Another Hundred People just got off of the Train...

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010

Once given leave to stay by the authorities on Ellis Island immigrants would be funnelled to New York’s train stations, from where they would be distributed out across a continent. Grand Central Terminal was always the biggest of these. But as its name – terminal – implies, it was also the end of the line, and domestic migrants used it to flock to New York to try to make good their dreams. In Copacabana Lola has ‘just arrived, track 17, all the way from Tulsa’ ; in Sondheim’s Company a character remarks that ‘another hundred people just got off of the train’. Grand Central is a place of arrival and a place of departure – how romantic, and how fitting for my first visit to the United States.

I spent two hours at Grand Central, and not because I was actually using the trains there (these days all services are local lines – Lola would not be able to get back to Tulsa, Okla, from here). Instead I turned up for a free tour. Every Wednesday at 12 :30 the Municipal Arts Society run a tour to explain the terminal’s history, architecture and legends. This is a free tour, though a donation at the end is expected. The tour is scheduled to last 90 minutes though our group’s guide – Marty – admitted in advance that he in particular often ran over. He did, but his detailed and (very) enthusiastic presentation was worth the extra. Certainly give yourself two hours to take part.

We started off in the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal (always ‘terminal’ – if you ask a local for ‘Grand Central Station’ they may well direct you to the nearby post office which is the only location in the city to go by that name). This huge vaulted space (470 feet long by 150 feet high) with its central ticket desk is instantly recognisable from a hundred cultural references. Yet it did not always look as good as it does currently. In fact, it is a miracle that the terminal even exists in its current form today. A tower block was almost built over it in the 1970s until public opposition from the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stopped the developers in their tracks (pun unintended). Regardless, very little maintenance was carried out post-WWII. The ceiling was black with tar and nicotine from cigarettes. The windows had been blacked-out during the war and never uncovered. There was a hole in the roof dating from 1957 when a Redstone rocket had been installed here to pep up a populace worried by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. The central information desk was covered over with plywood boards. Plaster and paint flaked from walls and ceilings, rain collected in puddles, bums panhandled on the ramps leading to the lower concourse. It is to the enormous credit of Metro North that when they took over the lease in the 1980s/90s they spent an absolute fortune to restore it to its former glory – they even completed the original design by adding in the matching eastern staircase that had been left off in 1913 (in those days no one worthwhile lived to the east of Park Avenue so why bother providing them with a convenient entrance ?). It is now as breathtaking within as its original Beaux Arts frontage is without ; more so, I would say !

The main concourse connects the 42nd Street frontage (to the south) to the main level platforms (to the north). Stairways rise to the west and east. At its centre stands the main information stand, topped with its famous spherical clock, its four faces fashioned from thin-cut opal sheets (it has been valued at between ten and twenty million dollars). The chandeliers as well are intrinsically valuable, having been fashioned from gold (and not just gilded as had been assumed for many years). These latter hang from the towering barrel-vaulted ceiling. Now the black goo that once coated that ceiling has been removed (except for one small section) to reveal a turquoise sky, spattered with 2500 golden stars and constellations. The Vanderbilt family commissioned a French painter, Paul César Hellau, to decorate the ceiling with stars. After its unveiling it was casually pointed out to them that the stars were in the wrong place – they were actually gazing up at a mirror image of the night’s sky. Rather than admit that the artist probably had his original design the wrong way up they improvised – the constellations, they said, appear as they would do to God, looking down at the city from above !

Marty led us outside and across 42nd Street to admire the grand frontage. The clock outside is the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass. Notably Park Avenue here lifts off at Pershing Square and becomes a ‘circumferential elevated driveway’ (it wraps around the exterior of the building at first storey level). I have to admit there is something quite fun about finding yourself in a taxi which suddenly takes off and drives up above the roads and sidewalks down below. Here he explained about the growth of the railroads in New York in the 19th century and the dangers inherent with the early locomotives. ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt was the railroad tycoon who authorised the construction of the first Grand Central Depot on this site. This later became Grand Central Terminal – when the latter was constructed between 1903-1913 the tracks were electrified which meant that they could be safely buried in tunnels beneath the northern part of Park Avenue (boilers, fires and smoke were not an ideal tunnel combination in the 19th century and disasters were frequentl ; as such at one timem municipal laws dictated that the trains had to be towed through the tunnels by horses). This enabled the selling of the air rights over the tunnels, bringing in more capital.

We returned via the western Vanderbilt Avenue side entrance, where the 1920s office of John W Campbell has been renovated as a rather nice – if very manly – cocktail bar called The Campbell Apartment. It is very Mad Men, all heavy tartans and dark woods and with the office’s original safe in its false fireplace. From here we descended to the lower concourse and the Food Court. The most famous eatery down here is the Oyster Bar which has been in almost continuous operation since first opening in 1913. It is also a very bad place to divulge secrets in – the acoustic properties of the Guastavino tiles are such that whispers often carry across to the other side of the restaurant. All the other food stalls down here are one-offs or small local independents. No Golden Arches here ! Rebecca and I returned after the tour to visit Juniors, where we shared a big chunk of the New York cheesecake for $6.25. This is very good value, as it works out to only one cent for every three calories ! I was glad we only had one to share as it was certainly big enough for two.

Grand Central Terminal is not just a train station. It is a shrine in honour of both the golden age of locomotion and the ‘gilded age’ of New York society, where fantastically wealthy dynasties (many of whom had gained their position by pretty unscrupulous means) began to plough back their riches into the city, remaking (and in many cases renaming) it according to their desires. The size and ornateness of Grand Central is a tribute to an age when form was as important as function. The Municipal Arts Society’s free tour brings that age to life. This is not just a tour about a railway station, of interest only to civil engineers and trainspotters. This is a tour that sheds a light upon the development of New York as one of the world’s greatest cities.
Grand Central Terminal
87 E 42nd St
New York, New York
(212) 340-2210

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