The Keys to Grand Central Terminal – 3D Printing a railroad key fit for the centennial

Just five days before the opening of Grand Central Terminal, Miles Bronson was appointed the General Manager of the New York Central’s greatest station. Born in India to missionary parents, Bronson returned to the United States for education and got his first railroad job at the tender age of fifteen. Appointed to the job of Grand Central’s General Manager at the 37, Bronson had worked for the New York Central for thirteen years, and he served as Grand Central’s general manager for 21 more years before retiring due to illness (he passed away a short time after).

As festivities kicked off celebrating the opening of the new Terminal, meals were served, music was played, and Mr. Bronson was presented with the keys to the Terminal in a ceremony next to the information booth. While we’ll probably never know exactly what those keys looked like, I’d like to think that they were embellished with the logo of Grand Central Terminal. Maybe something a little like this…

Key in polished brass

In my most recent endeavor with 3D printing (if you’ve been around a while, you may recall that my first 3D model ever was of Brewster station), I set about the task of making a Grand Central key as a gift for a friend who is a Metro-North conductor. 3D printing keys isn’t a unique concept – in fact Shapeways and KeyMe have joined up to print house keys. But what if you’re looking for a key for something different… like say, a train? Maybe a Metro-North train?

From sketchbook to reality
From sketchbook to reality…

The key was modeled in 3D using Tinkercad
The key was modeled in 3D using Tinkercad, and then 3D printed using Shapeways.

Metro-North’s trains usually have two different keys – one for operations, and the other for opening panels and doors, which all conductors have. I sketched and measured a panel key, and built it in 3D using Tinkercad. Instead of the standard key end, this key is customized with the Grand Central logo – a stylized version of the letters GCT. For testing purposes I made a few versions of the key in plastic (or as Shapeways would call it, Strong and Flexible – a laser sintered nylon)…

Key in Black Strong and Flexible

And then made a gift version in polished brass…

Key in polished brass

These days railroad keys aren’t made in brass, but historically they were made in that material, and I figured it would be perfect to create this key. Polished brass is still a trial material at Shapeways, but considering how awesome this key looks, you’d probably never know. With a red velvet ribbon and pouch, the key is ready for gifting. Though the key does work on trains, most likely it will only be used for decorative purposes so it doesn’t get lost.

Three keys - WSF, Polished Brass, Black SF

Because of the somewhat sensitive nature of this key, I’m not making this item available for sale (yes, I know, plenty of people that don’t work for Metro-North have these keys, but I’m not going to make it easy. An exception could potentially be made if you’re a railroad employee, or if you’d like a key that doesn’t actually work for decorative purposes only). However, a few of my other Grand Central themed 3D prints are available if you’re interested…

Grand Central Constellation Pegasus:
Constellation Pegasus
3D Printed in Colored Sandstone, this little item can be used as a pendant, keychain, or decoration. I’ve used it in the past as a fancy tag for a gift. It features the constellation Pegasus from Grand Central’s sky ceiling.
See it in 3D.

Grand Central Snowflake:
Grand Central snowflake
This snowflake ornament is modeled after the acorn motif found throughout Grand Central Terminal. Acorns are found throughout the Terminal as they were the adopted “crest” of the Vanderbilt family. This specific design can be found embellishing the ticket windows.
See it in 3D.

While 3D printing is already changing model railroading – Shapeways has a category devoted to it, and companies like Flexiscale are producing kits using parts fabricated on 3D printers – it is always fun to create something railroad related for the “real world.” Though 3D printing has immense promise in allowing the masses to fabricate things they could previously only imagine, and creating things that were previously impossible, it is also interesting to take an already functional object and make it more attractive. Suffice it to say, nobody was thinking about how pretty a railroad key would be when they were first designed. Now we can have both – a working key fit for Grand Central Terminal’s centennial.

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Another building from Grand Central’s architects – the NY Railroad Branch YMCA

For most people of my generation, the letters YMCA evoke an image of the Village People – far removed from the Young Men’s Christian Association it was founded as. Just as likely, one does not picture a group long associated with railroading, and certainly not an establishment designed by the likes of vaunted architects Warren and Wetmore. In reality, all of these statements are true – the YMCA was first established in New York in 1852, and a Grand Central Branch (also known as the Railroad Branch) was formed in 1875. Meeting in the basement of the Grand Central Depot, the fledgling organization was a second home to railroad men, and Sunday bible studies were led by Cornelius Vanderbilt II himself.

The YMCA organization was founded in 1844, but first became involved in the lives of railroaders in 1872 in Cleveland, Ohio. Besides the obvious religious aspect of the organization, it became a home where railroaders could be welcomed among colleagues and friends. Sermons and Bible studies, as well as decent places for railroad men to rest, get a meal at any hour, or diversions to pass the time, could all be found within the YMCA’s doors.

  
  
Typical scenes at YMCAs of the era. The first row depicts the 23rd Street YMCA in New York from the Library of Congress. Second row shows the Railroad YMCA in Washington DC by Herbert A French.

As Grand Central Terminal’s centennial year draws to a close, there are two more buildings designed by Grand Central’s architects that I wish to mention – one of which was the home for the Grand Central YMCA for fifteen years. In case you missed the previous entries in this series, you can check them out here:

Warren & Wetmore:
The New York Central Building
Yonkers Station
White Plains and Hartsdale stations

Reed & Stem:
Glenwood Power Station

Stem & Fellheimer:
Utica station

The entire Grand Central Terminal complex, as envisioned by the New York Central Railroad’s Chief Engineer William Wilgus, was more than just a simple train station – it was a “Terminal City.” Hotels and other such amenities were built for the convenience of travelers, and the magnificent New York Central Building became the new home of the railroad’s management. One rarely mentioned feature of the Terminal City was intended to serve the basic railroad worker, and provided amenities to those that worked long hours to get people where they needed to go by train. Although the building was short lived, the Grand Central, or Railroad Branch, of the New York YMCA formed an inextricable piece of the fabric that is Grand Central, and the lives of those that toiled within.

The old and new YMCA
The old YMCA (at left), and some members outside the new YMCA (at right).

Steadily rising from the modest organization it was founded as in a train station basement, the New York Railroad Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association found its own home at the corner of Madison Avenue and 45th Street in 1886, whose capacity was doubled in 1893. By 1902 the Railroad Branch YMCA was celebrating its 26th anniversary as one of 170 local railroad branches in the US and Canada, all of which had a membership of more than 43,000. New York alone had 31 branches, and nearly 10,500 members. Plans for the new Terminal City, and this increasing membership, necessitated a new home again in 1912. Three Vanderbilts – William Kissam, Frederick, and Alfred Gwynne – each donated $100,000 for the establishment of a new seven-floor building at Park Avenue from 49th to 50th streets which perfectly fit with the aesthetic of the new Terminal City.


The new New York Railroad Branch YMCA

Opened in 1914, the new YMCA building was a fairly modest affair of cream colored pressed brick and Indiana limestone trim, 200 by 47 feet. Typical of the work of Warren and Wetmore, the building featured various fine detail work including the flying wheel – representative of transportation and the Roman god Mercury – an open bible marked with the symbols for Alpha and Omega, the lamp of knowledge, and a YMCA emblem. Leadership of the YMCA described the building as both dignified and attractive, and although fitting with the Terminal City, it was an easily distinguished building with its own individuality.

Members and guests of the YMCA had a wide options of amenities open to them. For those looking to socialize, the inside of the new YMCA featured a spacious lobby designed for such purpose – one could a piano and a fireplace to sit around. Warren and Wetmore detail work could equally be found inside the building, and engraved on the marble above the fireplace were the choice words “Sprit, Mind, Body,” a motto of the YMCA. Those looking to write letters home or catch up on news could find the requisite items in the Correspondence Room, while those looking for a little fun could find it on the six billiard tables also found on this floor. Finishing off the first floor was a checkroom for baggage and uniforms, lavatories, and a full service barber shop.

Lobby and Bathroom
The lobby and bathroom found on the first floor.

No matter what hours a man worked, a restaurant and kitchen was open at all hours to serve, which occupied the entire second floor of the building. It featured the most elaborate restaurant of any YMCA at the time, with three dining rooms and seating for a total of 320 people. Meals ranging from ten to fifty cents were offered here, and lunches for thirty cents were offered in the popular Club Lunch Room.

Bible study group and one of the second floor dining rooms
Those that would opt for exercise could find a 40 x 75 foot gym, two full floors in height, on the third floor, complete with a spectator gallery for 100 people. The gym could be converted for use as an auditorium which could seat 500, and a stage and dressing room was available for this purpose. Four of the most modern Brunswick bowling alleys, featuring rubber “Mineralite” bowling balls were also located on this floor. A darkroom for the camera club, and a library with three reading alcoves could also be found on the third floor. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt took on the responsibility of keeping the library stocked with the newest and most desirable books, at times donating up to a hundred new volumes per month. YMCA members could borrow two books at a time for a two week period.

Tracking the health of railroad men
Tracking the health of railroad men – the YMCA was a place to expand one’s spirit, mind, and body.

A locker room for the gym could be found on the fourth floor, as well as a lecture room with space for 125. Various classes were offered, from railroad-related Air Brake classes to First Aid, Public Speaking, and even Investing classes. For those on long swing shifts or long distance journeys that required rest, both single and double rooms were available in increments of 12 hours. These rooms occupied the fifth through seventh floors of the building. Several rooms were located on the fourth floor, but the majority took up the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors. Rooms averaged six by seventeen feet in size, and all had outside windows. At roof level one would find a canopied summer garden, seasonal courts for handball and tennis, and room for meetings during good weather.

Billiards, Bowling lanes, and a typical bunk room

Despite the featured amenities, the YMCA outgrew the building in a mere fifteen years, and the Warren and Wetmore construction was demolished. These days the Railroad Branch of the YMCA still exists, although it is referred to as the Vanderbilt Branch, in honor of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the man that invested considerable time, effort, and money in the organization, back when it met in a lowly basement of Grand Central Depot. The exclusive male membership and religious aspects of the YMCA have been supplanted with a focus on community and opportunities for all. The organization has even distanced itself from its long standing acronym and has attempted to rebrand itself as merely “The Y.” Few ties to the railroad remain, besides the Vanderbilt name, and its proximity to Grand Central Terminal.

The Vanderbilt YMCA
The YMCA that replaced the Warren and Wetmore building, which still exists today. Construction photo at left from the Museum of the City of New York.

Some of the amenities offered to railroaders at the YMCA are still required to this day. Though definitely not as nice as the elaborate setup of the original YMCA Railroad Branch, locker rooms and bunk rooms for those with long train jobs to sleep can be found today in Grand Central. The upper floors of Grand Central hosted these for many years, though they shared one thing with the original YMCA – they were for men. Exclusive facilities for women didn’t exist all the way up through the Conrail years, but were finally established in the early ’80s. In the mid to late ’80s the bunk and locker rooms were relocated to the dark recess known as Carey’s Hole, and were relocated again to the third floor last year. In the lounge you can likely find conductors and engineers passing their free time playing cards, much as they did at the Railroad Branch.

Railroad Men
The publication Railroad Men was printed by the Railroad Branch of the YMCA in New York. Note the design at left featuring the oak and acorn motif which appears frequently in Grand Central, symbols of the Vanderbilt family.

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Lighting Up Grand Central – The Centennial Holiday Light Show

Hopefully by now you’ve heard about Grand Central’s Holiday Light Show, one of the final events in this celebratory centennial year. Grand Central has hosted several holiday light shows in the past, but this year’s is most certainly my favorite. Taking over the Terminal’s west windows, LED lights turn each individual window pane into a “pixel” of color. In concert, all of these “pixels” can display colors, letters, and even basic shapes.


Behind the scenes: a Textilene scrim hangs in each window pane, onto which LED lights are projected. The windows on the west wall contain over 350 window panes, so setup was a daunting task. I wasn’t quite sure if walking behind the setup would be visible from below, so I didn’t!

The light show that you see each night, starting at 5 PM and continuing to 11 PM, is a collaboration by several groups. Sponsored by Toshiba, the show was designed by Michiru Tanaka, a lighting designer that has worked with Toshiba on several lighting projects. Bestek Lights brought the concept into the real world with LED light fixtures, and fabricated everything required to hold the lights. All of that work had to abide by landmarks preservation guidelines, as well as safety guidelines, since behind the window panes are walkways used by employees.


Concept rendering of the light show (left), and lighting designer Michiru Tanaka in front of her creation (right, photo by Charles Norfleet).
 
President of Bestek, Van Allen Rice, experiments with different fabrics for the light show (left), and the control setup for the light show (right). Photos via Bestek.

Because the window panels are a major source of light in the main concourse during the day, one of the requirements for the installation was that it could not block the sun. After several trials, it was decided that Textilene scrims would be hung in each window panel. The scrims would allow the LED light to be reflected onto it for the show, but would also allow sunlight to pass through during the day. Below each scrim is a Stagebar 54, a light fixture that contains 54 LED lights in five colors – red, green, blue, amber, and white. A total of 354 of these fixtures were installed to create the grand effect you see in the show.

If you haven’t gotten a chance to see the light show yet, you have until December 26th to check it out (which is definitely worth it). The thirty minute shows run continuously from 5 PM to 11 PM each night. Note that you can see the show from inside the main concourse, as well as from outside the building on Vanderbilt Avenue.

 
  
   
 
  
 

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Before Arts for Transit – The Grand Central Art Galleries

As a Metro-North rider, and an appreciator of art, I must say that I have a strong affinity for the Arts for Transit program. In fact, I found the many permanent artworks to be some of the most enjoyable things discovered while on my journeys to all 123 Metro-North stations. From the bronze chairs in Pleasantville, to the stained glass in Tarrytown, there is delightful art abound. But some of the most lovely work to come from the Arts for Transit program recently are not the permanent installations in our stations, but the designs inspired by Grand Central Terminal, a part of the year long centennial celebration called On Time / Grand Central at 100.

Constellations
You may have seen this poster around… Pop Chart Lab brings the sky ceiling to life!

Arts for Transit, however, is not the first group to bring art into the Terminal. Long before the program was ever conceived, the Grand Central Art Galleries were established on the sixth floor of Grand Central. I was inspired to learn a little bit more about the galleries after purchasing an old New York Central dining car menu. The menu featured an example of the artwork one could find in the gallery, and the back contained a rather dated ad suggesting that businessmen take their wives on the trains and only pay half (which, if you are interested, I posted on the I Ride the Harlem Line facebook page).

Ad for the Grand Central Art Galleries on a menu
On a dining car menu, 1953 – Grand Central Art Galleries.[1]

Floor plan of the Grand Central Art Galleries
Floor plan of the Grand Central Galleries.[2]

The Grand Central Art Galleries were established in 1923, and remained in the Terminal until 1958, when they moved to the nearby Biltmore Hotel. Long established in our collective consciousness is the concept that a dead artist is worth more than a living one, but this gallery’s intent was to sell the artworks of the living. Both artists and non-artists paid a membership fee, providing artworks (1 a year, for 3 years) and cash ($600 when the galleries opened), respectively.

Grand Central Art Galleries

A wide variety of artists were associated with the Grand Central Art Galleries over its many years, including some well-known faces in the art world like John Singer Sargent. Featured on the menu above was a painting by Frederick Judd Waugh, whose art frequently depicted ocean scenes. He was also known for designing ship camouflage with the US Navy during World War I.

Today Grand Central’s upper floors are off-limits to the general public… but if you’d like to see how the 6th floor looked back in the late 1920s, here are a few photos!

Grand Central Art Galleries
Grand Central Art Galleries
Grand Central Art Galleries
Photos of the Grand Central Galleries.[3]

  1. Menu from the author’s collection. []
  2. Floor plan from the Frick Art Reference Library, via the New York Art Resources Consortium. []
  3. All photos from the Frick Art Reference Library, via the New York Art Resources Consortium. []

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A look at the Grand Central centennial postmark

Sending a message to the postmaster
Sending a message to the postmaster

Remember how I mentioned the little debacle that was the stamp event at the Grand Central Centennial? Apparently someone was smarter than I was… Joe just wrote a message to the postmaster asking for the Grand Central postmark on a postcard from the Transit Museum. It might not be a Grand Central stamp (which at $19.95 is a steep price for just a stamp) but it is pretty darn cool. The only thing I want to know is why didn’t I think of this!

Stamped postcard

Be sure to check out Joe’s blog for more funky postmarks and a bunch of railroad photos!

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A Recap of Events: Grand Central’s Centennial

Last Friday the MTA held a celebration for Grand Central’s Centennial, which expectedly turned out to be a widely attended day-long event. One of the main events was a rededication ceremony for the Terminal, held that morning. There were a wide array of speakers at the ceremony, including Mayor Bloomberg, Cynthia Nixon and Caroline Kennedy. Peter Stangl, the first president of Metro-North also spoke, as did Howard Permut, current president of Metro-North.

  
  

The West Point Brass and Percussion Band also performed, which seemed quite appropriate. According to historical accounts of Grand Central’s opening, the first song to ever be played in the Terminal was the Star Spangled Banner, which was not yet our national anthem at that time, on the east balcony. The band’s placement right below the east balcony as they played the song seemed rather appropriate, and probably the closest we’d get to reenacting what happened on February 2nd, 1913, at 12:01 AM. Also a fitting mirror was a presentation of a key to Mr. Permut by members of the Vanderbilt family – similar to the presentation of keys to Terminal Manager Miles Bronson one hundred years ago.

The only unfortunate thing to note is that much of the celebration was focused on the VIPs, as opposed to the lowly commuters that actually use Grand Central. (And for the record, no, running this blog did not qualify me as a VIP – I asked and was rejected. An “actual” member of the “press” granted me a pass in their stead. Thanks Steve!) VIP guests to the event got a special program and booklet, which are visible here:

Rededication ceremony program
Program for the Grand Central rededication.

Long poem in one booklet, short poem on this "Poetry in Motion" poster.
Two poems were written about Grand Central by poet Billy Collins. The long poem was illustrated in one booklet, and the short poem appears on this "Poetry in Motion" poster. The posters were not handed out at the event, but have been sighted on trains.

Booklet spread 1
Booklet spread 2
Booklet spread 3
Booklet spread 4
Booklet spread 5
Booklet spread 6
Booklet spread 7
Booklet spread 8
Booklet spread 9

The text on the inside of the booklet was the longer poem that was read by Billy Collins during the ceremony. The shorter poem, which he also read, appears in the program, and on trains thanks to Poetry in Motion and Arts for Transit.


Billy Collins speaks at the Rededication Ceremony

If you’re not familiar with Collins, he is a New York native that was both New York State Poet Laureate, and Poet Laureate of the United States… which in the poetry world is kind of a big deal. While I’m sure plenty of poems have been written about Grand Central, Collins’ poems may be the most high profile written about our lovely Terminal.


Well, Cornelius Vanderbilt is supposed to be here…

As of right now, I have little to say about the Transit Museum’s show “Grand by Design.” Unfortunately, a hundred years wasn’t quite enough to finish up the exhibition, and it seemed that things were missing. The fact that Cornelius Vanderbilt was not mentioned or pictured seemed like a mistake of monumental proportion. Apparently it turned out that Mr. Vanderbilt was supposed to be on that nice blank spot we’re all pointing to in the photo above. I was also disappointed that there was no mention of William Kissam Vanderbilt either – he was really the only Vanderbilt that had a direct influence on the construction of Grand Central. (If the Vanderbilts are still confusing you, it means you haven’t yet read this.) But in all honesty, I may have just been depressed that Anderson Cooper did not attend the event – he is a Vanderbilt, after all.

USPS Grand Central stamp

Another event that happened on Friday regarded the new United States Postal Service stamp, picturing Grand Central, illustrated by Dan Cosgrove. If you were one of the hundreds of people that failed to get the Grand Central centennial cover and stamp on Friday, you can purchase them directly online. Word was that within fifteen minutes they ran out of envelopes for the stamps. The whole purpose of the event was to get the stamp on the special envelope and get it postmarked… so I feel bad for all the people that waited in that line to get just the stamp, which could be purchased at any post office. If you’re looking to grab the covers with the February 1 date stamp online, the USPS site offers two versions for purchase, one with a color postmark for $21.10, or a regular first day stamp for $20.39.

Back on topic, the entire event was a big birthday bash for Grand Central. And no birthday celebration would be complete without a little music…
 
Sarah Charness played the electric violin, and later Melissa Manchester sang. Manchester also shouted “I love you, gorgeous!” at the sky ceiling, which might be cute, had I not been thinking about this.

…and a little bit of cake…

I hope you all like this photo, I dropped my piece of cake on the floor while taking it. And yes, only the VIPs got delicious cake.

The gorgeous cake was made by Eric Bedoucha of Financier Patisserie – a delicious confection modeled after the Information Booth’s clock. It was supposedly saved for the VIP dinner to be hosted at the Oyster Bar that night… which in itself is another mirror to actual events, as the first VIP dinner happened February 1st 1913 at 8 PM.

That about sums it up for the Centennial. With the ceremony past, I figured I’d leave off with a quick recap of all fifteen articles I wrote about Grand Central over the past hundred days.

Happy Birthday, Grand Central!

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A visit to the secret library inside Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal has plenty of secrets, though most of them aren’t quite secret, as they have been covered in the media in some shape or form. If you’re lucky enough to ever get on a VIP tour of the Terminal, there is one place that tour most likely will never go – the Williamson Library. That’s right – hidden within the walls of Grand Central Terminal, since 1937, is a library! It certainly isn’t flashy – and probably not tremendously interesting to anyone that isn’t a railfan – but one of the library’s prized possessions makes this one of my favorite Grand Central secrets.


Photograph of Frederick Ely Williamson, which appeared in Fortune magazine. Williamson served as president of the New York Central from 1935 – 1944, and founded the library.

Frederick Ely Williamson, the library’s founder and namesake, was born on June 14th, 1876 in Norwalk, Ohio, the son of a clergyman. A 1898 graduate of Yale University, Williamson got a job with the New York Central in September of that year, after graduation. His first job with the railroad was as a Mohawk division clerk in Albany, with a salary of seventy dollars per month. By 1917, he was an integral part of the railroad, coordinating the movement of war supplies on the eastern seaboard. When the government took over the railroads for the war, he became the general agent for the port of New York. After the war, he continued his employment with the New York Central until 1925, when he became the vice president of the Northern Pacific railroad, and president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy.

By 1932, Williamson had returned to New York, and ascended to the presidency of the New York Central, leading the company through the end of the Great Depression. During World War II he was appointed a Colonel by the Army, and named supervisor of railroads in the Eastern region. Williamson served as president of the New York Central until August 14th, 1944, when he resigned due to poor health. Shortly afterward, Williamson died in New York on September 29th, 1944, at the age of 68.

Although that short biography details the life of an intriguing individual, it leaves out one major detail about Mr. Williamson – he was not just a railroad executive, but a big railfan. A member of the Railroad Enthusiasts of New York, he founded the library that was eventually named after him in 1937. The library has been under the care of the Railroad Enthusiasts of New York ever since, and its current membership contains plenty of railfans, old railroaders, and even some current Metro-North employees.

  
Behind one very innocuous-looking door lies another door, and the entrance to the library!


Panoramic view of the Williamson Library, decorated with lights for the holiday season.

Located above the Apple store, the Williamson Library is generally closed off to the public. Without a keycard for the elevator, you’d likely never make it up to the floor. Even if you managed to do that, the outside door is so plain and unremarkable you’d likely never even notice you’re standing outside a room full of history. Contained within the library is an archive of over 3000 railroad-related books, periodicals, and other literature. Visitation for research is by appointment only, and the room is otherwise used for New York Railroad Enthusiasts’ meetings. It is also home to various old artifacts, including the first version of Metro-North’s mascot Metro-Man, and a remnant of the original 20th Century Limited red carpet.


The prized possession of the Williamson Library – a remnant of the 20th Century Limited red carpet.

The 20th Century Limited, which traveled from New York to Chicago, is likely the most famous train to have ever used Grand Central Terminal. The height of fashion and luxury, it transported countless famous faces throughout its history. Lavishly appointed, the whole experience commenced with a walk down a plush red carpet. It is claimed that the phrase “rolling out the red carpet” entered our lexicon because of this famous train. After the 20th Century Limited was eliminated in 1967, the old carpet was no longer needed. Thankfully, some folks had the foresight to cut the long carpet into pieces, and save a few remnants for posterity.



Advertisements and photographs of the red carpet in action.

If you’ve been following our Grand Central centennial celebration on facebook, 100 for 100 (which you totally should be!), you’ll recall that I mentioned the 20th Century Limited’s red carpet just the other day. I know of at least two different remnants of the original carpet – the one found in the library in Grand Central Terminal, and another that stays with the restored former 20th Century Limited observation car, Hickory Creek. If you visited Grand Central during National Train Day, you likely saw a portion of the red carpet – this was the one that travels with the Hickory Creek, and not the one that resides in GCT.


The other known surviving remnant of the 20th Century Limited red carpet in Grand Central on National Train Day. Photo by Otto Vondrak.

Whether the library’s portion of the red carpet will make an appearance for the Grand Central Centennial remains to be seen, but I certainly hope it will. It is definitely one of my favorite historical artifacts hidden within the Terminal, and with the library, one of Grand Central’s more secretive “secrets.”

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Grand Central Theatre, and the other sky ceiling


The famous sky ceiling…

Grand Central Terminal’s sky ceiling is world-famous. Even if you’ve never been to the Terminal, you may have at least seen pictures of the gorgeous main concourse. Far fewer people, however, are familiar with the other (albeit much smaller) cerulean and gold sky ceiling also found in Grand Central. Once part of the lobby of the Grand Central Theatre, this other sky painting can be found above the registers in the Grande Harvest Wines shop, next to track 17.

 

The lesser-known sky ceiling

The theatre itself is also not often mentioned, though it was a part of the Terminal from 1937, and lasted about three decades. The 242-seat theatre had an early version of what would now be called stadium-style seating, produced by the Irwin Seating Company (which is still making stadium seating to this day!), and standing room in the back.

Different from the movie theatres we are accustomed to today, the Grand Central Theatre was a newsreel theatre – it played various short bits of news, documentaries, and even cartoons. A theatre of this type was perfect for the Terminal in its day – people waiting for their long distance trains could spend the extra moments until their train in the theatre. All the shorts were played continuously, so you could duck in and out whenever your train schedule required. Above the screen an illuminated clock displayed the time for those people on a schedule.

Advertised as the “most intimate theatre in America” the theatre regularly played every day til midnight. Also included with the theatre was a lounge designed by Tony Sarg. Whether you know his name or not, most New Yorkers – or for that matter Americans – know Sarg for his creations. He designed the first balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, including Felix the Cat, which was introduced in 1927.

 

Grand Central Theatre postcards, from the collection of Steve Swirsky.

For me, the Grand Central Theatre epitomizes the changes that Grand Central has gone through over its 100 years. While the Terminal’s outside has remained for the most part the same, the inside has always morphed to keep pace with society, and what was needed at the time. When prim and proper ladies and gentlemen used Grand Central, there were private waiting rooms staffed by maids where one could change into their best before stepping out to high-society parties. As World Wars I and II were being fought, and soldiers were moving through the station every day, the Terminal hosted a Red Cross kiosk, and one of the balconies was converted into a Service Men’s lounge. And when fancy long-distance trains like the 20th Century Limited were all the rage, you could wait the time until your train departed by watching the newsreels in Grand Central Theatre.

Today, with its mass of commuters, Grand Central boasts the conveniences associated with that demographic. You can buy a book to read, some flowers for someone special, a cheesecake to go, or even a beer for the train ride home. I don’t think that Grand Central Theatre would really work today – and I don’t think that Grand Central Market would have worked in the past. While some of our monuments have fallen into disuse and are merely tourist attractions, Grand Central is not just a historical monument – it has remained a relevant part of our lives, partially because of these minor changes. But Grand Central Terminal’s fundamental purpose has not changed – it is still a wonderful example of a train terminal – and definitive proof that a historical building can still be functional and pertinent one hundred years later.

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