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Grand Central Terminal, New York (Where Gumbo Was #164)


Gumbo was visiting Grand Central this week, as a number of readers figured out, despite the purposely misleading first clue and several ambiguous ones after.


I say ‘Grand Central, because that’s what most New Yorkers call it, although it’s formally Grand Central Terminal, because every train that enters goes back out the way it came. End of the line. And in the days when the railroads were dying, Grand Central almost was at the end of the line in other ways, too, despite all its beauty. Story later…

DSC07527Congrats (in order) to GarryRF, Traveling Canuck, PortMoresby, Jonathan L (who reminded me to include Terminal) and Roderick Simpson.

DSC07528My own personal connection to Grand Central comes from a dozen or more years working in its shadow, including 10 years in a building whose lower level connected to the station and the subways below it. Those were the 70s and 80s, when intercity railroads were shrinking, and the commuter lines, subways and the station itself got very little maintenance.

DSC07583It was grimy, it was shabby, it was a shadow of the glory days when the 20th-Century Limited left each day for Chicago. Many corridors looked like the one above. Even the glorious skyscape of the main hall ceiling disappeared under grime.


The station shops were pretty dinky then, too, mostly serving people passing through with cheap sandwiches, neckties, shoe repair and reading matter.

Speaking of reading matter: There were two telephone rooms in the station, each with dozens of telephone booths, an attendant to help with long-distance calls, and banks of phone directories from all over the country. I was not the only one there on lunchtime, poring through the books for familiar names or people with our own names.

DSC07584The picture above shows all that's left of payphones in the station. I stopped and called my wife—just for the thrill of using an actual working payphone!

Today, as in so many other revived stations, the retail sector has been vastly upgraded to something more like an upscale mall. Perhaps that was true in the glory days, too. At any rate, fancy goods and fine dining are the mark of the main level of the station these days, including Grand Central Market, an extensive (and expensive!) food hall.


The lower level concourse, more or less abandoned except for track access in my days has also been given over to food, with a huge seating area and an almost bewildering choice of restaurants and stands.

Of all the food in the station, though, probably no place is better known than the Grand Central Oyster Bar, with its ceiling of Guastavino tiles, on the lower level. It's also the oldest business in the building: It opened in 1913 when the building did.


Grand Central is both one of the world’s best-known buildings and an enigma: its façade and general shape are widely recognized, but from within, it has so many spaces, so many corridors, so many stairs and passages and stores that it would be hard to give a coherent description of the interior.


It’s huge, but many of its spaces are intimate, while others are vast. It’s full of stately and formal detail, as well as informal signs and facilities. It has soaring vaults over the main concourse and Vanderbilt Hall, but many of its best, and working, spaces are well below ground, and with ordinary heights. 


Grand Central is a lot bigger than the building we think of as the station. The underground rail network, with 100 tracks and 44 platforms spreads under a 15-square-block area; all the buildings in that footprint are actually standing on beams that go down between the tracks. The development of all that real estate on the surface actually paid most of the cost of building the station, which opened in 1913.


In addition to that, there are three subway stations connected to it (above). Below the lower level platforms are huge machinery rooms and power generators, and next to that construction is underway on the new station for Long Island Rail Road trains.


The whole project was an uneasy collaboration between two architectural firms. Reed and Stem, from the Midwest, was a specialist in train stations—and Stem was brother-in-law of the railroad’s chief of engineering. Warren and Wetmore were well-known in New York—and Warren was a cousin of the Vanderbilts, owners of the railroad. In the end, Reed and Stem did the working station, and Warren and Wetmore dressed it in the granite and marble Beaux Arts detail we know and love.

Grand_Central_Terminal_-_Sectional_View_1939In the original plan, the main level was for long-distance trains, and the lower for commuter trains; today both levels serve MetroNorth commuters, and a project is underway to connect the Long Island Rail Road as well. So, as with so many other grand buildings whose original purpose vanished, Grand Central has a future, and one that’s not that different from its original purpose.


That said, it’s almost a miracle that the building still exists. With the decline of the mainline railroads, the Pennsylvania Railroad demolished Penn Station across town and the land was turned into office buildings and Madison Square Garden with a station of sorts squashed underneath.

The 20th Century Limited, in its 1938 glory days as a 70mph super-train

The New York Central wanted to do something similar, by placing a huge office building over an underground station. But with the loss of Penn Station already something of a public wound, and Jacqueline Kennedy taking a leading role, the station became a landmark instead.


Starting in the late 1970s, and really picking up steam in the 80s and 90s, the complex was renovated and restored, the ceiling cleaned, the balconies above the main concourse turned into restaurants (one had been hidden behind a giant Kodak ad that featured humongous reproductions of, admittedly, great photographs. Before and after of that, below.


Today, the station is busier than ever, even with no long-distance trains (they now all operate from the remains of Penn Station), and likely to become more so in a few years when the Long Island Rail Road arrives. If you have even an hour or two in your New York visit, consider Grand Central. All Abooooard!

Two views in the grand former waiting room, now used for exhibits and events. Many of the benches have been re-used in eating areas, in this case in a bar.


There's still a shoeshine stand, but now it's called a 'Leather Spa,' and each seat has a dock for an iPad...


The lower-level information booth is directly under the one with the clock on the main concourse; they're connected by a narrow spiral staircase.


Two views of the main taken during overnight maintenance... the only time you'll ever see it that empty!  But you'll always see plenty of people taking pictures... 


For the future: It looks almost as if you could step onto that escalator right now, but it's only a painting on the wall for the moment; service is scheduled to start in 2023, four years behind schedule already.


And one of the most famous views of Grand Central, by Jack Delano. It's actually one of a series he made, looking at the streaming light from different directions and positions. For more of these and other views, click HERE



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Comments (3)

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Looks like you have a great liking for the good old days of the railroad.

Loved the reference to the new complex - It was picking up steam in the 80s and 90s.

Fascinating slice of architecture hidden away. But better a market hall than a memory.

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