Grand Central Station … Inside beats the heart of the city …

Railroads have always fascinated me. From the sounds of the distant frieght trains along the tressle bridge over the Mid Hudson in Poughkeepsie to the city frieghts moving from Bush Terminal in Brooklyn to unknown places.

This City Scapes post about Grand Central Station in New York City is in response to a request from Shelley Freydont.

Photo link

Grand Central Station, built in 1913 is the largest train station in the world, yet it is more … much more than a railroad station to many New Yorkers. She is the central place to meet, through the 43rd Street exit to Lexington Avenue, up the triple wide marble staircase to Fifth Avenue, a ride on the escalator into the Pan Am building, or to the lower level dinning concourse …

Perchance to the famous Oyster Bar. 

Photo link of Oyster Bar

She is the life force that pumps into the veins and arteries, nourishing our economy, carrying commerce, mail, news, cargo and millions of passengers to feed the beasts of our urban jungle. Her tunnels blast into the sun to slice through two states and bank along the Hudson River, riding into the night to points north.

Her thousands of feet of rails and dozens of ramps, underground tunnels and wide passageways link to subways that travel to four of our five boroughs, and leave others at the base of Manhattan for the Staten Island Ferry to our fifth borough.

Photo link

From the subways in Brooklyn or Manhattan, Grand Central is the place I traveled with my family and alone to both Westchester and Dutchess Counties for dozens of years.

My first memory of Grand Central Station is of a hot August morning. I was five and attached to my mother, as she switched her gloved hands to hold me and her camel-colored Samsonitte suitcase.

My father, tall strapping, his back military straight, his Fedora hat positioned perfectly over his salt and pepper waves, held three more pieces of mis-matched luggage; one in each hand, one under his arm.

The older of my brothers kept an even stride with our father, holding a giant blue leather suitcase, and two smaller cases, and always the middle one walking on their heels, doing double time to keep time with the two giants.

Historic references and this b/w photo were taken from TLC Grand:

The “Commodore” Creates Grand Central Depot:

Shipping magnate “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired the Hudson River Railroad in 1864. Soon after, Vanderbilt added the New York Central Railroad to his holdings and consolidated his position by creating a rail link between Spuyten Duyvil and Mott Haven, allowing Hudson River trains to arrive at a common East Side terminal. In 1869, Vanderbilt purchased property between 42nd and 48th Streets, Lexington and Madison Avenue for construction of a new train depot and rail yard. On this site would rise the first Grand Central.

Grand Central Depot, designed by architect John B. Snook, was built at a cost of $6.4 million and opened in October 1871. Virtually obsolete at the time it opened it served three distinct rail lines, the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, each of which maintained its own waiting room, baggage facilities and ticketing operation at the station. Subsequent renovations and enlargements culminated in the 1898 expansion of the depot under architect Bradford Lee Gilbert and further interior renovation in 1900 directed by Samuel Huckel, Jr.

Grand Central Depot

The headhouse building containing passenger service areas and railroad offices was an “L” shape with a short leg running east-west on 42nd Street and a long leg running north-south on Vanderbilt Avenue. The train shed, north and east of the head house, had two innovations in U.S. practice: the platforms were elevated to the height of the cars, and the roof was a balloon shed with a clear span over all of the tracks. The Harlem, Hudson and New Haven trains were initially in side by side different stations, which created chaos in baggage transfer. The combined Grand Central Depot serviced all three railroads. (Reference and photo link)

There Once Was a Grand Central Station:

Reborn as “Grand Central Station,” the reconfigured depot’s most prominent feature was undoubtedly its enormous train shed. Constructed of glass and steel, the 100-foot wide by 650 foot long structure rivaled the Eiffel Tower and Crystal Palace for primacy as the most dramatic engineering achievement of the 19th century. The updated station also featured a “classical” façade, a unified 16,000 square foot waiting room, and distinctive ornamentation, including monumental cast iron eagles with wingspans of 13-feet. In fact, one of these eagles was recently salvaged and will rise again above Grand Central Terminal’s new entrance at 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue.

Outside the station, the clock in front of the Grand Central facade facing 42nd Street contains the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass and is surrounded by sculptures carved by the John Donnelly Company of Minerva, Hermes and Mercury. For the terminal building French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan created what was at the time of its unveiling (1914) considered to be the largest sculptural group in the world. It was 48 feet high, the clock in the center having a circumference of 13 feet.

Photo credit


When I first heard the news of Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis’ battle to preserve Grand Central, it had been quite some time since I used the railroad to travel. Delighted to remain in Brooklyn, I contented myself with bike wheels instead of train wheels. I also loved radio and kept the music and news on all hours of the day and night.

It was during one of those late night news programs I heard JKO’s mission to save the railroad station from falling victim to over zealous developers as so many beautiful historic buildings before her; notably the original Metropolitan Opera House.

In 1968, Penn Central unveiled plans for a tower designed by Marcel Breuer than the Pan Am Building to be built over Grand Central. The plans drew huge opposition, most prominently from Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis. She said:

“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.”

Six months prior to the unveiling of the Breuer plans, however, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Grand Central a “landmark.” Penn Central was unable to secure permission from the Commission. The Court saved the terminal, holding that New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act did not constitute a “taking” of Penn Central’s property under the Fifth Amendment and was a reasonable use of government land-use regulatory power. (Reference link)

Mrs. Onasis worked tirelessly for years to have Grand Central Statioin declared a historic site; thus protected and cherished for our grandchildren. Millions were raised for restoration during her life, and continued after she passed. Millions more to fund and construct the planned underground tunnel to connect Grand Central Station to Penn Station and thus to the rest of the country.  has one of the most detailed histories and complete set of original renderings and photographs available on the internet.


Take time to visit 433MM to Creativity , a blog site by Sean Leahy, and read a more precise history of some of the many secrets held within the cavernous expanse of the famous terminal.

Officially there are 7 secrets to Grand Central Terminal, some hidden in plain sight, some not so easily seen. What are the 7 secrets?

1. The clock on main concourse above the information booth – the clock faces are made from Opal and it is worth between 10 and 20 million dollars.

2. The grand staircases on the east and west ends of the concourse – the eastern staircase is a few inches shorter and newer than the western staircase.

3. The constellations on the ceiling are in the wrong perspective – as if looking down from the heavens, not up from Earth.

4. There is a hole in the ceiling – visible from the main floor.

5. There is a secret staircase, through a secret door in the middle of the concourse.

6. There is a “secret” super-sub-basement (the lowest space on the island) called the M42.

7. Franklin Roosevelt had a private platform built below the Waldorf Astoria. A boxcar still remains there from the Roosevelt era.

A portion of the celestial ceiling.

This new ceiling was obscured by decades of what was thought to be coal and deisel smoke. Spectroscopic examination revealed that it was mostly tar and nicotine from tobacco smoke. A single dark patch remains above the Michael Jordan Steakhouse, left by renovators to remind visitors of the grime that once covered the ceiling.

There are two peculiarities to this ceiling: the sky is backwards, and the stars are slightly displaced. One explanation is that the constellations are backwards because the ceiling is based on a medieval manuscript that visualized the sky as it would look to God from outside the celestial sphere. (Reference)

Big Screen inspiration:

When Brian O. Selznick wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a graphic novel about an orphan in 1930s Paris, he imagined the secret spaces of the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris.

Clock photos

For inspiration, he visited Grand Central Terminal, and drew his interiors in pictures that were three inches by five inches.

A private tour took Selznick to Grand Central’s deepest sub basement, its lost and found, along its catwalks and up into the clock tower. At each step along the way, the station gave up its secrets, which were eerily similar to the story of Hugo Cabret, a small boy who keeps the clocks running, steals to eat, and struggles to repair a lost automaton, his last connection to his dead father. (article found here)

Photo Link

Inside beats the heart of the city:

It would take at least two more posts to do the entire history of this magnificent edifice justice. Suffice to say that if you have the chance to travel to New York City, take the time to wander through this “grand” railroad station. If you live in New York, go see part of your history.

We owe a debt of graditude to the many who worked for so many years on each facet of this landmark and to those like Mrs. Onasis for preserving her for generations to come.

Her construction is a testament to a time honored tradition of hard work, vision, man power and the love of the craft of archittecture and design. She will continue to stand for all those who have passed through her and for those who have yet to know her.

Have you traveled to different places in the world and marveled at the amazing construction and design of other railroad stations?

Do you have suggestions for other places in New York City you would like to learn about?

fOIS In The City



Filed under City Scapes

33 responses to “Grand Central Station … Inside beats the heart of the city …

  1. lindsay

    Railroad stations were once MEANT to be magnificent. There was an era of public buildings designed for grandeur.


  2. You make me want to spend time in NY, Florence — with you as a guide!


  3. Wonderful post. And thank goodness for Jackie O and her determination not to let Grand Central fall to the same ignominious fate of its sister Penn Station. About which an editorial at the time said something like, New York will be remembered not for what it built but for what it tore down.


    • Yes Shelley, that is too sad. I had a cousin who was a preist and an opera lover who splayed out on the street the day the wrecking ball took to the Met on 40th Street. I didn’t know. I was standing at a window across the street and watched as history was smashed. We own Jackie a debt and the late Peter Allen for saving Radio City Music Hall.


  4. christicorbett

    Thank you again for giving us who could never go ourselves another great tour of the fantastic places of New York. The pictures you select go perfectly with your words, and I thank you for taking the time to put together such a wonderful, informative post.

    Christi Corbett


  5. Wow! I had NO idea it was so “grand”! And The Invention of Hugo Cabret kept coming to mind and now I understand why. That was SUCH a gorgeous book. And to have spent so much money in the 1800’s is unbelievable, yet telling of the grandeur even back then! Thank you for the tour. It really is “awesome” for lack of a better word.


    • Patti, the tour and the inclusion of Hugo were both suggestions from Shelley. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been in the station, used it as a short cut or to travel upstate … it is a marvel. I hope you one day get to enjoy it as I have 🙂


  6. Thanks for this glorious mini-trip to the Big Apple. A little time travel, too. Because I went to college in Philly and my parents lived in CT,every trip home involved a change of trains in NYC and spending some time in Grand Central. I remember a cafe with the best pastrami on rye!


  7. Florence, I enjoyed this post so much. Grand Central Station has long been on my list of “someday” places to visit. Getting a glimpse of this marvelous place, through the eyes of someone who grew up there and loved it, is a gift to my traveller’s soul.

    I would love a glimpse into the neighborhood you grew up in, the people, the places. And the place where you lived as a young adult. And Little Italy. And the Hudson River and … well, I could go on and on, but this should suffice for a start.

    Thank you for this wonderful series!


    • Thanks so much, Sheila. You are a loyal and kind=hearted fan of this blog. Yes, I will do my old neighborhood … revisit my pal, Pete. For the next two weeks it’s a tribute to my brother for Father’s Day and a trip along the bike paths I traveled in three neighborhoods 🙂


  8. Grand Central–always a fascinating and beautiful place and you’ve made it even more so.


  9. Boy, when I need inspiration for novel settings, this is the site I go to:) Nicely done!!


  10. You bring the history and beauty and heart of Grand Central Station to those of us who either haven’t seen it or haven’t slowed long enough to appreciate what she means to the history of NYC.

    What a blessing that Mrs. Onassis brought her power, political resources, and passion to saving this landmark.

    What a blessing that I have you to teach me about the NYC I never slowed down enough to appreciate when I traveled there on business. Another one for our tour, Florence!


    • Gloria, sometimes when you see something often enough, you begin not to notice it … it took a great deal of effort for Mrs. O to make everyone aware of the beauty they passed each day on their way to somewhere … Also, we can thank Peter Allen for saving the Radio City Music Hall from a terrible fate. Yes, we’ll add these to the list and see how much we can accomplish. For now I can take you on virtual tours 🙂


  11. Someday I will visit. You did a wonderful job of mixing just enough history with your personal reflections. I especially enjoyed your first memory of visiting at age five.


  12. a few months ago, there was a site where you could vote for which NYC site should receive funds for restoration. I think there is also one for Brooklyn. I voted for the tenement museum. do you know what those links were? I’ll have to look when I get a chance. It’ s a great idea.


    • That’s a super idea. Did you also know they are converting part of Bush Termiinal Factory District into artist’s studios? And Williamsburg is being called Brooklyn’s Villiage? Things are changing … I will have to look those links up for sure. Thanks 🙂


  13. This is incredible and so thorough.. I feel like it should be in a travel magazine or an architecture mag!


  14. There is something magical about a train station, something you can feel, something you can almost touch. You’ve captured this in your post, Florence.

    In Kuala Lampur, we explored the train station, a design that was grand as it was exotic, an Arabian twist on our familiar Union Station here in Toronto. And perhaps that is why I feel this magic in train stations. I arrived in Toronto over twenty years ago with little money, uncertain dreams, and a duffle bag crammed with hope unspoken.


  15. A totally different life from my little existance here in Nova Scotia, and totally fascinating. Thanks for sharing the photos. 🙂


    • My heavens, Laura … I so love when you take me on a tour of your world. There is magic and wonder is so many places … like you last post about Chester 🙂 What we can all do is to celebrate the differences in where we live, what we do and who we are 🙂 Thanks for the visit.


  16. What a marvelous post. I especially liked the secrets information. Another wonderful glimpse of our largest city. Thank you.


  17. Florence, I’ve never wanted to see NYC. I think I’ve said that in another comment post. I’ve always imaginied it more as a dark,brooding Gotham. But you bring the city to life and present it in such glory that it’s hard to maintain that view. Thnak you so much for your blog.
    Tori McRae


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