4. Main Concourse Ceiling

Grand central ceiling

Looking up at Grand Central’s Main Concourse’s ceiling has been compared to looking up into a starry sky, as the mural contains over 2500 stars against a turquoise background. Originally executed in 1913, the mural was a collaboration between architect Whitney Warren, of Warren & Wetmore, the Terminal’s architects; French artist Paul Helleu; muralist J. Monroe Hewlett; painter Charles Basing of Brooklyn’s Hewlett-Basing Studio; and astronomer Dr. Harold Jacoby of Columbia University. The ceiling was heavily based on the Uranometria, a 1603 star atlas by Johann Beyer. Many constellations like Aquarius, Cancer, and Orion can be seen on the ceiling today, yet the story of the ceiling’s construction is amusing in itself.

Although based on a star atlas, the original mural was actually painted backward, with west being east and vice versa. According to Dr. Jacoby, the star diagram was meant to be held overhead, yet the painters must have laid it on the floor instead. Cornelius Vanderbilt himself rewrote history when the error was discovered, claiming it was how it was intended as if man was looking down from the gods.

Grand Central crab constellation

Although the overall arrangement of the constellations is reversed, the constellation Orion is actually the only correctly rendered one since Orion faces the opposite way as he should have faced. Adjacent constellations Taurus and Gemini are reversed because the mural was painted backward, but they are also reversed in their relation to Orion, as Taurus is depicted near Orion’s raised arm where Gemini should be. Surprisingly, Bayer was the one who reversed Orion 300 years earlier, perhaps to show the celestial hunter fighting the bull.

Eleven years after the mural was completed, the roof leaked and damaged the mural, which then “faded to a hue something like that of a khaki shirt overdosed with Navy blue.” In order to fix the mural, cement-and-asbestos boards covered the ceiling, and an entirely new mural was painted, this time with less astronomical detail. The ceiling boards were repainted in 1996 after years of general air pollution, car emissions, and to a lesser extent, cigarette and cigar smoke. The mural also contains a small dark circle above Pisces that was cut to allow a cable to lift an American Redstone missile, placed to improve public morale after the launching of Sputnik in 1957.