The Coolest Place in Grand Central: The Clock Tower

For the past several months I’ve been taking you to some of the more interesting places throughout Grand Central, past and present. In such a big building, especially one that has been around for a century, there are certainly tons of places to explore. In fact, we even learn new things about Grand Central all the time! But despite every place I’ve learned about, or seen first hand, I do have one particular favorite place in Grand Central. And that would be the “clock tower”…


Grand Central, minus the statuary group

First, a little history. Do you notice something missing from the above photograph? Grand Central’s façade does not look quite as glamorous in that photo as it does today. There’s one major reason for that – the massive clock and statuary group designed by Jules Coutan had not yet been installed! What was touted as the world’s largest statuary group, weighing 1,500 tons, did not grace the front of the Terminal until the second half of 1914 – over a year after Grand Central officially opened. Carved in pieces by Donnelly and Ricci in the Long Island City yards of William Bradley and Sons, the group was put together atop the Terminal. Even in pieces, the statues were immense – Minerva’s head alone was said to weigh fourteen tons, and Mercury’s headpiece around ten tons.


The quarter sized model of the statuary group by Jules Coutan, featured on a postcard. From the collection of Steve Swirsky.

I’ve written about Jules Coutan before, but the main thing to note is that while he designed the group on the front of the building, he didn’t actually carve it. Chosen by Whitney Warren over several American sculptors (which many were quite unhappy about), Coutan created a quarter size model of the statuary group. He never even saw the completed work in real life, or for that matter, set foot in the United States. In a New York Times interview, Coutan stated that he had no desire to see the US, and states that “I fear that the sight of some of your architecture would distress me.”

  
 
 
Various photos of the statuary group being carved in Long Island City, including a few with people to show scale.

While working on the sculpture, Coutan noted:

The group, of course, will be heroic in scale… will stand forth boldly… [and] combine the classical and symbolical… The difficulty of the problem which I have before me is to give the vitality of the present to a symbolism that is consecrated by centuries of literature and art and philosophy.


A photo of the statuary group being assembled atop Grand Central in July of 1914. Note the people standing just above Mercury’s head.

Featuring three gods of Roman myth – Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules – the group is called “Transportation,” and was described by Whitney Warren as such:

The architectural composition consists of three great portals crowned by a sculptural group, the whole to stand as a monument to the glory of commerce as typified by Mercury, supported by moral and mental energy – Hercules and Minerva. All to attest that this great enterprise has grown and exists not merely from the wealth expended, nor by the revenue derived, but by the brain and brawn constantly concentrated upon its development for nearly a century.


The statuary group today.

The other important part of the front façade, and nestled right in the center of the statuary group, is the large clock made of Tiffany glass. With a circumference of 13 feet, when installed this was the largest piece of Tiffany glass in the world. There is, however, a little secret regarding this clock – the circle surrounding the roman numeral six is actually a window.


The number six opens inward, revealing an interesting view of the street below Grand Central.


Hey, it’s Heather from the “wildly popular train enthusiast blog” I Haz a Choo Choo Train Problem! Note how the window opens to reveal the street below.

Of all the places I’ve been to or seen in Grand Central, I really do love the clock tower. There is just something really cool about being able to see the opposite side of the massive clock face, and the gears inside that make it work. Being able to look out through the window that most people just know as the number six is also pretty amazing.


One of the ladders to the clock tower.

As shown above, getting into the clock tower isn’t easy. There are several dark ladders you need to climb to get up there, including several obstructions you need to duck under. But once you’ve reached the top, the view is totally worth it.

 
  
    
 
 
 
  

grand central terminal new york


9 thoughts on “The Coolest Place in Grand Central: The Clock Tower

  1. Since you’re also partaking in the koolaid, please share :)

    Also, I’m sure this will continue your reign as top traffic driver to said “wildly popular train enthusiast blog”.

    1. For historical accuracy, it was actually Flavor Aid, and not Kool Aid, but I digress…

      Figured you’d enjoy the caption though. The photo of you was too good not to use :)

  2. I think the coolest place in GCT is the sub basement. It’s the lowest point in Manhattan, and you can see all of the old electrical transformers, now defunct but too big to move.

  3. Looking at the gears and back lighting reminds me so much of the (now restored) outside clocks of Buffalo Central Terminal. Always wondered if they were similar (since the BCT was based on GCT) if not slightly smaller. So, thanks for the behind the scenes photos.
    It’s so sad to see so many other architectural marvels in NY outside of “the city” be ignored. I guess I should be happy to see some history being preserved, but it still hurts seeing just what could be…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Central_terminal_clock_buffalo_ny.jpg

  4. I absolutely love this. I grew up in the area. My grandmother still lives in a 300 year old house in Highland right on the river under the Midhudson bridge that used to be a cattle feeding shed for the railroad line. The freight train tracks go through her yard. You can stand in her yard and wave to the engineers and they’ll toot the horn for you!
    Grand Central is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, IMO. How did you get access to see the clock face?

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