It's a gantlet to run on the way to work, a trysting spot for lovers, a familiar movie set, a refuge for the homeless, a labyrinth to out-of-towners and a relic of railroading's golden age.
Grand Central Terminal is also an American cliche, as in "busy as Grand Central Station"--even if the cliche doesn't quite get the name right.
Inside its marble and terra cotta walls you can get your shoes shined, buy a London newspaper, have a passport photo taken, fill a prescription, mail a letter, bet on a horse, buy a tie, copy a resume, sell some stock, rent a car, get a haircut, savor oyster stew, and--for a dollar a minute--play tennis on one of two courts tucked into the rafters.
Each weekday, more than half a million people pass through its oak and bronze portals. With 500 daily trains, there's an arrival or departure on the average of every three minutes. Thousands traverse the concourse as a cross-town shortcut, to descend to the city's busiest subway station, or merely to get out of the weather.
Some come to gawk at what many call the New York's most beautiful interior space and to gaze at its celestial mural 125 feet above. Amateur astronomers will notice that the golden zodiac is reversed. Several theories have been offered, the most likely being that the painters simply flipped the sketch during execution.
The present terminal was conceived at the turn of the century when travel and trains were synonymous. It was completed in 1913 at the 42nd Street site of the old cupolaed Grand Central Depot, with its vast iron and glass train shed dating to 1871. Designers of the new terminal believed that arriving passengers needed a lofty space to allay the claustrophobia engendered by a long train ride. The result is the grand concourse, 300 feet long by 120 feet wide with a ceiling seemingly as high as the stars. In cubic space, it is said to be as big as the nave of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
"Some mornings you'll see the light flooding into the terminal--it's almost religious," says Peter Stangl, president of Metro-North Commuter Railroad, current tenant of the terminal built for the New York Central Railroad.
Sunlight has not always streamed into the concourse. During World War II, the floor-to-ceiling windows and half-moon skylights were painted black. It wasn't until recently that Stangl ordered a battalion of window cleaners to scrape away the grime. Now sunlight sparkles on the white Tennessee marble floor and gleams on the four-sided brass clock atop the information booth.
The clock, cast in Waterbury, Conn., is a favorite meeting place because of its central location and is meticulously maintained by terminal clock master Bill Steinhauser, who tends the terminal's 357 clocks. Among his charges is the gigantic one crowning the southern facade. Installed in 1912, the clock's stained glass face is nearly 13 feet in diameter and its cast-iron hands weigh 340 pounds. Steinhauser says it never misses a beat.
Rising above the clock is a sculpture of Mercury, messenger of the gods and symbol of transportation, with an eagle peeking out from behind his legs. Mercury is flanked by Hercules and Athena, goddess of cities.
Millions recognize the terminal from the dozens of movies filmed there, including "Falling in Love," "A Stranger is Watching," "Cotton Club," "Superman I," and most recently, "Stone Pillow," a TV movie starring Lucille Ball as a bag lady who finds shelter there.
The concourse has hosted dozens of special functions and during the pre-TV era was the launching pad for weekly stories in the long-running radio program, "Grand Central Station," whose intro described it as a "gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily."
The program may have been the source of the inaccurate popular name for the terminal. Railroad buffs like to point out that trains pass through stations and begin and end their runs at terminals.
During television's infancy, CBS had a studio in what is now the Tennis Club. Walter Cronkite covered the 1952 presidential election from there. But the network soon discovered that rumbling trains meant snowy broadcasts.
That same year, about 30,000 people gathered to hear President Harry S. Truman's speech from the balcony. In 1962, thousands gathered before a giant television screen to watch John Glenn take off on America's first orbital flight. On New Year's Eve, 1963, it was the site of a Guy Lombardo charity ball.
NASA Rocket Display
One such event left a lasting mark on the terminal. Gazing up at the reversed zodiac, a black hole is visible in the constellation Pisces. It was cut by NASA, to accommodate a full-sized Redstone missile displayed in the concourse at the beginning of the Space Age.
It is unlikely that the current custodians would allow such defacement of what many now view as a national treasure.
Traffic at the terminal peaked in 1946 when more than 65 million passengers passed through. The nature of the passengers has since changed, from long-distance travelers to daily commuters from northern suburbs coming to work in Manhattan.
Despite wear and tear, the terminal is unlikely to collapse. But a major study of its structure is under way.
"The big plans are to restore it to its original, spotless grandeur," Stangl says. The estimated cost: $40 million.
Incoming Train Room
One of the first areas restored was the Incoming Train Room. Here--in the days when trains had names--the Yankee Clipper, the Wolverine and the Empire State were met. Liveried porters rolled out a red carpet for passengers aboard the Twentieth Century Limited.
The room, located beneath what used to be the Biltmore Hotel, suffered extensive water damage during construction of the Bank of America building. The developer paid for the restoration, completed in April.
The Botticino marble walls with Tavertine trim and Tennessee marble floors were cleaned. Five-foot-high bronze and nickel sconces with acorn and leaf motifs and matching chandeliers emerged shiny. Plaster moldings of fruit and flowers, cornices and scroll brackets were painstakingly restored.
Also spruced up was a grand staircase that once led to the lobby of the Biltmore and its famed clock. It now leads to the bank lobby, where the clock still ticks.