Centennial Secrets of Grand Central Terminal
By Finn-Olaf Jones
“Don’t dare call it a station,” warns Metro-North spokesperson Dan Brucker, of his beloved workplace. “Grand Central is the terminus of all trains that come here, so it is, and always has been, a terminal, not a station.” Brucker has good reason to be fussy about Grand Central these days. Having opened to the public on February 2, 1913, the terminal is about to celebrate its centennial, and great ceremonies to be artistically directed by opera superstar Jessye Norman are afoot in what could be one of the most epic performance spaces in the world, the Main Concourse.
Having survived bankruptcy, an attempt to replace it with a modern monstrosity akin to Pennsylvania Station (halted by, amongst other luminaries, Jackie Kennedy), and even a thwarted attack by Nazi saboteurs snuck in by U-boat, Grand Central is truly a glamorous survivor. “The enduring magic of Grand Central is obvious,” says architectural historian Justin Ferate, who has been giving tours of Grand Central for more than 30 years. “It handles four times as many people as JFK airport every day with the big difference that people actually enjoy spending time at Grand Central. Realize how much our great transportation hubs get changed; how many times JFK or LaGuardia have been rebuilt. But Grand Central hasn’t and it’s still working as well as it did 100 years ago. There’s a spiritual and energy level to the place that endures to this day.”
And it endures graciously: It’s the world’s largest train terminal with 45 track platforms and 63 tracks on which 750,000 people pass every day—plus, according to many sightings, a few ghosts. And why not? With its timeless Beaux-Arts elegance, who wouldn’t want to spend an eternity here?
Amidst all that masonry, history, and labyrinthine passages that sucks one down into some of the deepest caverns in Manhattan, Grand Central contains enough secrets and mysteries to fill several Alfred Hitchcock movies—North by Northwest was actually filmed here. The next time you “meet under the clock,” consider these eight secrets of Grand Central Terminal.
About That Clock
The round brass clock rising above the central information booth in the Main Concourse must be one of the most iconic in the world. At least four generations of New Yorkers have known where to go when instructed to “meet under the clock.” The timepiece, manufactured by the venerable Self Winding Clock Company, is also extremely valuable. “Its four convex faces are actually made from high-grade opal,” says Brucker. “Sotheby’s and Christie’s put a $10 million to $20 million value on it.”
Not only has the clock been telling time and providing one of the most eminent meeting places in New York since 1913 when it was unveiled at the terminal’s opening, but it has also been giving direction thanks to a little noticed feature: The little bulbous point at the top isn’t decorative; it’s a compass that’s aligned to true north so the four sides of the clock line up perfectly with the four compass points of the building.
The Kissing Room
PDA was once frowned upon during the more decorous decades of Grand Central’s early history. “The bussing stopped here,” jokes Brucker. “There were regulations about how much affection you were allowed to show in the public areas, which attendants enforced.”
That is, unless you were in the Biltmore Room.
Named after the hotel (since replaced by Bank of America) whose ornate lobby was one floor above, the Biltmore Room juts discreetly off the Main Concourse across from what is now a Starbucks. The white marbled chamber is relatively quiet these days with random passengers strolling by the shoe-shine stands and a newspaper kiosk. But in earlier days, this room, also dubbed the “Romeo and Juliet Gallery” was the bustling reception area for some of the more legendary long distance trains, including the famous 20th Century Limited. During World War II, spouses and girlfriends would wait here to meet returning servicemen and the affectionate welcomes they received gave the room its nickname.
“Given the unique history of the room, I think sweethearts were often given special leeway here,” notes Brucker. “This is probably also where we get most of our reported ghost sightings. Maybe it’s spouses and girlfriends still waiting for soldiers who never made it back.”
They’re going to have more company in the near future. The Biltmore Room is slated to be one of the main thoroughfares for the new Long Island Railroad lines set to open up beneath Grant Central by 2019. Soon again long armies of commuters will tread over the marble floors where so many dramatic reunions once took place.
Where Spirits Roam With Spirits
Another corner reportedly popular with ghosts is The Campbell Apartment, now an immaculately renovated and perennially popular bar and lounge on the balcony level of the terminal. “It’s the best restoration in Grand Central,” says Ferate. Once the private office of bon vivant businessman John Campbell, it was also the best placed party pad in the city, featuring a wine cellar, fireplace, and even a pipe organ. “This was probably a place more for trysting and partying for Campbell and his friends before they took the train home,” says Ferate. After Campbell’s death in 1957, the apartment became Grand Central’s de facto police station with mug shots taken in front of the fireplace and the wine cellar becoming a holding cell.
In 1999 lounge and nightclub maestro Mark Grossich restored the apartment into its neo-Florentine glory. But apparently spirits were not just confined to glasses, as employees and customers began coming across apparitions of men and women dressed in formal clothes of a bygone era, cold gusts from nowhere, and in one case, a woman who went into the bathroom in front of a line of guests and never emerged again—requiring a locksmith to open the bathroom, which was mysteriously empty. “We had paranormal experts come in a couple of years ago to see what they could find out, and they said they got high energy measurements here,” recounts Grossich. “My staff still occasionally feels someone pushing them from behind when there’s no one there, so who knows? Maybe Mr. Campbell is still hanging around. Somewhere like Grand Central is bound to have a lot of apparitions.”
The Reverse Universe
All these lost souls might be led astray by the iconic gold leaf zodiacs floating amidst some 2,500 stars on the cerulean blue ceiling arching above the Main Concourse—namely because the constellations are all wrong, having been painted in reverse, mirror images of the actual night sky. Created by the French Post Impressionist Paul César Helleu, the backward zodiac has long been a mystery. Legend has it that the Columbia University astronomer, who sketched out the constellation for Helleu, had his maps upside down or that Helleu took his designs from medieval manuscripts that showed the heavens from a God’s-eye view beyond the spheres. “No one has ever been able to definitively find the answer to why it’s reversed,” says Brucker. “The Vanderbilts were surprised when they started getting comments and letters from commuters about the mistake. They later claimed it was painted deliberately from God’s perspective rather than having to admit to the evident error.”
Another interesting tidbit about the mural: Look carefully at the northwest corner for a small dark square. The spot was kept as a reminder of how dirty the ceiling was before the massive cleaning that took place here in the ’90s—the entire ceiling was covered in the same dark layer from commuters’ cigarette smoke.
The Vanderbilt family, who built Grand Central, left their personal marks throughout the edifice. The acorns perched on top of the information booth clock and on the masonry throughout the building were the family’s personal symbol, derived from the motto: “From the acorn grows the mighty oak.” The anchor in the center of Grand Central’s old logo refers to the seafaring legacy of the original Vanderbilt fortune.
But perhaps the most unusual reference to Grand Central’s maritime roots is outside the terminal’s entrance at the Graybar Building, where sculpted rats cluster across the façade in rosette and freestanding form. There are even a couple of cast metal cubist-looking ones crawling up the support beams of the entrance awning while floral patterned rat packs form reliefs along the walls. “It’s a kooky, funny thing,” says Ferate. “I’ve never been able to track down exactly why they put them there. Perhaps it’s because rats are associated with travel in a port like Manhattan, so it’s only natural that they’d be scampering across its biggest transportation hub.”
The Secret Subbasement
One hundred and thirty feet below Grand Central’s street level is a secret subbasement known as M42. It’s not on any map and was even omitted from the official blueprints. According to Brucker, M42’s floor area is as large as the Main Concourse. “During World War II, troops were stationed down there with guns trained directly at the entrance,” says Brucker. “If you accidentally walked in there, you would have been in big trouble, possibly even interred for the duration of the war if not shot on sight.”
There was good reason for all this caution. The subbasement contained a dozen enormous rotary convertors that changed alternative currents into direct currents that powered the rail lines. “These were sensitive machines; a pail of sand thrown over them would have destroyed the rotors,” says Brucker. “That would have paralyzed 80 percent of troop and war material movement in the Northeast.”
This vulnerability was perhaps not unknown to the Nazis. During World War II a team of four German saboteurs were smuggled onto Long Island on a U-boat. They made a beeline to Grand Central with demolition devices but the FBI caught them before they could execute their plans.
The rotary engines have long been replaced by solid ones, but M42 is still strictly an off-limits place. “It’s not somewhere anyone can visit,” says Brucker. “Among all the machinery and cables there’s a big red button that if you push it, shuts off all the power in the terminal, and would presumably stop all rail transportation around New York.”
The Whispering Gallery
The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, which is also celebrating its centenary this year, is one of Manhattan’s most iconic spots for a romantic rendezvous over chilled bubbly, Blue Points, and other aphrodisiacs. But the room has a striking acoustic anomaly: the low arched ceilings with their glazed tiles carry even hushed conversation to tables at the other side of the room. “It’s a great place for love,” jokes Ferate. “Just not the illicit kind. You never know whose conversation you’re going to pick up at your table.”
For a dramatic demonstration of the Oyster Bar’s acoustics without the overlapping conversations and noise-absorbing furniture, go to the similarly shaped hall outside the restaurant, also known as the whispering gallery. Head to one corner while a friends stands at the opposite corner, and you can carry on intimate and even whispered conversation across the hall. Countless marriage proposals have been done this way (some of them on YouTube) but it’s anyone’s guess if holy matrimony has ever been undermined by misdirected conversations in the Oyster Bar next door.
The Secret Station Within the Station
Underground, Grand Central is a maze of tunnels, corridors, and shafts, but one track, Track 61, is particularly intriguing. This single line is a secret side rail that runs beneath Park Avenue to a private siding in the basement of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. This private rail line was used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt so he could securely and secretly travel. Next to the Waldorf’s underground siding is a special freight elevator that fit FDR’s Pierce Arrow automobile when it was unloaded from the train. So, thanks to Track 61, the president could get from his rail car up to street level without setting foot outside, no doubt convenient given his polio.
FDR’s ancient armored railcar with bulletproof windows is still parked besides the Waldorf’s subterranean siding, a ghostly presence in the darkened tunnel. During modern times the tunnel was once the site of a famous Andy Warhol party where the artist rented trains to serve food and drink. But perhaps the secret station has found a more modern use: According to the New York Post, during past presidential visits to the Waldorf an “escape train” has been put at the President’s disposal should he need to find an alternative route out of New York. When asked to confirm the tale, Brucker would only say: “We still have a few secrets that we can’t talk about.”
Maybe we’ll find out in another 100 years.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Michael Turek; courtesy of mta metro-north railroad (archival)