Grand Central Terminal: Secrets, Rumors, Accomplishments

It is amazing the hype that is starting to surround Grand Central Terminal in New York City. But most of it is very factual (with a little bit of fun and fiction added on). All of the stories are contained in our Kingly Heirs WebSite and our Ominous Weather WebSite but there are a lot more

What Is Mysterious Track 61?

Car on Track 61
Car on Track 61

 

 Mysterious Track 61 Grand Central Terminal Track 61, which FDR used to sneak in and out of Grand Central and hide his disability (he had severe polio) from the public. Was Track 61 used other times by Presidents? Matt Lauer of NBC put on his best play clothes May 8 2008 to examine “The Mystery of Track 61? on the Today show. Lauer went 30 feet below the Waldorf to investigate the secret train track that has intrigued urban explorers for decades. Lauer ended up with a nice 7-minute segment, with some commentary from colorful Metro-North spokesman Dan Brucker and Brooklynite historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. He spoke about not only the phantom track, but the mysterious bulletproof freight car still located under the Waldorf that played some sneaky role in presidential security. “His armor-plated Pierce Arrow car would drive off the train, onto this platform and into the elevator, and it would bring him and his car into the hotel garage,” Metro-North Railroad spokesman Dan Brucker said while offering a rare tour of the long-unused station. “He could take the presidential train back to Hyde Park without ever leaving the building.” This story gets taller and taller anytime someone tells it. The Grand Central Palace, the railroad’s heating and power facilities and Adam’s Express Co. occupied the area between 47th and 50th Streets and between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue . They were torn down in 1929. In 1931, the Waldorf-Astoria completed its 40-story hotel on the site. Except for a small basement, the Waldorf-Astoria is directly over the tracks and the two platforms for the powerhouse and Adams Express. The track 61 platform was of course never used or intended to be used in regular passenger service, and it was not even built for the hotel; it just happens to be there. A stairway and a freight elevator run from the platform to a street entrance on 49 St. The freight elevator is not original and was probably built after the power house was torn down. There is also another stairway exit, without an elevator, on the 50 St side of the hotel building. So it amounted to a private railway siding underneath the building. Guests with private rail cars could have them routed directly to the hotel and take a special elevator directly to their suites or to the lobby. The baggage car ( “bulletproof freight car”) was left by Penn Central for worktrain service and the MNCX reporting mark was painted on the car in 1984 in North White Plains shops (not by the Secret Service). Also on the level: In 1965, the platform was used for one of Andy Warhol’s underground parties. (I found this out from a museum in Mouans Sartoux, France) In 1946 the American Locomotive Company’s 6000-horsepower Diesel-electric locomotive that was headed to Santa Fe RR system to be used between Chicago and Los Angeles, was exhibited on the Waldorf’s private siding beneath the hotel.

The Ceiling is Backwards!

The painting of the constellations on ceiling of the massive, cathedral-like Main Concourse is backwards. No one knows for sure how the mix-up occurred, but the Vanderbilt family claimed that it was no accident; the zodiac was intended to be viewed from a divine perspective, rather than a human one, inside his temple to transportation.

Biggest Basement in New York City

The basement covers 49 acres, from 42nd to 97th street. The entire City Hall building could fit into its depth with a comfortable margin of room to spare. Today, the MTA is in the midst of an ambitious project to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into the terminal via the East Side Access Project, making Grand Central even larger and deeper. These will be the deepest train tunnels on earth, at 90 feet below the Metro North track and over 150 feet below the street. It will take 10 minutes to reach these tunnels by escalator, at their deepest point.

Top Secret Room M42

Secret Room in Grand Central
Secret Room in Grand Central

 

A hidden room known as M42 does not appear on a single map or blueprint of Grand Central Terminal. In fact, its very existence was only acknowledged in the late 1980s and its exact location is still classified information. M42 houses a converter that is responsible for providing all of the electricity that runs through Grand Central. Here, alternating current becomes direct current and provides power for the transportation of more than one million people each week up and down America’s East Coast.

if you were to sink a 10-story building through the main concourse of Grand Central, you would still not reach the very bottom of the terminal. The largest basement in New York lies at the bottom of the terminal, housing electrical transformers and breakers, which feed immense power to the trains above. During World War II, troops were stationed in the basement. If a person was to wander in there by accident the orders were that he or she would be interned there for the rest of the war. If that person happened to be holding something like a bucket of sand, the orders were to shoot that person on sight. If someone was to pour a bucket of sand into one of the rotary converters operating in the basement, the entire basement would explode, paralyzing railroad transportation across the East Coast. Adolf Hitler sent spies in two submarines to sabotage the basement during World War II, but they were caught before reaching it. Two were executed and two were imprisoned. 

Tennis Anyone?

A little known space called the Annex houses a tennis court that is accessible to the public (as long as you can get a reservation). Originally installed by a Hungarian immigrant Geza A. Gazdag in the 1960s, it was taken over by Donald Trump, who brought the likes of John McEnroe and the Williams sisters onto its clay courts.

Bars, Restaurants and Apartments

The Campbell Apartment, in Grand Central, serves as a testament to the grandiosity of another era. If appropriately attired, you can enter the room and sip on cocktails from the fin de siècle in this virtual museum to the opulence of New York’s high society of the past. The apartment once belonged to John C. Campbell, a business tycoon; rumor has it that he used to sit behind his desk in his boxers, so that his trousers wouldn’t get wrinkled. The Campbell Apartment is also one of our favorite hidden bars in New York City.

What is all this hype about a Whispering Gallery?

Nestled between the Main Concourse and Vanderbilt Hall is an acoustical architectural anomaly: a whispering gallery. Here, sound is thrown clear across the 2,000 sq-foot chamber, “telegraphing” across the surface of the vault and landing in faraway corners. The real secret of the Whispering Gallery is that no one knows whether it was constructed with the intention of producing the acoustic effect that has made it so famous.

Jacob Bachtold , Grand Central Terminal Clockmaker, and Grand Central Information Booths

Grand Central Clock in 1946
Grand Central Clock in 1946

Long time Central employee and watchmaker Jacob Bachtold adjusts one of the more famous clocks in a 1946 photo
(Photo clipped from an old New York Central Headlight)

 With all of the clocks in Grand Central Terminal running with atomic precision, it’s quite odd that all the times displayed on the departure boards are wrong—one solid minute wrong. Each train conductor will wait exactly 1 minute past the designated departure time. Instead of yelling for customers to hurry up, the conductors instead tell everyone to slow down. The result? The least slips, trips, and falls of any railroad in the nation, quite a feat for the largest one of them all. One minute might seem minor, but it is major when added up. If the train has a single late boarding in the itinerary its chances of being on time are slim. Nevertheless Grand Central Terminal has a 98 percent on time record.

The main information booth is in the center of the concourse. This is a perennial meeting place, and the four-faced clock on top of the information booth is perhaps the most recognizable icon of Grand Central. Each of the four clock faces are made from opal, and both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have estimated the value to be between US$10 million and US$20 million. Within the marble and brass pagoda lies a “secret” door that conceals a spiral staircase leading to the lower level information booth.

You can check all the corners and nooks throughout the terminal and not find this staircase. It’s made of polished brass and it’s right in the middle of the main concourse. The brass cylinder in the information booth houses a spiral staircase that leads to the lower level information booth in the dining concourse. The staircase is well-obscured and little known, but is used all the time. It allows for ease of transfer of customer service representatives.  

 The clock atop the information booth has been valued at $10 million to $20 million. The four faces are made entirely of solid precious opal. This 1913 clock is mechanical and still runs on Swiss motors, but is also set constantly with the atomic clock in the naval observatory in Bethesda, Md. So next time you walk through Grand Central, set your watch, the clocks in the terminal are accurate within 1 second every 1.4 million years.

Terminal Renovation

When the building was renovated, a lot of effort was made to keep Grand Central Terminal exactly the way it was when it was built. Except for a second staircase, which was planned opposite the original one on the east side of the main concourse. But the Landmarks Commission said the staircase could only be approved if the original blueprints contained the staircase. The original blueprints were discovered, and they did contain such a staircase. The west staircase was built to match its cousin exactly: quarries in Italy were dug up to get the same type of marble and stonemasons were brought from Italy to ensure a perfect match. But it’s not quite identical: the new staircase is exactly one inch smaller than the old. 

All of the ornamental work in Grand Central Terminal falls within the same theme: oak leaves and acorns. The Vanderbilt family built and owned the terminal. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the patriarch of the family, quit school at 11, started his own ferry service at 16, and became one of the richest men in American history. The small acorns thus represent small beginnings. The Vanderbilt family, having come from nothing, needed to adapt a symbol and motto. The acorns and oak leaves became the symbol and the motto: Great Oaks from Tiny Acorns Grow.

A Couple of Idiosyncrasies

 Just above the fish on the Grand Central’s ceiling mural is a small circle. It would probably be anyone’s last guess, but this was used to hoist a rocket ship up to the ceiling. NASA was promoting its space program in the 1950s and decided to display a “RedStone” rocket ship in the terminal.

A second irregularity on the ceiling is on the side of the mural, where one of the meridians terminates next to the constellation Cancer. (near the Michael Jordan Restaurant). A small black rectangle can be seen. This single patch was left to show how dirty the terminal was prior to the renovation. After analyzing the sludge that covered the entire ceiling, restoration workers found that it was all cigarette tar. It took a year to wash the whole ceiling with soap and water.

Controlling All Those Trains

Switching all the tracks in the terminal started out in 1913 with several electro-mechanical “towers”. In the last few years, it has been transformed into a modern command center. The transformation happened quicker than expected because of a fire in Tower B.

Signal Tower A
Signal Tower A
Signal Tower B
Signal Tower B
MTA Metro North Control Center
MTA Metro North Control Center

Tower A and Tower B and new control room

An Underground City

Burying electric trains underground brought an additional advantage to the railroads: the ability to sell above-ground air rights over the tracks and platforms for real-estate development. With time, all the area around Grand Central saw prestigious apartment and office buildings being erected, which turned the area into the most desirable commercial office district of Manhattan. The terminal introduced a “circumferential elevated driveway” that allowed Park Avenue traffic to traverse around the building and over 42nd Street without encumbering nearby streets. The building was also designed to be able to eventually reconnect both segments of 43rd Street by going through the concourse if the City of New York demanded it.

In 1928, the New York Central built its headquarters in a 34-story building (now called the Helmsley Building) straddling Park Avenue on the north side of the Terminal.

From 1939 to 1964 CBS television occupied a large portion of the terminal building, particularly above the main waiting room. The space was used for four studios (41-44), network master control, film projection and recording, and facilities for local station WCBS-TV. In 1958, the first major videotape operations facility in the world opened in a former rehearsal room on the seventh floor of the main terminal building. The facility used fourteen Ampex VR-1000 videotape recorders. The CBS Evening News began its broadcasts there with Douglas Edwards. Many of the historic events during this period, such as John Glenn’s Mercury Atlas 6 space mission, were broadcast from this location. Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” originated from Grand Central, including his famous broadcasts on Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Murrow broadcasts were recreated in George Clooney’s movie “Good Night, and Good Luck”. The movie took a number of liberties, in that it was implied that the offices of CBS News and CBS corporate offices were located in the same building as the studios. (The news offices were located first in the GCT office building, north of the main terminal, and later in the nearby Graybar Building. Corporate offices at the time were at 485 Madison Avenue.) The long-running panel show “What’s My Line” was first broadcast from the GCT studios. The former studio space is now in use as tennis courts, which are operated by Donald Trump. In 1954 William Zeckendorf proposed replacing Grand Central with an 80-story, 4.8-million square foot tower, 500 feet taller than the Empire State Building. I. M. Pei created a pinched-cylinder design that took the form of a glass cylinder with a wasp waist. The plan was abandoned. In 1955 Erwin S. Wolfson made his first proposal for a tower north of the Terminal replacing the Terminal’s six-story office building. A revised Wolfson plan was approved in 1958 and the Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building) was completed in 1963. 

In 1968 Penn Central unveiled plans for a tower designed by Marcel Breuer even bigger than the Pan Am Building to be built over Grand Central. The plans drew huge opposition including most prominently Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Great Stories From The New York Central Lines Magazine

From 1919-1931 New York Central Lines Magazine

1919 – 1925

1925-1931

In 1920, the “Dewitt Clinton” was displayed in Grand Central. Normally, it was stored at Karner, near West Albany. It was taken on a flat car down the West Side Freight Line to 30th Street and then trucked over to Grand Central. I assume it was brought into Grand Central Terminal via the taxi driveway under the Biltmore Hotel (like four elephants in 1921 who had to be brought from New York to Boston).

There were many fascinating articles on the jobs which various employees carried out. For instance, the “trouble trio” of Grand Central were three ticket takers who worked outside their cages and helped solve problems on the floor. The employees who manned the information booth at Grand Central as well as the six phone operators and their chief were described.

Several articles described the Red Caps at Grand Central. Many were college graduates. By the 1920’s, there were 467 Red Caps-all African-Americans. The force had been all-White in 1900.

Technological improvements of the day were always well described. The Grand Central signal stations were such an interesting subject that a film was made about them and shown in theaters. “Q” telegraph office in New York was the wire communications center for 13,000 miles of railroad.

The electric baggage trucks in use at Grand Central were a big deal in their day. There were 51 in use by 1921. They weighed 3000 lbs. and could carry 4000 lbs. One of them had 17,000 miles on it.

One article described a “typical” day at Grand Central Terminal: (1) A special train from Vassar College arrives just before a holiday. All the girls were greeted at the station or else found their destinations except for one who was helped by Traveler’s Aid. (2) A political candidate is escorted through the terminal by the Stationmaster. (3) Several immigrants wait for their train, sitting quietly together eating dark bread. (4) A high school team is going off to play a championship game in Chicago and is sent away by a large crowd of students. (5) A group of convicts changing prisons is escorted uneventfully through the station in handcuffs. (6) Boy Scouts bound for a “jamboree” are met at the station by other scouts. (7) All the Red Caps in the station run to meet the “20th Century”.

Famous Railroaders

George A. Harwood died in 1926 at age 52. He was a Tufts graduate who began railroad service in 1900. In 1906 he was placed in charge of electric improvement and is credited with completing the construction of Grand Central that William Wilgus had started. 

 Dr. Plimmon H. Dudley, the railroad’s expert on rail metallurgy, would also accurately predict the weather. He was considered the “scientist of rails”. He died in 1924 at age 81. He had joined the New York Central in 1880 and had lived in the Hotel Commodore (next to Grand Central) since it was built.

Throughout this period, the Chairman of the Board of Directors was Chauncey Depew. He had 56 years of service on his eighty-eighth birthday in 1922 and still came into his office in the Grand Central Office Building. His advice to employees was to “have a hobby not a fad”.

  Chauncey Depew died in 1928. He was a Yale graduate of 1856. He was buried in Peekskill. In his honor, the huge concourse of Grand Central Terminal was draped in mourning. The only other time we have heard of that the Terminal was draped in mourning was for President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Know of other times, please let us know.

REFERENCE SECTION

The NY Times has produced a great video: The Secrets of Grand Central. In his new book “Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America,” Sam Roberts of The Times goes behind the scenes at Grand Central Terminal.

Fox New York and Untapped Cities both have great stories and good pictures of Grand Central Secrets

Cindy Adams has a good Grand Central story on the PAGE 6 blog.