First opened in 1871, Grand Central Terminal is one of the most historic sites in Manhattan, and as a resident of Westchester, it is perhaps my most frequented landmark. Despite the fact that I associate the building with early morning commutes, its grandeur is not lost on me. I’ve found a similar sentiment among many commuters, my mother among them; though she has been commuting through Grand Central twice a day, five days a week, for about twenty years, she maintains that Grand Central is still her favorite building in all of New York.
I’ve become familiar with the space over the years and always felt that I knew its secrets fairly well. From the whisper galleries to the tennis courts and secret bars, I’d seen it all. However, this summer I had the pleasure of joining a VIP tour of the secrets of Grand Central and needless to say, I had spoken too soon.
For the sake of the mystery I won’t divulge all of its secrets, but I will share with you a few of my favorites.
The first is the walkways that exist at three levels in the giant windows on either side of the terminal; while their existence may not be such a big secret, if, like me, you pay attention (you can sometimes see people walking through them), I was privileged to walk the catwalks and get a birds eye view of the terminal- something I had wanted to do for years.
Next, there is a secret connection from the terminal to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. On our tour, we entered the passageway from above ground, at a door that I have walked by thousands of times on my way to work. It leads down to a set of train tracks which eventually run by an elevator. This elevator goes directly into the Waldorf and is sized to fit an entire town car as it was originally designed as a way to hide FDR’s polio from the public. There is a private train car, now stranded on an unused track, that was used for this same purpose.
Perhaps the most humorous secret is that the constellations on the ceiling of the main concourse are painted backwards; the painters laid the plans on the floor while they were working and were apparently unable to maintain the proper perspective when imposing the figures on the ceiling. According to our tour guide, this was brought to the attention of the Vanderbilts by a commuter, but they denied that it was a mistake, instead claiming that it was done on purpose as the constellations were painted from God’s view- while this is only hearsay I’m still not certain it makes any sense.
Lastly, there is the secret of room M42. M42 is among the best kept secrets in New York because, for a time, it needed to be. It houses the main electricity operations of the station, including the generators for all of the tracks connecting the east coast. During WWII it was guarded closely- anyone who attempted to enter unauthorized would be shot on sight; if Nazi’s compromised the rail system they would not only shut down the transportation system, but would also cause a multitude of accidents, endangering all passengers.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that its existence was even acknowledged, and M42 is still not on any blueprints. It still houses the main electric controls for the rail system, but with advances in technology, the system can no longer be used as a weapon.
Much of Grand Central remains a mystery, but I can’t help but feel just a little bit like an insider walking through the main concourse nowadays. Learn more about the secrets of Grand Central here and here.
Not a VIP? Check out New York Adventure Club to see similar tours.