Take a Grand Tour of Grand Central in New York City
Meet me under the clock
Would you spend a day in a train station and go nowhere?
There is an endless list of fascinating things to do in New York. Would a visit to a train station be on your list? More than 20 million tourists visit Grand Central every year. Almost a million people pass through Grand Central every day.
Grand Central was just down the street from my hotel so I popped in for a 75-minute guided tour. The tour lasted about 2 hours and I spent another 2 hours exploring more, including a stop at the bar in the Campbell Apartment. We had a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide who knew absolutely everything about Grand Central and New York. She stayed long after the tour was officially over, answering our many questions.
Grand Central was the vision of Cornelius Vanderbilt. He epitomizes the American Dream. He grew up poor and became one of the richest people in American history.
Vanderbilt quit school at age 11 to start a ferry service between Staten Island and Manhattan. He turned one ferry into a shipping empire. Then he focused his attention on rail travel. He bought a money-losing railroad because of its strategic advantage as the only railroad to run into the centre of Manhattan. He went on a shopping spree and bought more lines. He consolidated them to form one of the first mega-corporations in the United States. Vanderbilt built the first Grand Central as the terminus of his New York line.
New York’s Most Famous Clock
The original station built by Vanderbilt was replaced by Grand Central Terminal in 1913. The iconic symbol for Grand Central symbol is its clock, set at 7:13, or 19:13 on a twenty-four hour clock. This commemorate the date that Grand Central opened.
The real-life, four-sided clock is the centrepiece of Grand Central, framed by the vast Main Concourse.
The clock is estimated to be worth $20 million. Its value in defining a city is priceless.
Grand Central was designed by two rival architectural teams that were forced to work together. Each had a radically different vision for the new terminal. One firm wanted to create a magnificent Beaux-Arts space. Beaux-Arts architecture, developed in Paris, uses rich and intricate decorative detail to define grand public spaces. The other firm was more pragmatic and wanted to create a very functional space for the efficient movement of people and trains. Together, these teams created a stunningly beautiful and functional space that celebrates travel.
Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue
Grand Central was built to accommodate new electric trains, not steam and diesel trains. With this switch in technology, tracks for the new Grand Central were buried under the city. The old 4th Avenue, known as Death Avenue with its mishmash of dangerous rail tracks, was replaced with the Park Avenue Viaduct, an elevated road that encircles Grand Central. This transformed Park Avenue into some of the priciest real estate in the world.
There was a wonderful model of Grand Central in the gift shop. It shows the Park Avenue Viaduct
To see the beauty in Grand Central, look up!
The ceiling is a beautiful sky-blue-green, decorated with starry constellations outlined in gold leaf.
Decades of grime had obliterated the stunning artistry until a 12-year restoration returned the ceiling to its original condition.
It was assumed that coal, soot and diesel were the cause of the blackening. It turned out to be cigarette smoke. The restorers left one black brick to remind everyone of what happens to a treasure that is not protected. Look closely to see the one black brick. It sits between cancer’s pincers where the ceiling meets the arch…. perhaps intended as a reminder that smoking causes cancer.
Astronomers are quick to note that some constellations are depicted as they appear from earth; others are reversed and inverted, as they would appear to God from above. This quirk was not changed with the restoration.
If you look closely at the middle of the ceiling, you will spot a small hole. (Sorry, no photo of this). In 1957, the successful launch of Sputnik by the Soviets created a feeling of angst in Americans. An American missile was erected in the Main Concourse to remind Americans of their supremacy in the space race. The hole was drilled to hold an anchor and a stabilizing wire for the missile.
Light up in style
If you are not suffering from neck-crane from looking up at the ceiling, take time to focus on the 10 stunning Beaux-Arts chandeliers in the Main Concourse, each ablaze with 110 bulbs. This photo shows the chandeliers in the adjoining Vanderbilt Hall.
Adorned with gold detail and banded with 110 bulbs, the globe-shaped chandeliers hang above the main concourse balconies like luminescent Fabergé eggs.
The bulbs are naked in homage to the great innovation of electrifying public spaces.
Planes, trains and automobiles in one picture
Our tour of Grand Central included a field trip. We went outside for a view of the entrance to Grand Central.
Look up, waaay up. The backdrop for Grand Central is the Pan Am Building. The gilded age for Pan American World Airways is over. The company went bankrupt. The building is now MetLife, but to most New Yorkers, it is still the Pan Am building.
To the right is the Chrysler Building, perhaps the most recognized building in New York. Together, the Pan Am building, Grand Central and the Chrysler building pay homage to the past, present and future for planes, trains and automobiles in the United States.
Now, bring your focus back to the top of Grand Central. You will see the marvellous Glory of Commerce sculpture of three gods framing the world’s largest Tiffany glass clock. The sculpture looks small from below but is actually 48 feet high.
There is a photographer’s door at 6 o’clock, with the perfect view down Park Avenue.
The gods in the sculpture are a fitting tribute to American industry. Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom and the sponsor of trade and strategy. Hercules is famous for his strength and grand travel adventures. Mercury is known for his speedy travel and is the god of finance, trade and commerce. Long may they reign in New York.
Make it New
The swinging 60s were all about ‘make it new’: new hairstyles; clothing; drugs; music. It was fun. It was exciting. Everyone rushed to modernize. Ezra Pound’s ‘make it new’ is all about rejection of obsolete culture.
The year that epitomized a modern New York was 1963. The massive 59-story Pan Am building opened, the world headquarters for Pan American World Airways, the preeminent airline for international travel. Magnificent Penn Station was razed to make room for Madison Square Gardens.
Facing bankruptcy, Grand Central drafted blueprints to obliterate Grand Central. There was no government help to keep it on life support. Government subsidies supported new super highways and airports for the Jet Set, not a fading and tired railway system.
The mindset of ‘make it new’ gave no voice to those who wanted to preserve monuments to the past. The demolition train was ready to pull into Grand Central Station.
New York faced an identity crisis when Grand Central was slated for demolition. In that struggle to form a modern identity, what parts of the past do we raze and what parts do we treasure, embrace and protect?
Grand Central, a cultural icon of the Gilded Age was saved by the tireless efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
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.
— Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
The Preservation Train is Triumphant
The shocking destruction of Penn Station became the impetus for architectural preservation. New Yorkers developed an architectural conscience too late to save Penn Station but not too late to save Grand Central.
A year after Penn Station was razed, New York enacted new preservation legislation.
Passed in 1965, the measure was intended to conserve the city’s architectural heritage, a surprisingly radical idea in a decade with little respect for the past.
The newly created Preservation Commission landmarked Grand Central, thereby prohibiting any changes to the building and effectively derailing plans to erect an office tower.
The owners of Grand Central mounted a challenge to the new preservation law
A ten-year legal battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court upheld the power of the preservationists.
Today, New York’s heritage buildings are monuments to preservationists.
Would you buy New York Air?
The engineer who designed Grand Central created money out of thin air. He devised an ingenious scheme to sell the air space over Grand Central to adjacent real estate developers. Grand Central used this scheme again when it sold air rights to Pan Am, allowing them to append their new office tower to Grand Central. It is ironic that the survival of a railroad station depended on selling air rights to an airline company
Air rights in Manhattan are like gold mines in the sky. Zoning laws allow developers to buy air space from a neighbouring property. The air space can be added to the new construction, allowing the new building to be higher than otherwise permitted under zoning laws. Virtual air space is transformed into physical space. A developer can buy a ‘floor’ of air space and add it to the new building.
Every floor that can be added to the height of a building goes directly to bottom line profits. The upper floors of these new condo towers are commanding jaw-dropping prices: the record is $100.4 million for a penthouse.
With soaring international demand for a Manhattan address, the price of air rights in Manhattan is the same as real estate prices.
With new technology, the footprint for skyscrapers has vastly shrunk. The convergence of technology, demand and a market in air rights has created a race into thin air to build a new class of super-tall skyscrapers in New York.
My Dream Apartment is a Bar
A tour of Grand Central is not complete without a visit to the Campbell Apartment. However, you may have to wait for that drink. It closed last month in a loser-lose-all fight with the landlord. When it reopens, it looks like it will be a ‘make it new’ style bar.
Contrary to its name, the Campbell Apartment was not an apartment but an office for business tycoon John Campbell. He created an opulent 13th century Florentine palace in one room, complete with a hand-painted ceiling.
The floor was covered with a giant Persian carpet, valued at more than $3.5 million today. Sadly, this artistic treasure went missing when Campbell died.
As with all of Grand Central, the Campbell Apartment was neglected and dilapidated until it was restored in 1999 to its former glory. What will the new tenant do with the space?
Until Campbell Apartment reopens, there are lots of other bars in Grand Central, but none with the story of Campbell Apartment