Picture this: Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. It’s crowded. Bustling with commuters trying to make it from Point A to Point B; fast-walking through the station’s Main Concourse, intermittently glancing down at their watches, hoping not to miss their trains to Connecticut – or wherever they may be heading to. If only they would stop once in a while to admire the details… Or perhaps they’re just in too much of a rush…?
“Never stand between a commuter and his train.” Sun Tzu
The Grand Central Terminal is iconic to Manhattan. Located on 42nd Street and Park Avenue, you’ve likely seen it featured in countless movies – during Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and more recently, in Mendes’ Revolutionary Road – or referenced many times, whether it be as inspiration for New Yorker cover art or as a listed must-see in a guidebook on Manhattan. Acquainted as we all may be with this landmark (note: it is a National Historic Landmark), I had always been intrigued about a couple of its charming yet mysterious details: that magical-looking painted ceiling, and the legend of its whispering walls. Recently, I set on a research/adventure to uncover the stories behind this intrigue.
A few weeks ago, I had watched a rerun of Anthony Bourdain’s Layover – Rome, during which the Termini Station was described as: hellish, with as much charm as New York’s 34th Street Penn Station (that is, none). I share these sentiments and can thankfully say that the same cannot be said for the Grand Central Terminal. In stark contrast to its counterparts, it is a beautifully restored Beaux-Arts building that is pleasant to walk through – crowded or not.
A bit of history…
Grand Central Terminal’s beginnings extend back to 1871. However for purposes of this post, I’ll start around the time of the station being saved from its potential fate by a wrecking ball.
In 1968, its lessee, UGP Properties, had proposed a Marcel Breuer-designed, 55-story tower to be built above the Grand Central Terminal. Such a plan would ultimately mean harsh consequences for the building: either its façade, or the entire Main Waiting Room and part of the Main Concourse, would need to be demolished. Having been designated a landmark a year earlier, not only did the Landmarks Preservation Commission block any such project, but the plans sparked an outcry from many city leaders, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who stated:
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.
Suffice to say, that after a decade’s worth of battling it out in court rooms, the Supreme Court upheld New York’s landmark law and spared the terminal such a fate. (The station had been declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.)
In a major state of decline since its post-war days, Metro-North along with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (known as MTA, who in 1994 gained long-term control of Grand Central Terminal in the form of a long term lease) started a planning process that paved the way for what we now know as the restored Grand Central Terminal. Revitalisation and construction had begun in 1996, when a couple of years into it, a striking artwork was uncovered: the Main Concourse’s Sky Ceiling.
Star Light, Star Bright
If you look closely at the revelers in the Grand Central Terminal, you’ll notice many of them with craned necks, staring up at the 125-foot high ceiling. Arching over the 80,000 square-foot Main Concourse, the vaulted expanse is beautified with astrological images based on a design by the French painter Paul Helleu. In 1912, Helleu had painted the artwork in gold leaf on a background of cerulean blue oil. Unfortunately, the ceiling had been obscured shortly thereafter – it had been mended in the 1930’s due to falling plaster and it had also been badly tarred by tobacco smoke.
The astrological painting “portrays the Mediterranean sky with October-to-March zodiac and 2,500 stars. The 60 largest stars mark the constellations and are illuminated with fiber optics, but used to be lit with 40 watt light bulbs that workers changed regularly by climbing above the ceiling and pulling the light bulbs out from above.
Soon after the Terminal opened, it was noted that the section of the zodiac depicted by the mural was backwards. For several decades, lively controversy raged over why this was so. Some of the explanations offered were that it just looked better, or it didn’t fit into the ceiling any other way. The actual reason is that Paul Helleu took his inspiration from a medieval manuscript, published in an era when painters and cartographers depicted the heavens as they would have been seen from outside the celestial sphere.”*
There is a small dark circle in the midst of the stars right above the image of Pisces. In a 1957 attempt to counteract feelings of insecurity spawned by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the Grand Central’s Main Concourse played host to an American Redstone missile. With no other way to erect the missile, the hole was cut so the rocket could be lifted into place. Historical Preservation dictated that this hole remain (as opposed to being repaired) as a testament to the many uses of the Terminal over the years.**
Now, what of those Whispering Walls?
I had discovered the wonder of Grand Central Terminal’s Whispering Gallery when my sister was visiting from Sydney a few years ago (gosh, that was in 2005!). Having been told about it by a traveler in passing, we had attempted to follow their rough instructions: we were to walk down the ramp to the famous Oyster Bar, and the gallery would be right there. And there it was. Right outside of the seafood restaurant, we found ourselves standing under the low tiled domed ceiling of the ‘Whispering Gallery’.
Next, we were to diagonally stand across from one another, backs to each other, and face into one of the four piers that form the perimeter of the gallery. Then we were to whisper into ‘our’ pier, as if carrying on a conversation. We had done just that: speaking lowly into the corners in the arches, we has set about testing the gallery’s acoustic abilities. Lo and behold, we could hear one another perfectly.
Unfortunately, I recently came to find out that there is no legend behind the sound phenomenon. The crossing pair of vaulted arches allows for “the whisperer’s voice (to) follow the curve of the domed ceiling.”*** Hence, the feeling that you’re talking to one another as if side by side, as opposed to experiencing muffled conversation in any crowded intersection.
Grand Central Terminal has certainly come into its own through a long process of reconstruction. As I mentioned in my post on Manhattan’s High Line, New York is a spirited place, and it is heartening to find out that such prominent, historical New York icons share the common thread of a rallying community support behind them. It is a show of dedication to a much admired and adored city. And, not only that, but the Grand Central Terminal contains mysteries that will continue to entertain residents and travelers alike, for years to come.
*grandcentralterminal.com **Wikipedia ***manhattan.about.com