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100 Facts For Grand Central Station's 100th Birthday

100 Facts For Grand Central Station's 100th Birthday
Sasha Patkin

Grand Central Station is turning 100 on Saturday! She's getting pretty old. To celebrate the landmark, we've compiled 100 fascinating facts about the historic transit hub. Many of them we discovered in Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark by The New York Transit Museum and Anthony W. Robins, but some were also gathered from our recollections and obscure Google searches.

The station is celebrating its centennial with a huge party this weekend; see our handy party facts for more info.

The Basics:

1. Grand Central Station was officially opened on February 2nd, 1913, one hundred years ago this Saturday.

2. It's actual, proper name is Grand Central Terminal, but nobody calls it that.

3. Sometimes, people (mostly MTA conductors) call it Grand Central - 42nd Street. That's the name of the subway stop, not the terminal itself.

4. Its construction lasted for ten years (from 1903 - 1913).

5. The building was designed by a Francophile architect named Whitney Warren, who wanted to bring a whole lot of Parisian flair to New York City with his Beaux-Arts style.

6. Warren brought a bunch of his French buddies to work on the project with him: Jules-Felix Coutan, who created the sculptural facade that faces 42nd Street, Sylvain Salieres, who sculpted many of the smaller, indoor ornamentation, and Paul-Cesar Helleu, who planned the celestial painting above the main concourse.

7. 750,000 people pass through the station every day. To give you a sense of just how many people that is - it's almost half the current population of Manhattan.

8. Ranked by number of platforms, Grand Central holds the title of largest train station in the world with 44 total.

9. The station, as you've probably noticed, is huge: it occupies a total area of 48 acres.

10. In 2011, Grand Central was ranked sixth on Travel & Leisure magazine's list of the world's most-visited tourist attractions, falling behind Niagara Falls, the Las Vegas Strip, Union Station in Washington D.C. (Seriously? Come on, we could totally take those guys!), Central Park, and Times Square.

The Building:

11. Initially, a competition was held to select the architects. Warren's firm, Warren & Wetmore, never even entered the competition, but was brought in after the fact because Warren was a friend and distant cousin of the board chairman at the time, William K. Vanderbilt. Obviously, this pissed off the firm that did win (Reed & Stem) and, although the two companies managed to collaborate, the relationship was always testy and they eventually sued each other.

12. The station has very few stairs, relying instead on a network of ramps. The New York Tribune claimed the ramps were developed through scientific study, and the Times said, "If a child can toddle at all, it can toddle comfortably from a train to Forty-second Street." We're so glad toddling was part of the plan all along.

13. Indeed, the terminal was designed to be easy enough for babies to navigate. Warren told the Times in 1913, "Once having entered the station the traveler should find himself in a large vestibule and, theoretically, directly in front of the Information Bureau, so that in case he dos not know his way about and cannot read the various signs he may address himself and be properly directed without loss of time and encumbering space."

14. There's a ton of stuff underneath the main concourse of Grand Central: a double-decker train yard, a suburban concourse, and secret rooms (more on those later).

15. An electrical substation is also hidden four stories deep under the station. When the substation was under construction in 1929, the Times reported that it was the largest in the world and that it would be "covering a site 250 feet long by 50 feet wide under Forty-third Street. It will have a preliminary capacity of 25,000 kilowatts, with room for expansion up to 32,600."

16. The fancy Oyster Bar and Restaurant, one of the landmarks-within-the-landmark, nearly shut down in 1974 but was rescued from bankruptcy by new owners. Oysters were the only seafood served until after the purchase, when the owners added other fish to the menu.

17. Initially, the architects wanted skylights to fill the ceiling of the main concourse so that the actual night sky would be exposed. But, when that option proved too expensive, they commissioned Helleu to paint his mural instead.

18. There are 2,500 stars painted on the ceiling; roughly sixty electric bulbs add to the twinkling effect of the stars.

19. The constellations, with the exception of Orion, are painted backwards. Even when the ceiling was replaced in the 1940s, the new painter, Charles Gulbrandsen, stuck to the original design. He said, "The ceiling is decoration, not a map. The constellations are north. They should be south. So what?"

20. The star-spangled ceiling (which we obviously find fascinating) is 125 feet high.

 

On Screen:

21. During the filming of a scene in The Fisher King (1991), 400 extras waltzed around the main concourse from the evening until the first trains arrived at 5:30 the following morning.

22. Grand Central is the setting for the opening scenes of Gossip Girl, during which notorious bad girl Serena van der Woodsen returns to Manhattan and inspires one of her creepy classmates to start a gossip website in order to get in her pants.

23. Remember when Roger Sterling takes Don Draper for an oyster-and-martini lunch, then pukes on Mr. Cooper's socks? Although its never mentioned by name, the Mad Men duo are believed to have dined at The Oyster Bar.

24. A baby falls down the the station's stairs for a really, really long time in the 1987 Kevin Costner film The Untouchables. The baby's fine, but a bunch of guys get shot in the process.

25. In Alfred Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest, Cary Grant makes an amazing escape through the terminal. Like The Fisher King, this scene was filmed at night to prevent disruptions to train service.

26. Grand Central has also taken YouTube by storm, starring in amazing flash mobs like this one:

27. In Superman (1978), Clark Kent battles super-villain Lex Luthor, whose hideout is located under the terminal. (Unfortunately, the lair doesn't exist in real life... At least, not that we know of.)

28. At the very end of Francis Ford Coppola's Cotton Club, Richard Gere and Diane Lane escape their mobster lives through Grand Central, boarding an L.A.-bound train.

29. Maybe Coppola was copying Midnight Run, which also features a New York-to-L.A. escape and stars Robert DeNiro.

30. Fire Power, starring Sophia Loren, also filmed in Grand Central, and is also a mobster movie. Apparently, when Hollywood thinks of the mob, it thinks of Grand Central.

 

100 Facts For Grand Central Station's 100th Birthday

The Clocks:

31. Grand Central has two famous clocks: the Tiffany clock that overlooks 42nd Street, and the round clock on top of the information booth in the main concourse.

32. The hands of the 42nd Street clock each weigh over 100 pounds, but so carefully balanced that they are turned by tiny gears.

33. When the clock needs servicing or repairs, a worker opens a little door behind the numeral VI and pokes his head out to assess the issue.

34. Time zones as we know them today were introduced in 1883, a result of railways' need for a consistent, unified schedule. In the early depot days of Grand Central, the three unique railroads operating under its roof made it especially important to keep a consistent schedule.

35. In 1884, Grand Central instituted a policy of standardizing time among its three different railways. The decision came from the necessity of preventing train collisions, but it had unintended effects on New Yorkers' sense of time. Scientific American wrote, "On the day when the new standards took effect, the clocks of about twenty thousand railway-stations and the watches of three hundred thousand railway employees were reset. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of city and town clocks were altered to conform. How many individuals reset their watches is impossible to compute, but they certainly could be reckoned in the millions.

36. Speaking of millions, Grand Central's signature four-faced clock that sits atop the information booth is worth between $10 - 20 million dollars.

37. This timepiece was removed for repairs in 1954; the Times reported, "This will be the first interruption to the bronze clock's ticking in the 21,500,000 minutes, more or less, since the terminal was opened in 1913."

38. The little acorn atop the clock is a symbol of the Vanderbilt family. Their motto was, "From the acorn grows the mighty oak."

39. In August 1880, Railway World described Grand Central's influence on time-keeping: "Conductors, trainmen, and others are compelled to keeping their watches in strict uniformity with the superintendent's clock....The time is distributed over the line each day as follows: At 10 o'clock 58 minutes and 30 seconds a.m. the word 'time' is sent by the main office to the telegraph stations between New York and Albany. The word is repeated for 28 seconds, during which time operators must see that their instruments are adjusted."

40. In the 1940s, the New Yorker reported that a man named Jacob Bachtold was responsible for keeping time throughout the station. He adjusted each clock daily, verifying the time twice a day with the Naval Observatory in Washington.

The Party:

41. A brass band from West Point will play a concert at 9:30, kicking off the events.

42. Caroline Kennedy, Sex and the City star and daughter of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, will make an appearance. (Her mother defended the station from demolition in the 1970s.)

43. The Vanderbilt family will celebrate some sort of "key ceremony" during the rededication ceremony in the morning. Sounds like some kind of weird initiation, so if you're trying to join the family, maybe now's your chance.

44. The restaurants and shops inside the station will offer 1913 pricing on all their wares. A side of fries will cost ten cents; a loaf of bread will be six. (Check out the complete menu here.)

45. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins will read a special poem commissioned just for the occasion.

46. At noon, the terminal will receive awards from the Guinness Book of World Records, the National Park Service, the National Railway Historical Society, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. They'll have to buy special cabinet to hold them all.

47. The Postal Service will issue a brand new stamp to commemorate the anniversary, and will only be available for purchase from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Lower Concourse Information Booth.

48. A replica of the station, made entirely out of Legos, will be on display in the station master's office.

49. Tons of the stores inside the station will be giving away free swag. Target is giving out train whistles, Vince Camuto will have tiny perfume bottles, and Swatch promises free pens.

50. Surprise performances are scheduled throughout the day, so we encourage you to hang around and explore.

 

The Bizarre:

51. A wealthy 1920s businessman named John W. Campbell retained a private office suite in the station which is now known as the Campbell Apartment. Before he died in 1957, he was known for throwing lavish parties there, assisted by Stackhouse, his butler.

52. Since Campbell's death, the space has served as a signalman's office, a police armory, and a jail; it has lately been converted into a cocktail bar.

53. According to this Spider Man fan-fiction writer, the station has, "the marble floor of what looked like an old stone palace."   54. No matter how many times he tries, the saxophone player on the 7 train platform will never make it all the way through the intro of Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso." He will, however, always try again.

100 Facts For Grand Central Station's 100th Birthday

‪55. This awesome-sounding video called "Nude in Grand Central Station" has been pulled from YouTube for violating its policy, but it lets us know that station nudity is a thing to look out for. You can read about the woman behind the stunt here.

56. Time reports, "Nine stories below the lowest floor sits a bunker known as M-42. It's rumored that during World War II, the bunker had guards with shoot-to-kill orders, for fear of sabotage while the station's trains were being used to ferry troops into and out of New York."

57. The bunker isn't the only secret area in the station. Track 61, which is not mentioned on any train map, was built for rich passengers who travelled in their own private trains. An elevator runs straight from the track to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

58. President Roosevelt frequently arrived on Track 61 as its secrecy helped him conceal his polio from the public.

59. Singer and bassist Larry Graham of the funk act Graham Central Station is the guy who converted Prince to becoming a Jehovah's Witness. Although Prince wasn't actually baptized by the Graham Central Station guys in Grand Central station, it's fun to imagine, no?

60. The Apple store in the main concourse is -- at 23,000 square feet -- one of the largest in the world.

61. On September 11, 1976, a bomb was hidden inside the terminal by a group of Croatian nationalists. Although they revealed the bomb's location, authorities did not disarm it properly. The resulting explosion killed a member of the NYPD's bomb squad and wounded more than 30 people.

The Olden Days:

62. The original train station on the site of Grand Central, called the Grand Central Depot, was the brainchild of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

63. Vanderbilt built the depot in 1869.

64. The name came from one of the railroads that ran through it, the New York Central.

65. Being a Vanderbilt, he wanted to impress people with the design. As the Real Estate Record and Builder's Guide put it in 1869, "People who come to New York should enter a palace on the end of their ride, and not a shed."

66. The Times immortalized him hilariously on September 2, 1869, when a gigantic statue of Vanderbilt was erected in the station: "Whether we consider him as the great operator and financier or as the steamship Commodore and railway King, or as the man who gets married after the age appointed for men to die, or as the man who is the subject of a statue which, taken all in all, is without a parallel in this or any other country, we always find him the man of boldness, originality, and the most striking popular effects."

67. Then the Depot expanded in 1885. Then it was forced to renovate in 1902, after a deadly accident prompted legislators to demand the railroads abandon steam for electric power.

68. Rather than try to fix the old station, it was decided a new one would be build instead. The new station would become the Grand Central we know today.

69. During the entire demolition and rebuilding, train service never stopped. Said Town & Country, "It does not seem as though the completed structure itself can be half as impressive as this remarkable engineering feat of removing old improvements and installing an entire new terminal system without ever altering a train schedule."

70. When the original depot was built, its location marked the upper edge of the city and its train tracks sprawled for blocks. By the time it was torn down in the early 1900s, Manhattan had grown uptown, and the tracks were forced to move underground to clear the way for real estate.

 

100 Facts For Grand Central Station's 100th Birthday

How It Works:

71. The information booth in the center of the main concourse is staffed by workers who are expected to memorize the train schedules, so they can easily and instantly respond to the most popular question: "When's the next train?"

72. However, they also know tons and tons of other facts. The Atlanta Constitution wrote in 1930, "Sometimes the clerks at the information booth at the Grand Central station wonder themselves why they don't go mad. Folks ask the silliest questions. 'Where could I have a live turkey stored until Christmas?' 'I'm going to Chicago the day before Christmas. Will the train get there in time?' ...These, explained W.P. Walsh, in charge of the Grand Central information service, are some of the reasons why it requires about three years to train a good information man."

73. The train schedule, which was once kept on a chalkboard, was replaced by an electric one in 1967.

74. In the 1920s, baggage was sorted on a series of subways below the station. The Engineering News-Record explained, "Subways for the handling of baggage, mail, and express below the lower level are the lowest elevation of any of the terminal passageways....Here all of the baggage, mail and express received and sent out of the terminal is transferred to and from the individual tracks."

75. Unusual items that have turned up in the Lost & Found include a kitten, a wooden leg, a lunch that would be claimed later in the afternoon by a forgetful businessman, and a marriage license.

76. In 2002, the Times completed a detailed investigation into the Grand Central Lost & Found. They found that, "in a typical year about 3,000 coats and jackets; 2,500 cellphones; 2,000 sets of keys; 1,500 wallets, purses, and ID's; and 1,100 umbrellas find their way into the Metro-North Lost and Found in Grand Central Terminal. That, along with stranger items like a basset hound, $9,999 in cash stuffed into a pair of socks...two sets of false teeth and a $10,000 diamond ring, make the task of sorting and returning as much as possible a formidable one."

77. The Times also discovered that the computerization of the lost and found system resulted in almost twice as many items finding their way back to their owners.

78. The stationmaster is the man in charge of Grand Central's operations and supervises a 160 person staff.

79. His office has switched locations several times during the station's existence and is currently near track 36.

80. The timetables used by train operators usually show trains departing a few minutes later than the time given to the public. This allows tardy travelers to make their trains.

The Close Calls:

81. Because Grand Central was the third station built on the site in the forty years, nobody thought the building would be around for very long. The Times reported that "people are asking, quite naturally, whether the great railroad station that is open today for the first time is the final, permanent structure, adequate to accommodate whatever future development may come."

82. The Times didn't stop predicting Grand Central's demise -- in 1954, the paper said the station "looks as though it was built for the ages, but people probably felt the same way about the Grand Central Depot that it replaced. Apparently, we begin to get restless about these buildings every forty years or so."

83. Their predictions weren't unfounded. In 1956, the owners of the building commissioned blueprints for a tower that would outstrip the Empire State Building as (at the time) the tallest building in the world.

84. The tower was designed by I.M. Pei and, had it ever been built, it would have been named the Hyperboloid.

85. Then everybody started talking about ripping down Carnegie Hall and Pennsylvania Station, and people flipped out. Carnegie Hall survived, obviously; Penn Station became Madison Square Garden. You can't win 'em all.

86. In the process of flipping out, the city established a Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965 that protected Grand Central from its imminent destruction.

87. In the 1970s, Grand Central suffered from disrepair and neglect. A former employee, Harry Kelly, told CBS News, "I could maybe see the wall, but everything was diesel. You'd be choking. This whole area would be black with diesel smoke."

88. The owners of the building wanted to tear it down and replace it, but Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis spearheaded a campaign to save Grand Central.

89. The station received a facelift that included cleaning the ceiling's beloved mural, which had been blackened by smoke.

90. A plaque inside commemorates Jackie O's efforts in saving the station.

 

The Arts and Entertainment:

91. In the 1920s, an art gallery was installed on the sixth story; John Singer Sargent exhibited his paintings there.

92. The galleries gave way to an art school, known as the Grand Central School of Art, which opened in 1924. One of its most well-known students was Charles Addams, the New Yorker cartoonist who inspired The Addams Family.

93. From the end of the second World War through the 1960s, CPS maintained television studios in the terminal and broadcast the news on a giant screen in the main concourse.

94. When CBS left, they were replaced by the Vanderbilt Tennis Club, which converted the studios into tennis courts.

95.The tennis players were briefly ousted in 2009 to make way for a conductor break room, but now they're back again.

96. In the late 1930s, a tiny movie theater was opened near track 17. It screened mostly news stories and cartoons, and closed in 1979.

97. During the same era, organ concerts were often given from one of the balconies by one Miss Mary Lee Read, who was said to be particularly popular with the servicemen who passed through the station.

The Future:

98. Currently, construction is underway for the East Side Access project, which will grant access to an additional 124,000 LIRR passengers in 2018.

99. This is phenomenal news for Long Island residents, who can only get off the LIRR in Penn Station right now, and is expected to cut their round-trip commute time by almost an hour.

100. Developers hope to bring the station's inspiring and revitalizing spirit to the World Trade Center area, with two new, mini Grand Central-esque terminals.


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