View of Grand Central Terminal from atop the glass walkways in the windows
Grand Central Terminal still stands as one of New York City’s most beloved landmarks, but its history is also a glorious story of creation, decline, and rebirth — much like the story of New York City itself. Originally built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Grand Central Terminal opened on February 2nd, 1913 atop a previous version, Grand Central Station (also built by Vanderbilt for his New York Central Railroad). The station replaced an even earlier building, Grand Central Depot, which opened in 1871.
From the very beginning, Grand Central Terminal was intended to benefit both public and private interests — an arrangement that continues to this day. An extensive rehabilitation project in the 1990s restored Grand Central Terminal to its original glory, while the addition of retail and restaurants have made it a popular destination for both tourist and residents alike.
Despite its renown, Grand Central Terminal still holds many secrets and fun facts you may not know. Make sure to join us on our next tour, where we’ll delve deeper into these secrets:
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 in Grand Central Terminal: a whispering gallery. Here, sound is thrown clear across the 2,000-square-foot chamber, “telegraphing” across the surface of the vault and landing in faraway corners.
Although there are many whispering galleries you can find in New York City, few are as famous as the one you can find in Grand Central Terminal. It was designed by master tiler, Guastavino but the real secret is that no one knows whether its whispering gallery was constructed with the intention of producing the acoustic effect that has made it so popular.
9. Grand Central Terminal Houses a Hidden, Gilded Age Bar
The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal 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.
8. Some of the Iron Eagles of Grand Central Terminal 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 New York Central line. Another was found on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. Here’s a look at where the eagles have gone.
7. Atop Grand Central Terminal is the World’s Largest Tiffany Clock
The statue, “Transportation,” on the facade of Grand Central Terminal 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. Meanwhile, the clock, which is commonly said to be Tiffany’s, is the largest in the world: it’s 13-feet in diameter and took twelve years to restore. Grand Central Terminal’s official website calls it a Tiffany, but the Tiffany Company has not confirmed (or denied it) and Tiffany experts say nay. Here’s a special look inside the clock itself.
6. A Hidden Brick Is an Effective, if Unintentional, Anti-Smoking Ad in Grand Central Terminal
If you look up at the giant zodiac on the ceiling of the Main Concourse in Grand Central Terminal, you’ll find a small, dark patch of brick next to Cancer, the crab. 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? A very common myth says the grime is actually 70% nicotine and tar thereby providing a great anti-smoking ad. However, according to the John Canning Company that restored the mural, “A detailed analysis of the dirt by scientists at McCrone Associates reported that the dirt and grime did not contain any nicotine or particles that could be attributed to cigar or cigarette smoke. The cause of the sometimes 2-inch thick grime was the decades of air pollutants – specifically car and truck exhaust, and the emissions soot and contaminants from industrial plants and apartment-building incinerators.” They say it was left in the restoration deliberately, as a reminder of the past.
5. Track 61 Underneath Grand Central Terminal Still Serves as a Means of Clandestine Transportation
Photo by Wasabi Bob via Flickr
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. This track is famously thought to have transported Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to hide the fact that he was wheelchair-bound due to polio.
After a long investigation, we revealed that although FDR did indeed use the track (at least one time was documented by Secret Service), the long standing myth that the above train car was used by him to transport his Presidential limousine is definitively false. Read even more about this abandoned platform here.
4. There is a Top Secret Room in Grand Central Terminal That Doesn’t Even Appear on Maps or Blueprints
One of the remaining rotaries inside M42
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. This 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.
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. Check out our photos of this room deep below the terminal.
3. Grand Central Terminal 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.
2. You Can Play Tennis in Grand Central Terminal
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. The space, at some point, had also been a ski slope.
The courts are now open to the public, although tracking them down takes a bit of investigative work (you’ll find that some GCT employees are even oblivious to the club’s existence). The easiest way to access the facility is to head to the Campbell Apartment, where you’ll find elevators in the lobby outside the bar that will bring you directly there. Alternatively, you can also take the elevators located halfway down the ramp that leads to the “Oyster Bar” and Tracks 100-117. Read more about the tennis courts here.
1. The Ceiling of Grand Central Terminal is Backwards
The painting of the constellations on the 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.
Bonus #1 The Walkways in the Windows of Grand Central Terminal
Don’t miss the glass cinderblock walkways that go through the windows at Grand Central Terminal. If you look closely at the above photo, you’ll see someone crossing right between the first zero in 100.
The walkways connect the offices above Grand Central so the employees don’t have to walk through the busy terminal. Read more about them here.
Bonus #2 There Used to Be a Movie Theater in Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Theatre, opened in 1937 (possibly earlier), showing news reels, shorts and cartoons. The 242-seat theater operated for three decades and was then gutted for retail. It formerly was home to the Grande Harvest Wine shop, next to Track 17, and previous to that, the tenant was a photo shop. Renovations to the terminal in the 1990s revealed the ceiling that stylistically matches the one in the main terminal.
The first film to screen at the theater was the MGM film Servant of the People: The Story of the Constitution of the United States–one supposes Americans were a little more hi-brow back then. According to the website, I Ride the Harlem Line, the theater was advertised as the “most intimate theatre in America” and was open every day until midnight.
Bonus #3 The Myth of the Redstone Rocket Inside Grand Central Terminal
mage via Wikimedia Commons, Chrysler Corporation and US Army
If you’ve ever heard that the 1957 Redstone rocket was so tall it bore a hole in the concourse ceiling, don’t believe it. There was a Redstone rocket, but it would have been too short to make a hole. Read more about it here.
Bonus #4 Lost Armchairs of Grand Central Terminal
As part of the renovation of Grand Central Terminal, red and green armchairs were placed in the dining concourse in 1998, modeled after the luxury wingchairs on the 20th-Century Limited Trains. The insignia on the chairs were the original logo of the terminal, in which Cornelius Vanderbilt placed a secret reference. As reported by The New York Times, the letters GCT in the symbol are formed such that when upside, the T becomes an anchor–an homage to Vanderbilt’s start in the ferry and shipping business.
There were 20 chairs and 4 loveseats in all, designed by David Rockwell and Sterling Surfaces, made of Corian with a custom colors to mimic a mohair texture. But in 2011, the chairs were removed, deemed too bulky for proper circulation of the space–and indeed they weighed 400 pounds each. On our Secrets of Grand Central Terminal tour, you’ll get to see these chairs up close and personal in a location high above the concourse. Full tour description here.