Grand Central Terminal’s Companion – The New York Central Building

When the New York Central Railroad’s chief engineer William Wilgus came up with the concept of Grand Central Terminal, there were most likely a few people out there that felt he was completely nuts. Despite the fact that at the time the NYC was one of the mightiest railroads in not only the United States, but the world, the price tag for the project was incredibly high. Without the concept of “air rights” it is likely that the project would never have moved forward. Covering the Terminal’s tracks and allowing buildings to be constructed in the “air” above turned out to be a very sound investment. The railroad owned significant amounts of highly profitable, prime New York real estate, and the neighborhood surrounding Grand Central and built on that land became known as Terminal City. The Biltmore Hotel, Commodore Hotel, and the Yale Club were all parts of this city within a city. But it was the New York Central Building, finished in 1929, that was the crowning achievement of Terminal City, and an appropriate companion for Grand Central Terminal.

Construction on the New York Central building
Construction photo of the New York Central Building. [image source]

One of the final buildings designed by Warren and Wetmore in New York City, the New York Central building became the new home of the railroad’s corporate offices. Although today we view the building as a Beaux Arts masterpiece, on par with Grand Central Terminal itself, when the building was completed in 1929 it was generally looked down upon by the architecture world. As American architecture had moved beyond the Beaux Arts style about ten years prior, critics felt the building was almost like a step backwards. Viewed as a whole, however, the New York Central building fits perfectly with its companion, Grand Central Terminal.

Postcards showing the New York Central Building
Postcards showing the New York Central Building

Some of the most wonderful parts of the New York Central building are the details and sculptural elements you’ll find all over, a major component of the Beaux Arts style. These elements were sculpted by Edward McCartan, Director of the sculpture department of the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York City. While Warren and Wetmore frequently used the work of Sylvain Salieres, including for Grand Central Terminal, by the time the New York Central building was to be constructed, Salieres was no longer alive.

The building’s primary sculptural element is the clock that sits atop the front façade, featuring Mercury at left, and the goddess Ceres at right. Mercury is the typical deity used to represent transportation, while Ceres represents agriculture – one of many types of freight carried by the railroad. Found in various locations around the building are several other faces, whose identities never seem to be discussed. One of these faces is contorted into a painful grimace, and placed in front of a fiery torch. Perhaps this figure is representative of Prometheus of Greek myth – the titan who gave fire to man, who was punished by Zeus for the act.

The New York Central Building in print
Poster of the New York Central Building by Chesley Bonestell, and cover of the October 26, 1929 edition of the New Yorker with illustration by Theodore G. Haupt.

High above street level are the faces of American Bison, situated above stylized compasses, representative of how the railroads essentially built this country – or at least how it contributed to the migration of people to the west. Sharing a similar concept, a face resembling the Greek god of nature and the wild, Pan, appears towards the very top of the building. Eagles, representative of the United States, can be found above some of the doors to the building, and lions, a symbol of power can be found in the tunnel that carries Park Avenue through the building. Purely decorative columns, much derided by the architects of the day, can also be found on the upper reaches of the tower.

The New York Central Building visible from the construction site of another skyscraper
The New York Central Building visible from the construction site of another skyscraper

As the New York Central’s financial woes grew after World War II, the railroad began selling off some of its New York real estate. After being sold in the 1950’s, the New York Central Building became the New York General Building – a crafty idea that required only minimal changing of the signage. Eventually, the building was purchased by Helmsley-Spear, and it is rumored that Harry Helmsley’s wife Leona was the one who formally changed the building’s name to the Helmsley Building.

Perhaps the biggest travesty of the Helmsleys, besides all the tax evasion and treating their employees like dirt, was their grand idea to “update” the façade of the building. All of the architectural details on the building, including the sculptures of Mercury and Ceres, were coated with a layer of gold paint. Thankfully, during the building’s 2002 restoration, these elements were restored to their original state, without the paint. The building was sold in 1998, about a year after Harry Helmsley’s death, though it is said that Leona required a stipulation along with the sale – that the building would not be renamed. It is likely for this reason why the outside of the building still reads the Helmsley Building, while the property owners refer to it by the generic name 230 Park.

Many of the sculptural details on the building were painted gold by the Helmsleys in 1979
Many of the sculptural details on the building were painted gold by the Helmsleys in 1979. [image source]

The current owners have made several modifications of their own to the building – two bronze murals – weighing over a ton and comprised of 40 individual panels – depicting the streamlined 20th Century Limited have been installed in the building’s lobby in 2010. Though attractive, it would have been nicer if a more time appropriate scene was selected – the building predates the streamlined locomotive by about ten years.

Bringing the building into the “modern age,” the current owners also hired lighting designer Al Borden, who came up with a night time lighting scheme for the building. As the building is designated as a landmark, none of the lighting was permitted to “compromise the building’s architectural integrity.” Thus all light sources had to remain hidden, and none could be drilled into the building’s surface. Over 700 individual lights were added to the building, and similar to the Empire State Building, the colors can change reflecting holidays and other events.

 
A scene from the movie The Godfather was filmed in the former New York Central building. Note the portrait of William Henry Vanderbilt, and the old style #999 Empire State Express.

When constructed, the New York Central Building was one of the primary features of the New York skyline. It may not have been the tallest building, but it was certainly one of the more unique. It remained as such until the late 1950’s when it was dwarfed by the massive Pan Am Building, now known as the MetLife Building. Despite that, the building is still a symbol of New York, and has appeared numerous times in popular media. Moviegoers might recognize it as the building that appeared in the poster for 2008’s film The Dark Knight, and eagle eyed viewers may have seen some of the building’s inner rooms in the movie The Godfather.

The MetLife and Helmsley Buildings are visible from four miles away at Harlem 125th Street station
The MetLife and Helmsley Buildings are visible from four miles away at Harlem 125th Street station.

Let’s take a photo tour of the old New York Central building, including a quick peek of the marble-covered inner lobby. Weekends in August are the best time to check out the building, as part of the city’s Summer Streets program, which closes parts of Park Avenue to cars. You’ll be given the rare opportunity to not only view the building up close and personal, but to walk the Park Avenue Viaduct, and the tunnels that travel through the old New York Central building.

 
  
 
  
   
   
  
 
   
  
   
  
  
 
   
 
  
   
 
  

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Another Great New York Station: Utica

Though begrudging partners, the architectural firms of Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore collaborated magnificently on the great Grand Central Terminal. Unfortunately, in mid-project Charles Reed died. Seeing this as an opportunity, Warren & Wetmore secretly approached the railroad’s directors the day after Reed’s funeral and convinced them to void the original contract – after all, there was no more Reed & Stem. The new contract named Warren & Wetmore the sole architects for Grand Central and the further projects associated with the Terminal (like the Biltmore Hotel). Ultimately, Stem sued Warren & Wetmore and was awarded a hefty sum in 1920, and Whitney Warren was expelled from the American Institute for Architects for unprofessional conduct ((An article discussing Reed & Stem and the Biltmore Hotel they were supposed to collaborate on, before the contract was changed, with Warren & Wetmore can be found here.)).

Despite all this, there seemed to be no bad blood between Stem and the New York Central Railroad. Forming a new firm with junior partner Alfred Fellheimer, Stem & Fellheimer designed the railroad station in Utica for the New York Central.

Workers at Utica
Workers stand atop the the clock on the station’s façade. ((Photo from the Oneida County Historical Society))

The construction of the new station at Utica was no easy task. The previous station, besides being inadequate for the traffic it was receiving, was plagued with problems in the spring when floods would cover the tracks with water. To combat this problem, and make additional room for platforms and a rail yard, the Mohawk River was moved about half a mile north. Construction on the station itself began in 1912, and it was opened in May of 1914.

Postcards from Utica
Postcards showing the front of Utica station.

Utica station features a 47 foot high waiting room, with 34 decorative marble pillars, and some of the marble was said to have come from the old Grand Central Station ((According to popular lore, 8 of the columns were brought from Grand Central Station. Though often stated, according to the Oneida County Historical Society there is no evidence to prove that this actually happened.)). Originally intended to be a station for the New York Central, the station eventually became a Union Station in 1915 when the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western and the New York, Ontario and Western moved their operations to the building.

While the interior of the station is quite lavish, the exterior is a little bit more conservative. There are no great statues of Mercury, Minerva and Hercules atop the station, like Grand Central Terminal, but the caduceus “herald’s staff” often carried by Mercury is visible on the station’s façade. Several carved eagles, as well as a clock also grace the front of the station.

Tickets and postcards from Utica
Tickets and another postcard from Utica

Like most old stations, Utica’s eventually fell into disrepair and considered for demolition. Thankfully, the station avoided the wrecking ball and restoration was begun in 1978. Now owned by Oneida county, the station is served by Amtrak, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, as well as by Greyhound and other local bus companies. Some of the old waiting room is apportioned off and used by the Oneida County Department of Motor Vehicles. Since 2003, the building’s official name has been The Boehlert Center at Union Station, named for Sherwood Boehlert, a Utica native who served twelve terms in the US House of Representatives.

Let’s enjoy a quick little tour of Utica station, part of my ongoing endeavor to write about some of the other buildings and stations linked to the four architects of Grand Central Terminal…

  
  
 
  
 
   
 
  
   
   
   

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The Street Railway of the New York and Harlem Railroad

Alfred Stieglitz, The Car Horses
Arguably one of the most famous photos of a horsecar in New York City, by famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Want to irk a railfan or a history buff in only a matter of seconds? Just tell them that you’re in Grand Central Station. Grand Central is, of course, a Terminal – and as Danny Brucker would explain, “because trains terminate here.” The previous incarnation of Grand Central was, however, a station, and had tracks that did continue further south.

Grand Central Station
This is Grand Central Station, circa 1905. This, on the other hand, is not Grand Central Station.

If you’re up on your Harlem Railroad history, you’ll remember that the New York and Harlem Railroad began operating in 1832. Starting with a mile of track from Prince Street to 14th Street, the first trains were pulled by horses. As the line grew, first to Harlem, then beyond to Westchester, and ultimately to Columbia County, passengers would have to transfer to steam locomotives for the rest of their journey. Thus the New York and Harlem Railroad was a combination of two distinct parts – a street railway line (which eventually lost the horses) about ten miles long, and the railroad line, north of 42nd Street, about 137 miles long at its peak.

New York and Harlem Railroad
An early horsecar on the New York and Harlem Railroad in New York City. As a random aside, it was these railroad horses, often worked extremely hard, that were a significant reason for the founding of the ASPCA in 1866. The ASPCA actually operated the first “horse ambulance” and made sure these rail workhorses had fresh drinking water daily.

Eventually the rail line was leased to the New York Central, and the street railway line to the Metropolitan Street Railway Company (and later the New York Railways Company). When Grand Central Terminal was completed, the divorce of the two was quite obvious, but before that, where exactly did the street railway operate? For the most part, on Fourth Avenue, and extending as south as Ann Street, about a mile from the southern tip of Manhattan island. To get a better picture of the line and where it operated, we of course have a lovely map!

Street Railway Lines

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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. ((Menu from the author’s collection.))

Floor plan of the Grand Central Art Galleries
Floor plan of the Grand Central Galleries. ((Floor plan from the Frick Art Reference Library, via the New York Art Resources Consortium.))

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. ((All photos from the Frick Art Reference Library, via the New York Art Resources Consortium.))

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Vacationing on the Railroad, yesterday and today

It is starting to be that time of the season where everyone is thinking about summer, and about taking vacations. The railroad has always been a great method of getting around, and there are plenty of places you can see by train. If you’re looking for something more local, Metro-North will be having their Staycation Showcase in Grand Central next week. Amtrak also has a wide variety of places to vacation, all accessible by rail.

Despite all of these offerings, rail travel really isn’t the primary method that most people go on vacation these days. After getting patted down by your friendly neighborhood TSA, airlines can whisk you away to the other side of the country in a matter of hours, not days. And America’s love affair, the automobile, offers a more individualized and customizable trip across our nation’s Interstate system. However, neither of these options were available to folks living in the early 1900s. Rail was the way to go, and the best way to take a vacation.

New York Central vacation brochures
Vacation brochures printed by the New York Central in 1908 and 1903.

Vacation packages, including rail tickets, were offered by the New York Central, and they printed many varieties of brochures advertising all the places one could visit. Summer resorts included in-state locations, like Niagara Falls and the Adirondacks, and some faraway places like Canada, Michigan, and even Yellowstone National Park – an 82 and a half hour trip from Grand Central Terminal, at a round trip fare of $97.80.

The winter resorts booklet might prove to be the most interesting – it offered long distance vacations to warm locales around the world – places that one would reach after long journeys via train and steamship. Setting out for “one of ‘Uncle Sam’s’ new possessions” – “Porto Rico” – would be a 20 day affair in total. The most fascinating part printed is certainly the map of the Pacific Ocean found at the back of the brochure, labeled as places “reached by the New York Central Lines and their connections.” If you had the time, and the money, you could certainly reach the Empire of Japan, and beyond. Straying not too far from home, a traveler could reach Honolulu by steamship from San Francisco in a total of seven days.

Map of the Pacific
Map of the Pacific Ocean, printed by the New York Central in their 1903 America’s Winter Resorts brochure.

Interested in staying closer to home, or taking a shorter vacation? The New York Central also had a brochure of journeys taking two to fifteen days. Two days could get you to the Adirondacks or Lake George, four a nice trip to Montreal, eight a meandering journey to and from Quebec, and fifteen a wonderful itinerary stopping at several different resorts in many of the aforementioned spots.

Two to fifteen day journeys
Brochure of two to fifteen day journeys from 1912, and the Harlem Division map within.

If you’re really looking to stay in your own backyard, there were plenty of vacationing spots along the Harlem Division. The Harlem’s long-gone Lake Mahopac branch was established especially for that purpose. But as you can see from the map above, one could get more places via the Harlem than you can today – transfers were available in Chatham for the Boston and Albany Railroad to Massachusetts, and to the Rutland Railroad for Vermont.

Resorts on the Harlem
Close to home – summer resorts along the Harlem.

Anybody out there planning on taking a vacation (or a “staycation,” even) by train this summer? Drop a note in the comments about where you’re planning on going!

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Remembering the Upper Harlem Division – Part 1

Twenty-four years ago I boarded my very first train – a Harlem Line local from Brewster to Grand Central Terminal. I was four years old, and quite intrigued by the journey. While I’m sure many hold their first train experience in a special place in their hearts, I really didn’t fall in love with the Harlem Line until I became a regular commuter after graduating college in 2008. The second most frequent question I receive from railfans (after the inevitable “oh my god… are you really a girl?!”) is why the Harlem. For many the Harlem isn’t overwhelmingly interesting – it’s a dead-end ride to cow town. At least the New Haven’s tracks extend to Boston, and the Hudson’s to Albany and beyond… you can actually get somewhere. But part of the intrigue of the Harlem, at least for me, is its history. The Harlem was New York City’s first railroad – chartered in 1831 – which is certainly a cool fact. But perhaps the most intriguing bit of history is that of the Upper Harlem – nearly fifty miles of track, with thirteen different stations, all abandoned.


Map of the Harlem Division’s abandoned stations north of the Harlem Line’s current terminus in Wassaic.

On this day 41 years ago the very last passenger train on the Upper Harlem Division departed the line’s terminus, Chatham station, bound for Grand Central Terminal. The cancellation of service north of Dover Plains was abrupt and in the middle of the day – no one, from the riders to railroad employees – knew that this would be the final run. But also, it was hardly a surprise. The railroad had threatened to close the line for years, and only the courts prevented the Penn Central from doing so.

Another fact that was hardly a surprise was that ridership on the Upper Harlem had severely dwindled over the years. The New York Central operated five weekday southbound trains from Chatham to Grand Central throughout the early 1900′s, and during the busy World War II years increased that number to six. But after the war had ended, and train travel steadily began to lose favor, many of these Upper Harlem trains were eliminated. By 1950 only three southbounds departed Chatham every day, and by 1953 only a single train left the station every weekday. This single southbound was the norm until the Upper Harlem was finally closed.


The final timetable of the Upper Harlem Division from Chatham to Grand Central Terminal.

Throughout all these events, an organization called the Harlem Valley Transportation Association had been founded to not only improve service, but to ensure that the full route of the Harlem Division – all the way to Chatham – would stay in service. The HVTA’s fight against line operator Penn Central was like David versus Goliath, and they had no qualms about taking it to the courts. By the end of 1971 a service shutdown on the upper Harlem had been delayed by the courts no less than seven times. As part of their campaign, the HVTA distributed posters to local businesses to display, all in the efforts to encourage rail ridership and prevent a shutdown. Industrial designer Seymour Robins, also the HVTA’s treasurer, created these two-color silk-screened posters, with nine variations in all. Each variation referenced a specific point the HVTA wished to improve: Service, Ecology, Stations, Windows, Track, Cars, Schedules, Toilets, and Roadbed.


The above HVTA posters, in nine different variations, were mass printed in 1971. They were designed by Seymour Robins, the treasurer of the HVTA, and an industrial designer.

The HVTA brought together over a hundred riders from not only New York, but Connecticut and Massachusetts as well – all people that depended on the Upper Harlem. One of the most charismatic personalities involved in the fight was HVTA Vice-President (and later President) Lettie Gay Carson. Although the long intertwined history of the Upper Harlem and Columbia county was certainly in her mind, the shrewd Carson fought to save the line not for nostalgia purposes, but for both local economic and environmental reasons. She recognized that it wasn’t passenger service that paid the bills, and besides looking to attract new ridership, Carson also focused on attracting local businesses to use rail freight.

But to truly save the line and make it profitable, Carson even attempted to create an industry from scratch. This new industry, handling sewage sludge, would not only operate on the Upper Harlem’s rails, but also benefit the environment – two causes important to Carson and the HVTA. Instead of dumping sewage sludge in the ocean, which contaminated fisheries and beaches, Carson proposed that it could be carried by railcar up the Harlem where it would be composted and spread onto the many farms in Dutchess and Columbia counties. Although the concept may be off-putting, the sludge could greatly improve the fertility of farmland naturally, without the use of chemical fertilizers. Carson’s ideas were often deemed “years ahead of [her] time,” which is quite the truth. People today are slowly realizing (a bit too late) that replacing trains with cars and trucks only furthered our dependence on foreign oil – one of Carson’s many reasons for fighting to save the Upper Harlem.


Labor Day 1971 in Millerton: Lettie Carson of the HVTA holds a sign that reads “Trains will run indefinitely” in this photo by Heyward Cohen. The sign Carson holds in the photo – a true museum piece – has been preserved and still exists today.

Though the courts ordered the Penn Central to keep operating trains, mostly due to the HVTA’s efforts, they were by no means obligated to provide any customer service whatsoever. Because of Penn Central’s lapse, the Harlem Valley Transportation Association took over many of their duties to prevent losing passengers. When the Penn Central failed to distribute timetables, the HVTA mailed them out to riders instead. When the Penn Central failed to pay the phone bill for Millerton station, the HVTA set up their own answering service. And just two weeks before passenger service was eliminated, the HVTA was again in the news – for getting the station platforms cleared of snow, because the Penn Central refused. Ignoring the Harlem Division only began a vicious cycle – lack of maintenance led to late and slow trains, and this unreliable service only resulted in a loss of customers – but perhaps that was Penn Central’s goal all along.

The Harlem Valley Transportation Association’s valiant efforts increased the Upper Harlem’s lifespan by a few years, but the line met its inevitable end on March 20th, 1972 when passenger service from Dover Plains to Chatham was eliminated. Freight service on the Harlem from Chatham was also eliminated several years later. On this 41st anniversary of the end of passenger service, we’ll be taking a tour up the abandoned line to all thirteen former stations, and to see how these areas fare today. Our tour starts at Amenia, the first abandoned station north of Wassaic, the current terminus of the Harlem Line. Wassaic itself was abandoned in 1972, but service there was restored by Metro-North in 2000.

As we travel north beyond the Harlem Line’s terminus at Wassaic, the first abandoned station we come to is Amenia. Around 85 miles north of Grand Central, the area surrounding the station is attractive and rich in farmland. Besides the obvious farming and dairy production, Amenia also had a steelworks and several iron mines, all of which used the Harlem for freight.

Amenia Today

 

The obvious vestige of the railroad in Amenia is the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which runs from Wassaic station to the former station in Millerton. The old Amenia station building is long gone, and likely forgotten. But similar to many towns with abandoned stations, Amenia has a few street names reflect the once important railroad that traversed the town. Depot Hill Road, and Railroad Avenue cross near the rail trail, and are a small reminder of the Harlem.

Named for nearby Sharon, Connecticut, Sharon station on the Harlem Division predominantly served riders from that state. A station building was constructed in 1875, and consisted of two floors, with the ground floor being separated in two sections – one for freight, and one for passengers. The upper floor consisted of living quarters for the station agent or other railroad employees. Not far from the station was the Manhattan Mining Corporation, which had its own siding and used the Harlem for freight.

*Upper right photo of Sharon station by Art Deeks.

Sharon Today

 

As a station serving mostly Connecticut riders, there was never much of a community around Sharon station. The station building itself, however, is one of the few Upper Harlem stations to still exist today. After being damaged in a fire, the old station was restored and turned into a residence. Several years ago the building was placed on the market, and I just happened to get a tour of it. Recently sold for $525,000, the building remains a private residence, and is hidden from the nearby rail trail by strategically placed trees and a fence. The only other hint that a railroad ran through here is the aptly named Sharon Station Road.

One of the less prominent stations on the line, Coleman’s was named after a local landholder. A major industry in the community was a milk factory, which used the Harlem for freight. Coleman’s was one of the stations to be abandoned early on – along with Mount Riga and Martindale. All three were eliminated as passenger stations in 1949.

Coleman’s Today

 

Today, Coleman’s is a relatively quiet area, with a small “historic district” that contains a late-1700’s burial ground. The rail trail and Coleman Station Road are all remnants of the Harlem in this small community.

The next station along the line is Millerton – but that will have to wait for another day. We’ll continue our tour of the Upper Harlem in Part 2, coming soon!

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A Hundred Years of Commuter Tickets to Grand Central

If you caught the article that I wrote in Railfan & Railroad Magazine for Grand Central Terminal’s centennial, you’re likely familiar with my thought that GCT is not just a beautiful building, but one that is still relevant and useful. Undoubtedly there are people out there that feel that Grand Central is just a washed up relic – a shadow of its former self. The mighty trains that once served the station – like the Empire State Express, and the Twentieth Century Limited – are long gone. In fact, since Amtrak left in 1991, not a single long distance train serves Grand Central – it is a commuter-only station. But just because the main demographic the station serves has changed, it doesn’t make Grand Central any less of a gem. Grand Central remains useful and relevant partly because it has reinvented itself over the years – all to keep pace with that changing demographic. The baggage check and a theater once located here seem suited for the long-distance traveler of yesteryear, while Grand Central Market is perfectly tailored to today’s busy commuter.

Although never the most glamorous, commuters have always been an important part of Grand Central’s history. The lower level of the Terminal, which now houses the “dining concourse,” was the realm of the commuter – the “suburban concourse.” Part of the wonderful design of Grand Central was that commuters never had to mingle with the long distance riders. They had easy access to the ramps, subway, and egress to get to where they needed to go. But that wasn’t the only difference between the two types of riders – commuters were also differentiated by the type of ticket they held. Monthly commuter tickets looked quite different from regular ride tickets, and over the past one hundred years their design changed many times. Here’s a look back at some of the varied styles, and one of the favorites in my collection.

Ticket booklet
This ticket booklet, stamped with the New York Central logo contained a photo of the rider, so no one else could use it. The monthly ticket could slip inside the pouch and was visible to the conductor.

Coupon book
A coupon book style ticket. Little ticket coupons inside were ripped out by the conductor for each ride.

Colored tickets
Various tickets with colored backgrounds. Similar to today’s monthly, the color changed each month, so it was easily visible to the conductor.

Pasted on tickets
Similar to the colored tickets above, these tickets contained a printed and pasted on portion which listed the station information.

Modern Metro-North Tickets
More modern Metro-North tickets. Today’s ticket can double as a Metro-Card.

Grand Central Ticket
My favorite monthly ticket – note the date that it was purchased. February 2nd, 1913 was the day Grand Central Terminal opened to the public. This type of ticket had boxes surrounding it, which the conductor clipped with each ride.

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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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