The New York City landmark celebrates 100 years on the tracks.- By Linnea Covington
From its inception in 1913, Grand Central Terminal has acted not only as a transportation hub for New Yorkers, but also as a meeting spot, a shopping mall and place to share important events. With an estimated 750,000 people walking across its marble floor each day, it’s apparent the station isn’t just an artifact to be admired and photographed, but something that remains incredibly important to the daily lives of people across the city.
“It’s not only the physical transportation hub, but it’s the heart and soul of the city,” says Grand Central spokesman John Michael Kennedy. “[Architects] pretty much agreed universally that Grand Central is New York’s greatest building, not only for its beauty, but for its central purpose.”
Now, 100 years later, the city celebrates this glorious structure’s beginning by rolling out the proverbial red carpet for a year of exhibits and events surrounding the famous station. This won’t be the first time this particular red carpet has made an appearance, however—in the early to mid-1900s, the 20th Century Limited express passenger train experience came with the Red Cap service attendants and the same red carpet they will be displaying this year for the grand festivities.
The red carpet era at Grand Central brought with it the idea of glamorous trains with first-class treatment for its elite passengers. It’s also the time when going to Grand Central meant watching the news televised from the numerous monitors set up by CBS, which had occupied a large space above the main waiting room. Often, people would congregate around the televisions to see and hear what was going on in the world, from the John F. Kennedy assassination to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.
“People would gather here to commune with each other,” says Gabrielle Shubert, director of the New York Transit Museum at Grand Central. “There aren’t many places in the United States that have that, and [that’s] what makes it unique among public spaces in New York City.”
While those days have since been replaced by the era of smartphones and instant news, it doesn’t mean the romance and camaraderie of the Grand Central experience has disappeared—if anything, the years have only enhanced the century-old station. Currently, Grand Central hosts Metro-North, Long Island Rail Road and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which combined carry about 82 million passengers annually. Back in the 1900s, when it was the Grand Central Depot, only around 14 million passengers rode the trains each year.
The urge to build a more solid transportation hub came after a fatal collision of two trains in the Park Avenue tunnel in 1902. This tragic event pushed New York Central, who owned and operated the station at the time, to find an alternative to steam locomotives. Since they couldn’t expand east or west in what was becoming a booming metropolis, electrification offered the opportunity to build a structure below ground that housed two levels of fixed tracks and a new multi-level, underground train terminal.
Grand Central was designed by the architectural firms Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore, and features a tiered concourse with imitation Caen stone for the walls, Botticino marble for the decorative wall trim and Tennessee marble for the floors. In the center of the action, a classic clock graces the Main Concourse and above it is an intricate ceiling mural reflecting the constellations, originally painted in gold leaf and cerulean blue oil by French artist Paul Helleu. Despite all the work and detail put into Grand Central, the mural’s stars were actually painted backwards by Helleu, but when the ceiling went through renovations, New York scenic designers J. Monroe Hewlett and Charles Basing decided to leave it as originally drawn.
Over the years, the terminal has undergone numerous renovations. Currently, $450,000 has been invested into upgrading the “whispering gallery,” located on the dining concourse. Standing in one of the four corners and whispering into the crook of the wall, a visitor can send a message to the listening ear of a person waiting in the opposite corner. The sound carries across the vaulted ceiling through the special, thin tiles made by Rafael Guastavino.
Explore Grand Central
There’s much to see in Grand Central, aside from catching a train to a glamorous destination within the city. Whether visitors are seeking fashion, fine dining or pop culture history, there’s something for everyone throughout the expansive station.
Shopping has been a major part of the terminal and remains so to this day. Though plenty of shops have called Grand Central home over the years, today visitors can wander through approximately 70 high-end stores, including a large Apple retail location, Kenneth Cole and Leather Spa.
Downstairs, the food court at Grand Central surpasses any shopping center’s offerings, with dining options that include famous cheesecake at Junior’s, the high-end butcher shop Ceriello Fine Foods and the chic cocktail lounge Campbell Apartment, which originally was the office and saloon of the 1920s millionaire John W. Campbell. The most famous of the eateries is the 100-year-old Grand Central Oyster Bar, which is a legend in its own right. Built the same year as the station, the Oyster Bar’s large, high ceiling and multi-room space is one of the largest seafood restaurants around, and, even though it almost went bankrupt in the 1970s, is one of the oldest eating establishments in the city.
While the renowned Oyster Bar steals some of the station’s glory, star-studded films have brought fame and celebrity to the terminal as well. The first movie to shoot on site was “Twentieth Century” in 1934, featuring Carol Lombard and John Barrymore. Alfred Hitchcock had actors Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman discuss psychoanalysis on the Main Concourse in the 1945 film “Spellbound.” Overall, around two dozen movie scenes have been shot at Grand Central, including ones from “Men in Black II” and “Men in Black III,” “The Godfather,” “Revolutionary Road” and the 1978 version of “Superman: The Movie.”
In other media, the terminal has also made appearances in novels like JD Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” while author Ayn Rand took a private tour of the station and even drove a train while doing research for her iconic book, “Atlas Shrugged.” The theater collective Improv Everywhere hosted a flash mob for a performance called “Frozen Grand Central” in 2008, where more than 200 group members stood like statues for five minutes, causing the regular rush of crowds to slow just for a moment as passersby looked on.
Commemorating 100 years in 2013, Grand Central has plans to celebrate in style. The festivities will commence exactly one century after the first train took off on Feb. 1, 1913, from what we now know as Grand Central Terminal. Centennial organizers have plans for a full day of live music, performances and a rededication of the terminal. The New York Transit Authority has also put together a large multimedia exhibit to showcase railroad history and the story of Grand Central through objects, which will run until March 17.
Other activities and events are planned for the rest of the year, including MTA’s release of historically themed MetroCards and family friendly activities that pay tribute to the transportation hub. In May 2013, Grand Central will feature a Parade of Historic Trains with rare and antique train cars from across the country displayed on one of the commuter tracks. Later that year, Japanese photographer Hiroyuki Suzuki will exhibit the photos he took of the East Side Access while under construction. The East Side Access is located 18 stories below the street and will be used for a new train bringing the Long Island Railroad to the East Side.
The holidays will be a festive affair in 2013. The New York Transit Museum’s annual Holiday Train Show will feature a special centennial edition, and on Nov. 12, the 13th annual Grand Central Holiday Fair, an event that brings around one million people to the station each day, will have additional flourishes fitting for the grand festivities.
Whether visitors are passing through to catch a train, stopping for a bite to eat or perusing the many shops, Grand Central is a signature New York experience—and the centennial celebration is next year’s not-to-be-missed event.
“Every area you look at is beautiful and nothing is built like that today,” Shubert says. “The fact that we still have this treasure, it’s just wonderful and we should celebrate it.”