In honor of the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, Untapped Cities brought you three installments of “The Secrets of Grand Central.” Here’s a recap of the top 10 facts you didn’t know about Grand Central.
1. The ceiling is backwards. The painting of the constellations on ceiling of the massive, cathedral-like Main Concourse is backwards. No one knows for sure how the mix-up occurred, but the Vanderbilt family claimed that it was no accident; the zodiac was intended to be viewed from a divine perspective, rather than a human one, inside his temple to transportation.
2. You can play tennis in Grand Central. A little known space called the Annex houses a tennis court that is accessible to the public (as long as you can get a reservation). Originally installed by a Hungarian immigrant Geza A. Gazdag in the 1960s, it was taken over by Donald Trump, who brought the likes of John McEnroe and the Williams sisters onto its clay courts.
3. Grand Central has the largest basement of any building in New York City.The basement covers 49 acres, from 42nd to 97th street. The entire City Hall building could fit into its depth with a comfortable margin of room to spare. 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. It will take 10 minutes to reach these tunnels by escalator, at their deepest point. Part of the basement also played an important, clandestine role in World War II–it was so secret that you risked being shot on site if you went down there.
4. There is a top secret room that doesn’t even appear on maps or blueprints. A hidden room known as M42 does not appear on a single map or blueprint of Grand Central Terminal. In fact, its very existence was only acknowledged in the late 1980s and its exact location is still classified information. M42 houses 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 people each week up and down America’s East Coast.
5. Track 61 still serves as a means of clandestine transportation. 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. 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. This track is famously thought to have transported Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to hide the fact that he was wheelchair-bound due to polio. Today, the track continues to provide a clandestine means of transportation; it is kept up and running when the President visits town, in case he needs a means of emergency egress from the hotel. Read even more about this abandoned platform here.
6. A hidden brick is an effective, if unintentional, anti-smoking ad. If you look up at the giant zodiac on the ceiling of the Main Concourse, next to Cancer, the crab, you’ll find a small, dark patch of brick. This brick reveals what the station’s ceiling looked like before it was cleaned during the restoration project in 1998. What made the brick so dirty? You’d think it was soot or ash from the trains of old but the grime is actually 70% nicotine and tar. If cigarettes can do that to a sturdy brick ceiling, just think what they can do to your lungs!
7. The sculptor who designed the statue in front of the building was kind of a snob. The statue, “Transportation,” was designed by the French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan, who refused to come to the United States to oversee the construction of his project. His reason: “I fear some of your [American] architecture would distress me.” It took the builders seven years to construct Coutan’s massive sculpture of the Greek Gods. It is 48 feet high and weighs 1500 tons.
8. Some of the iron eagles have gone missing. The iron eagles perched at the corners of the edifice are vestiges from Grand Central Station, the L shaped predecessor of Grand Central Terminal. They are imposing and massive, with wingspans 13 feet wide. There were at least ten such eagles adorning the transportation hub before it was demolished to make way for the new one in 1902, and almost all of them disappeared after its destruction. Nine have been located across the state of New York, many having been auctioned off to private estates and institutions. Some were found in backyards or as lawn ornaments, others at train stations on what was once a NY Central line. Another was found on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. Here’s a look at where the eagles have gone.
9. Grand Central houses a hidden bar. The Campbell Apartment, in Grand Central, serves as a testament to the grandiosity of another era. If appropriately attired, you can enter the room and sip on cocktails from the fin de siècle in this virtual museum to the opulence of New York’s high society of the past. The apartment once belonged to John C. Campbell, a business tycoon; rumor has it that he used to sit behind his desk in his boxers, so that his trousers wouldn’t get wrinkled. The Campbell Apartment is also one of our favorite hidden bars in New York City.
10. No one knows if the “whispering gallery” was built to whisper on purpose. Nestled between the Main Concourse and Vanderbilt Hall is an acoustical architectural anomaly: a whispering gallery. Here, sound is thrown clear across the 2,000 sq-foot chamber, “telegraphing” across the surface of the vault and landing in faraway corners. The real secret of the Whispering Gallery is that no one knows whether it was constructed with the intention of producing the acoustic effect that has made it so famous.
Adapted from Untapped Cities’ Secrets of Grand Central series by Samantha Schnell.