Grand Central Terminal, located in the heart of New York City, celebrated its 100th birthday on Feb. 1. The venerable old station, one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the country, is a must see for thousands of tourists who pass through New York City every day.
Most refer to it as “Grand Central Station,” but purists insist that it’s actually not a station but a terminal, where trains stop or start their routes. Whatever you call it, Grand Central has always been much more than a place to get on or off a train.
Grand Central is a symbol of the great era of transportation. When it opened on Feb. 1, 1913, trains flowed over 67 subterranean tracks and thousands of people arrived and departed from all around the country.
Today the only trains at Grand Central are run by Metro-North and depart to the city’s suburbs. The times listed on the board for Metro-North trains are a minute earlier than the actual departure times to allow passengers extra seconds to board.
Today commuters use the onsite New York City subway station going to and from offices and stores in Manhattan. Some commuters and tourists passing through stop to shop at the high-end retailers, which feature everything from exquisite jewelry to Apple products. Others come to dine at the restaurants — Michael Jordan’s Steak House, the elegant Campbell Apartment, or the Oyster Bar, which has been serving oysters since 1913.
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was the visionary behind the railroad’s gilded age, and he inspired construction of Grand Central, which was hailed as the largest and greatest railroad terminal in the world.
The landmark was saved from demolition in the 1970s, when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis spearheaded a group to save Grand Central. The fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1978 that cities have the right to protect historic buildings. A plaque honoring her work in saving the structure can be seen in Vanderbilt Hall where a dramatic multimedia presentation shows Grand Central’s 100-year lifespan.
The Main Concourse is full of bustling people; it’s estimated 275,000 people pass through Grand Central every day. The information booth at the center with its magnificent four-sided clock is a traditional meeting place for New Yorkers.
Visitors to Grand Central pause for a moment to take in all of its famous features: the tall windows, grand staircases, and glittering chandeliers. All have been renovated during the last 15 years, removing decades of grime, which was first thought to be caused by coal and diesel fuel but later was attributed to tobacco smoke.
The terminal’s ceiling was painted by the artists Paul Helleu and Charles Basing to reflect the zodiac, with gold leaf constellations and twinkling light stars. However, the artists reportedly painted it according to a medieval manuscript — so they actually painted it backwards. When the Vanderbilt family learned this, they maintained it was painted to reflect God’s viewpoint.
Just off the Main Concourse is Vanderbilt Hall, once the station’s main waiting room. Today it is the site of the Christmas Market and other special events. Campbell’s, an elegant cocktail lounge and a favorite gathering place, was once the office of 1920s tycoon John W. Campbell.
Many special events are planned for the yearlong birthday celebration. On May 11 and 12, during the Grand Central Parade of Trains, historic trains from the past will once again visit the terminal. For more information, visit www.grandcentralterminal.com/centennial.
Daily tours of Grand Central are given by the Municipal Art Society’s experienced docents. Visit some of the many hidden places, and learn more about the terminal: For example, there’s a secret train platform a few blocks away under the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where U.S. presidents could disembark in privacy. It was often used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to hide from the public the fact that his legs were paralyzed from polio.
For tour reservations, visit www.msa.org. Audio tours are also available.