February 02, 2013

Happy 100th Birthday Grand Central Terminal!

When New York's Grand Central Terminal opened to the public on February 2, 1913, it was both an engineering marvel and an architectural masterpiece.  Constructed to house the state-of-the-art electrified trains running underground, the public space was designed to make people think they were in a cathedral.  It symbolized the golden era of transportation when long distance train travel was new-fashioned and luxurious and provided a suitably impressive and inspiring terminal for departing and arriving passengers.

With the decline in rail travel in the 1950s, the magnificent Grand Central began to lose its luster, and by the 1970s it had become dirty, dangerous and a place to be avoided.  In fact it was slated for demolition when, in a now legendary battle spearheaded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it was recognized as a landmark property and spared the wrecking ball.  What followed was a massive renovation project that began with fixing the leaking roof and eventually restored the entire edifice to its former Beaux Arts splendor.

Today, the world's largest train terminal accommodates 750,000 regional commuters and 10,000 non-traveling visitors every day.  45 platforms service 63 tracks on which trains arrive and depart every 58 seconds during rush hour.  The building itself stands eight stories high and covers the area between Lexington and Madison Avenues from 42nd to 45th Streets with its subterranean footprint reaching up to 97th Street.  There are over 10,000 panes of glass filling the Main Concourse with natural light and illuminating the curious zodiac ceiling painted by French Belle Epoque artist Paul Helleu.  The 2,500 gold stars highlighting the constellations are actually backward, painted in reverse in a sort of "God's-eye view" of the heavens.

There are many interesting facts about Grand Central and some surprises too.  First of all, Grand Central is a Terminal, not a station.  Its subbasement is the deepest basement in New York City - more than ten stories below street level.  There is a secret side track, Track 61, that runs below Park Avenue to a special underground entrance to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel initially used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for privacy and security.  FDR's armored rail car is still parked beside the Waldorf's subterranean platform.  Another secret basement is not even recorded on the official blueprints - 130 feet below the Main Concourse is "M42" where the rotary converters that change A/C into D/C currents to power the rail lines are housed.

On a more decorative note, the magnificent stained glass clock that faces 42nd Street is the largest work of Tiffany glass in the world, thirteen feet in circumference and surrounded by giant sculptures of Minerva, Hercules and Mercury.  Inside, the signature round brass clock that anchors the information booth at the center of the Main Concourse, features four convex faces each made of opal and valued at $20 million!  This clock has been a meeting place for generations of New Yorkers and is now the symbol of the centennial.

Grand Central is home to many stylish shops and restaurants but none is more famous than The Oyster Bar which has been in the same location since the Terminal opened.  Its vaulted ceilings with glazed tiles offer more than just charm - they also provide a "whispering gallery" an acoustical anomaly that allows even hushed conversations to be transmitted from one end of the restaurant to the other!

The Campbell Apartment on the balcony level was originally the private office and party pad, complete with wine cellar and pipe organ, of businessman John Campbell.  After his death in 1957 the apartment served as the Grand Central police station and since 1999 it has been returned to its former Neo-Florentine glory as an ultra chic lounge and bar.  But old habits die hard and there have been numerous reports of paranormal sightings as the ghosts of elegant ladies and gentleman appear and disappear with disturbing frequency.

Perhaps one of the more romantic aspects of Grand Central involved the "Kissing Room", also known as the "Romeo and Juliet Gallery".  In the early 20th century public displays of affection were frowned upon and attendants were employed to monitor overly amorous activity in the Terminal.  However, there was special accommodation made for people departing on long distance trips, and later for wives and girlfriends of servicemen returning from World War II.  In a separate reception area officially called the Biltmore Room and located just off the Main Concourse, sweethearts could part and reunite with appropriate tenderness and a lingering kiss was not out of line.  Long out of use, the Biltmore Room will soon be rejuvenated as it is slated to become one of the main thoroughfares for the new Long Island Rail Road lines currently under construction.

I remember visiting Grand Central when I first moved to New York in the 1980s.  It was dark and dirty and filled with derelicts and I was amazed when older citizens would recall changing from work clothes to evening wear in the Terminal's spotlessly maintained ladies' and gentleman's lounges.  Then the transformation began and the dingy ceiling became a twinkling sky (with a small spot left untouched for comparison's sake), the marble returned to its creamy brightness and the brass chandeliers and fixtures regained their brilliance.  Grand Central became a symbol of the rebirth of the City itself and continues to be a source of inspiration and pride.  Happy Birthday Grand Central Terminal - here's to 100 more years of glory!

P.S.  It is sadly ironic that New York's most charismatic mayor, Ed Koch, another icon of the City's renewal, passed away on this very anniversary day.  He will be greatly missed.

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