An average of 750,000 people pass through New York’s iconic Grand Central Terminal each day—but most of the 49-acre, 1913 Beaux Arts building has always remained off-limits to the general public. With the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s great-great-grand-niece Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin, Grand Central Terminal director George Monasterio, and Grand Central’s senior architect Mark Saulnier, Bloomberg got an inside look at the spaces (and secrets) you never knew to ask about.
It’s Possible to Go Inside the Tiffany Clock
Since most people lived and worked downtown from Grand Central Terminal when the building first opened more than 100 years ago, the monumental clock installed in the building’s south-facing façade in 1913 was designed to be seen by pretty much everyone in town. But few have been able to peer through it from behind, up close. Getting here requires security clearance and more than a little know-how: A secret door in the tightly guarded Operations Control Center leads the way, followed by two somewhat precarious ladders. (So few people have been given access, the tradition is to Sharpie your name onto the wall if you do get in.)
There Once Was a Ski Slope on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Floors
Maybe you knew that there are one and a half tennis courts in GCT, one on the fourth floor and a half court above it. But did you know that the combined space was at one point part of a 60-foot-tall ski slope made out of compounded nylon? True story. It was the whimsical creation of a Hungarian entrepreneur in the 1960s, who thought he could give New Yorkers a ski fix without the two-hour drive. It was open for only a few years before Donald Trump turned it into a tennis space that he could offer to guests at his hotel next door, the Grand Hyatt.
The Gigantic Windows Actually Open
When you’re in the main terminal, look east, south, and west. You’ll notice nine oblong windows, each spanning approximately six stories. Behind them is another set of windows that you’d never knew existed—unless you were a traveler in the early 1900s. Back then, both sets of windows could be opened to form a cross-breeze through the terminal—natural air conditioning, if you will. The wheels that open the windows are still accessible from all-glass catwalks, but energy efficiency measures mean they haven’t been used in ages.
The Campbell Apartment Was Never an Apartment
You know the famous bar? The one that closed last summer? It was never an apartment, as its name suggests. But it was named for a famous tenant, John Campell, who conducted musical events and parties here for his business clients. Future tenants included a branch of the New York Police Department, which turned Campbell’s tall wooden chests into rifle storage and his half-height wine cellar into a holding cell for suspected criminals. As for the next tenant? It’s Scott Gerber’s Gerber Group, the force behind such bars as Whiskey Blue and Mr. Purple—which will reopen the bar on May 1. (It’s reportedly paying $1.1 million a year in rent to operate the space.)
There Used to Be a Movie Theater … for Watching the News
Back when train travel was the main way to get from, say, New York to Miami, sitting in a train terminal was similar to waiting at an airport gate today. You had time to kill while trains were cleaned and turned around and while your luggage was checked and routed. The best way to occupy yourself, back then, was at a newsreel movie theater, where world news clips were shown on loop. Little remains of the Grand Central Theater, but it occupied the space now taken up by Central Cellars wine shop in the Graybar passageway. Look up from the main doors, and you’ll see the one feature from the theater that remains: an original turquoise-colored mural meant to evoke the massive constellation painting in the main concourse.
The Original Light Fixtures Had Mysteriously Vanished … Until Recently
The perimeter of Grand Central Terminal was once lined with 26 tall brass lamps—they were removed in the 1980s when the station was undergoing waterproofing. But when they were sent to storage, the lamps went missing, and nobody knew what became of them for decades. Fast forward to 2003, and all 26 lamps were found—broken down into pieces—in a Department of Transportation facility in Maspeth, Queens.
Now they’re being restored one by one as funds come in—the project requires a $1 million investment. (See one in the old Kissing Room. Get there by looking for track #42.) As more are restored, they’ll be moved outside to 42nd Street and Park Avenue, on either side of the Pershing Square bridge.
It Was Once the Hub for an Entire ‘Terminal City’
You think Grand Central is big? It was originally planned to be just the cornerstone of an entire complex, including three hotels, residences, a conference center, a post office, and seven underground passageways. (That doesn’t include this secret train tunnel to the Waldorf.)
One passageway, now closed, led to the old Roosevelt Hotel. Some of the signage is still intact, but mostly it’s off limits for good reason.
The Ceiling Paintings Are Actually Unfinished
Head to the Graybar passageway (where the movie theater used to be), and you’ll notice a series of arches—one with a faded mural depicting 1920s infrastructure development projects. All the arches were supposed to be done in similar style as a way to boost civic pride, but after the first mural was completed in 1930, the Great Depression took hold, and the city ran out of funding for the rest of the project. The arches remain naked to this day.
Security Sensors Are Everywhere
You may not think you’re going through airport-level security when you casually waltz into Grand Central, but sensors at every street entrance are secretly sizing you up. They act like sniffing dogs, hard-wired to recognize security threats. Then there’s the fact that most of the building actually requires key-card access, such as the Operation Control Center (OCC) and electrical control rooms that act as the mission control base for all train and electric rail activity across the Metro North train network.
What happens when there’s a potential security breach? An urgent meeting of police and terminal directors in the Situation Room, a board room set just above the OCC.
There Are Hidden Love Letters in the Main Concourse’s Celestial Ceiling
When the terminal first opened, the main concourse sported a different version of the current celestial ceiling: It was more heroic and formal, in darker shades of green and gold. It’s commonly known that the original ceiling became so tarnished and water damaged that artists had to repaint it in the 1940s. (A tiny rectangle of the original was left exposed.) But what most people don’t know is that the mural was also modified slightly when it was refit, and among the additions are little love notes from the artists. In subtle spots, such as Taurus’s eye, you can spot tiny dark letters. They’re actually the names of babies born and spouses married during the ceiling’s yearlong reconstruction.
To contact the author of this story: Nikki Ekstein in New York at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at [email protected]
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.