In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, we will be exploring all aspects of the terminal, from its most famous attributes to its hidden treasures. Previously, we showed you the Grand Central Terminal That Never Was and the original plans for Terminal City and its Hotels. This article is the third installment of a 3 part series revealing the secrets of Grand Central. Check out Part 1 and Part 2.
1. The Whispering Gallery
Nestled next to the Oyster Bar between the Main Concourse and Vanderbilt Hall in a space less than a full story below is an acoustical architectural anomaly: a whispering gallery. Here, sound is thrown clear across the 2,000-foot chamber via a mechanism by which it “telegraphs” across the ellipsoid surface of the vault, thereby appearing audibly in corners into which you did not speak. The beautiful tiling is the work of a Spanish immigrant by the name of Rafael Guastavino, whose innovation in a thousand year old Mediterranean style of Catalan vaulting revolutionized American architecture, design and construction. By replacing brick with thin, glazed terra cotta and mortar with fast drying Portland cement, he was able to build vaults 3-5 times the size of traditional timbrel arches. Designed to be as strong as wood or steel beam without any kind of obstructing structural support, Guastavino’s tiling made it possible for the great Beaux-Arts architects of the day to create the broad, bold and beautiful spaces that made them famous.
The real secret of the Whispering Gallery is that no one knows whether it was constructed with the intention of producing the phonic effect that has made it so famous. Puzzle over that while you take in some more of Guastavino’s work, which can be seen in over 600 buildings across the United States, including the U.S. Supreme Court Building and the moat at West Point. In New York City, his distinctive herringbone pattern can be seen at Carnegie Hall, the Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo, the Registry Hall at Ellis Island and on the underbelly of the 59th Street Bridge, to name only a few of the 200 structures that it adorns. Don’t miss the largest specimen at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, or the grand old City Hall Station, one of New York’s most untapped places.
2. The secret basement
Truly a triumph of engineering, the underground of Grand Central Terminal remains overshadowed by the famous palatial building on 42nd street. But this building is just the tip of the iceberg. Grand Central’s basement is the largest and deepest in New York City: it covers 49 acres – from 42nd to 97th street – and the entire City Hall building could fit into its depth with a comfortable margin of room to spare.
You might think that the first level of this basement is the lower concourse. But it’s actually/counter intuitively the upper (main) concourse, which is one full story below street level. Many people don’t realize this, as only the gentle inclination of a ramp marks the descent as opposed to stairs.
Today, the MTA is in the midst of an ambitious project to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into the terminal via the East Side Access Project, making Grand Central even larger and deeper. These will be the deepest train tunnels on earth, at 90 feet below the Metro North track and over 150 feet below the street. At their deepest point, these tunnels will take 10 minutes to reach by escalator.
3. Track 61
There is one track at Grand Central that sits abandoned in the midst of the busiest train terminal in the world. That is Track 61, or the Waldorf Astoria track, originally built for freight and as a loading platform for a powerhouse that sat above it in the site that is now the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. This track is famously thought to have been used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to minimize the visibility of his polio. After being decommissioned, it served as a private railroad station, a clandestine way for distinguished guests of the Waldorf Astoria to enter and exit the city.
Today it continues to serve this purpose, and is kept up and running when the President visits town as a means of emergency egress from the hotel. Gratings in the sidewalks around Grand Central allow glimpses of this track. If you are catching a train from the upper level, look right (for outbound, or conversely left if inbound) to see Track 61 and the dilapidated armored train car that sits there to this day.
4. The AC/DC Converter
Hidden under Grand Central in the vast network of the underground basement is a room that is not on a single map or blueprint of the Terminal. In fact, its very existence was only acknowledged in the late 1980s and its exact location is still classified information. In this room, known as M42, is a converter that is responsible for providing all of the electricity that runs through Grand Central. Here, alternating current becomes direct current and provides power for the transportation of more than one million each week up and down America’s East Coast.
During World War II, this site was a key strategic target for Hitler. Disrupting the power grid would stop the steady movement of thousands of troops and military equipment across the United States and the Atlantic towards deployment in Europe. Two spies, Erich Gimpel and William Colepaugh, were dropped off by a German U-Boat off the coast of Maine in 1944, their mission to infiltrate American war efforts and to destroy the rotary motors in Grand Central. They were apprehended shortly thereafter, their effort a failure. M42 is still one of the most closely guarded areas in the Terminal.