard to imagine that in the Seventies and Eighties, these same benches would become beds for the many homeless people that had set up camp. The majestic space now resembles a ballroom and it is used as an exhibition room and venue for various markets and events. It is also a coveted wedding spot, with a waiting list of at least four years!
When Grand Central opened in 1913, gaslight was still the norm in many places. The New York Central and the Vanderbilts put in lights everywhere to show off! Not only had the trains been converted to electricity, but the entire new terminal was electric. What better way to dramatize modern technology, railroad officials figured, than to expose the bulbs themselves? And if you’re wondering how many people it takes to change every lightbulb in Grand Central, the answer is six: about 4,000 bulbs in public areas were switched from incandescent to compact fluorescent bulbs in 2008. This change saves an estimated $200,000 per year.
Lights aside, the finishing touches to the Terminal would not be complete for another year (the viaduct would not be opened until 1919, and the innovative lower-level loop, which allowed arriving trains to depart more quickly, would not become operational until 1927). Among the last was Transportation, the gigantic sculpture designed by Jules Félix Coutan above the central portal on 42nd Street. At the time of its unveiling in 1914, Transportation was considered the largest sculptural group in the world. It is 15 meters high, the clock in the center having a circumference of 4 meters. The clock contains the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass (although Tiffany & Co. says it cannot confirm this claim) and has a hidden door at the Roman numeral, VI. The sculpture depicts Mercury flanked by Hercules and Minerva.
Coutan, who also designed the France of the Renaissance sculpture for the extravagant Alexander III bridge in Paris, created a one-fourth-size plaster model in his studio from which John Donnelly, a native of Ireland, carved the final 1,500-ton version from Indiana limestone at the William Bradley & Son yards in Long Island City, Queens.
Grand Central Terminal is a city within a city, housing 50 shops, 20 eateries, five restaurants, newsstands, a fresh food market and multiple passageways to maneuver around it all. Downstairs in Grand Central is the dining concourse where more than 10,000 businesspeople and tourists eat lunch each day. Taking a short ramp up leads to the famed Oyster Bar, which opened with the station in 1913 and was restored in 1974.
Just outside the Oyster Bar entrance stands an acoustic marvel known as the Whispering Gallery. Two people standing at opposite corners of the vaulted archway can communicate, their voices reverberating like a game of telephone that no one else can hear. The remarkable vaulted ceiling is made of Guastavino tiled arches, like the Oyster Bar, but no one knows if it was intended to create this acoustic effect. Rafael Guastavino was a Valencian architect who patented a design for interlocking terra-cotta tile to form self-supporting arches.
It’s likely that many a commuter has wished for a short cut that would whisk them to their destination without the hassle of Grand Central’s bustling, rush hour crowds. For one native New Yorker, that wish was a reality. During his time in office, President Franklin Roosevelt utilized a secret rail line, Track 61, which provided an underground connection between Grand Central and the nearby Waldorf-Astoria hotel, so the public and press did not see his polio-caused disability. This platform was part of the original design of the Waldorf-Astoria. There was even a large freight elevator at the Waldorf’s end of the track, big enough to fit the president’s Pierce Arrow limousine, which allowed FDR to travel to and from New York in secrecy — quite handy for clandestine missions as he led the US war effort during World War II.
Since Waldorf-Astoria was just there, Puffles and Honey popped over to check it out 🙂
There is a cool clock at Waldorf-Astoria as well!
The intricately carved bronze clock at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City was originally a gift from Queen Victoria to the United States for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Standing almost 3 meters tall and weighing in at two tons, the clock has an octagonal base made from marble and mahogany and is decorated with animal sculptures, plaques displaying sporting scenes and portraits of Queen Victoria, Ben Franklin, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant. Chimes play every 15 minutes.
In 1902, Col. John Jacob Astor IV, co-creator of the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel on 5th Avenue, received a small Statue of Liberty as a gift from France, to commemorate the gracious hospitality his hotel had given the people of France since 1897. He positioned the gift atop the bronze clock. This gesture caused consternation for the British and Queen Victoria and apparently the British tried to ask for the clock back!
By the 1950s, cars and planes became the mode of transportation in vogue, and in 1954 the New York Central wanted to tear the beautiful Beaux Arts station down. Skyscrapers were proposed to take its place, but luckily those plans never came to be. By 1968, New York Central Railroad, which operated the terminal, was facing bankruptcy, and it merged with Pennsylvania Railroad to form Penn Central. The new company unveiled another tower proposal that year, but the plans drew significant opposition, most notably from former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The terminal became a historic landmark in 1978, following a Supreme Court decision to protect the transportation hub, the first time the court had ruled on a matter of historic preservation.
In 2013, Grand Central turned 100 and had a birthday party, with cake and Lego 🙂
Grand Central has been a showcase for what the architects of its restoration pronounced “a fascinating fabric of cultural history”. The North Balcony lured so many travelers seeking serenity and contemplation and “itinerant sophists” that it was dubbed the “Philosophers’ Gallery”.
Constantin Brâncuși pronounced the terminal “one of the most beautiful specimens of modern architecture” — specimens so beautiful, he said, that they “give me as much pleasure as if I had done them myself”. Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the architectural historian, dubbed it “one of the grandest spaces the early 20th century ever enclosed”. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, not a great fan of New York City, expressed a begrudging admiration for Grand Central.
Grand Central is a place for trains, so little Puffles and Honey went on a train ride 🙂 The train boards list the destination, track number and departure time as in the official timetable. Except for one vital fact that the railroad prefers not to tell passengers. In the old days, until 1985, when the departure time approached, conductors would activate a light to signal the gateman to close the gates at the entrance to the platform from the concourse. The railroad did away with those years ago, in part to save labor. Nowadays, tardy passengers can rush down the platform and still catch their train. Especially when, to accommodate stragglers, Grand Central’s trains typically leave one minute later than the departure time listed on the train boards and in the timetable.
Just like Alex, Melman and Gloria!
In Grand Central you cannot shilly shally or dilly dally. Everyone rushes and dashes and zips and zaps and whizzes like crazy and oh what a dizzy and delightful place. Next Stop Grand Central, by Maira Kalman