Locals and visitors alike have been marveling at the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal since it opened a century ago. The world’s largest train station welcomed 150,000 people through it doors the very first day it opened to the public, and today more than 21 million people pass through the terminal each year. From the majestic Main Concourse with its $10 million opal-faced clock, pristine marble staircases, glorious vintage chandeliers and the sparkling ceiling embedded with 2,500 stars, Grand Central harkens back to a glamorous bygone era. Read on for tales of secret tracks, hidden bars, and why the clocks are always wrong.
Don’t Set Your Watch By Grand Central Clocks
The Main Concourse can get dizzyingly packed with people (especially at rush hour), which is part of its wonder. But things can get dicey when scores of latecomers make a mad dash to catch their train. That’s why every single clock and departure schedule in Grand Central is fast by exactly one minute. Sixty seconds is apparently enough time for everyone to slow down and still make their train. And it works. Grand Central may be one of the largest terminals in the country, but it also has the fewest pedestrian accidents in the nation–and somehow maintains a nearly 100 percent record of on-time arrivals.
The Top-Secret Track
Scan the Track Gates on the Main Concourse, and you’ll notice that no Track 61 is listed. But it does exist, way down in the terminal’s sub-basement. Franklin D. Roosevelt used to take the train here from Hyde Park, N.Y., up the Hudson River Line. Once arriving, his private car would be loaded into a freight elevator and brought right up to street level. Some say this was simply to avoid the crowds, others claim it was to conceal the fact that the polio-stricken president was bound to a wheelchair. Many fearless urban explorers consider Track 61 the Holy Grail of archeological trespassing. Though the platform is strictly off limits (and will never be open to the public according to Grand Central officials), it’s kept operational just in case modern day politicians need a secret egress in critical situations. There has been some action down here, though: Andy Warhol held a star-studded fete here in 1965. The Underground Party was so clandestine, no party photos exist (remember, this was before everyone had an iPhone).
What All Those Acorns Really Mean
Look at the top of the information booth in the center of the main floor to find just one of the many clusters of acorns that embellish the terminal. The decorative flourishes, along with oak leaves, are homage to the Vanderbilts, who shelled out $6.4 million dollars to finance the construction of the original terminal back in 1871. Patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of the richest men in U.S. history, despite coming from humble beginnings. He quit school at age 11 and began his own New York ferry service, which eventually brought him great wealth. His rags-to-riches story is embodied in the Vanderbilt family motto: Great Oaks from Tiny Acorns Grow.
The Most Guarded Room in the Terminal
Somewhere in the largest basement in New York City, more than 10 stories below the Main Concourse, is a room so guarded that it doesn’t even appear on the structure’s blueprints. In fact, it wasn’t even publicly acknowledged until the 1980s. Referred to as M42, the room holds a massive converter powering all the electricity running through Grand Central, including the rails. It is so important that it was a key target for Hitler during WWII. In 1944, he sent two spies by German U-Boat on a mission to dismantle the rotary motors and destroy the power grid, thereby halting the transportation of thousands of deployed soldiers and military equipment. The infiltrators were apprehended before they could reach the power center, and M42 remains the most guarded section of the Terminal.
How to Drink Like a Millionaire
Head to the West Balcony above the main floor of Grand Central to find the hidden cocktail lounge known as the Campbell Apartment. You may feel like you’ve stepped on to the set of Mad Men, but the Campbell Apartment wasn’t named for Pete Campbell. Business tycoon John W. Campbell rented the 3,500-square-foot room in the 1920s to use as his private office and had the space transformed into something akin to a 14th-century palace. The room still features the hand-painted 25-foot-high ceiling and enormous fireplace, and his mahogany balcony now serves as a terrace for imbibers. With a lavish red palette, the lounge is the perfect place to settle in and enjoy stylish, top-shelf cocktails such as the Prohibition Punch and the Blood Orange elixir topped with Champagne, and pretend you’re of another era entirely. The dress code (no sneakers, no baseball caps, no T-shirts) helps as well.
What a Racket
Grand Central isn’t just a place to grab a train. You can also get some exercise. Namely, tennis. Officially named The Vanderbilt Tennis Club, the court was installed in the annex in the 1960s and was built with a view of 42nd Street and Park Avenue South. Now owned by Donald Trump, the club has had visits from Serena Williams, John McEnroe and other tennis superstars. You can visit too–if you can manage to get a reservation.
Heaven on Earth
The existence of the majestic astrological ceiling mural above the Main Concourse is not exactly a secret, but there are two things that might surprise you. Look up and scan the ceiling to the west where you’ll find the crab–the zodiac symbol for Cancer. There, above Michael Jordan’s Steak House, you’ll see a small, dark and soot-covered patch of brick where the blue-green sky meets the bright white marble arches. That dirty patch of the interior canopy is what the entire ceiling looked like before it got a vigorous and restorative scrub-down in 1998 to get rid of all the grime (70 percent of which was from cigarette smoke). The brick was left as-is to visualize just how much of a change was made. Meanwhile, while some eagle-eyed travelers may notice something askew–that the astrological mural is upside down–few know the reason why. Some believe painter Charles Basing was holding the original astral depiction the wrong way when replicating it, but Cornelius Vanderbilt claimed that the mural was intended to depict the astronomical map the way it looks from heaven rather than from earth.
Get a Room
If you’re feeling amorous, check out The Kissing Room located near tracks 39-42 on the Grand Concourse. Officially named The Biltmore, The Kissing Room is where the glamorous “Limited Train” from the West Coast would arrive. Hollywood celebrities and famous politicians of the ’30s and ’40s would wearily pour out of train doors into the arms of waiting loved ones, hence the Biltmore’s pet name.
On the dining platform near the Oyster Bar & Restaurant is a section of Grand Central known as The Whispering Gallery. If you stand in one corner of the room and whisper something into the wall, a friend can hear you loud and clear across the 2,000-square-foot chamber. The tiling on the ceiling is the work of Rafael Guastavino, a trailblazer who revolutionized American architectural design and construction. Instead of bricks, he installed glazed terra cotta tiles to create arches that were almost five times the size of traditional arches (a $450,000 renovation was completed in 2012 to maintain the area). The enchanting aural phenomenon has something to do with the height, span and curve of the arches, but the real unanswered question is whether Guastavino built the arches with whispering in mind.
Don’t Worry if You Lose Your iPhone
From left-behind wallets, jackets and briefcases to ice skates, Christmas gifts and false teeth–yes, false teeth–the railroad crew has seen it all. More than 2,000 belongings per month are forgotten in the station and on the trains, yet those items are reunited with their rightful owners an astounding 80 percent of the time. That kind of return rate officially earns Grand Central the honor of having one of the most efficient Lost and Found department in the world. If you have ever left your iPhone on a train seat, you will be comforted to know that the return rate for electronic items is an impressive 100 percent.
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