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.

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.

 
  
    
 
 
 
  

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Sending postcards from Grand Central…

Sending postcards from Grand Central

When it comes to any monument with a long history like Grand Central, there’s plenty to write home about. As those who have followed this blog for a while know, I have an affinity for railroad postcards, and especially those from Grand Central. Over the past one hundred years, countless cards featuring the Terminal have been printed and sent all over the world.

Part of the reason I find these postcards so interesting is that they are a great way to see how Grand Central has changed over the past 100 years. Many buildings sprang up around the Terminal – most notably in 1929 when the New York Central building was constructed behind, and in 1958 when construction commenced on the Pan Am building. But perhaps most notable are the cards that show what everyone thought Grand Central would look like. Several of the postcards were printed before Grand Central was ever completed – and one even imagined the inside of the Terminal with a glass ceiling, not the painted sky ceiling we are all familiar with (which did appear in an early Warren & Wetmore sketch).

As Grand Central’s centennial is fast approaching, I thought this would be a perfect time to share a collection of Grand Central postcards. Special thanks to Steve Swirsky, as probably about half of these cards are from his collection. Enjoy!

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

Sending postcards from Grand Central

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James P. Carey, Grand Central’s Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

When Grand Central Terminal opened, some of its most touted amenities included the special waiting rooms for men and women located right next to the general waiting room. Included within were a barbershop, dressing rooms, and a manicure parlor, and all were operated by a rather ingenious entrepreneur by the name of James P. Carey. Not only did Carey have a gift for making and creating businesses, he recognized Grand Central as a prime opportunity, and the perfect place to launch those businesses.


Left: Photograph of James P. Carey with his dog Kerney, Right: Advertisement for Williams’ Shaving Soap, with testimonial by Carey and citing his barber shop in Grand Central Station.

Born in Middletown, Connecticut around 1869, James P. Carey was a trained barber that just happened to have a knack for business. After moving to New York City in his youth, he eventually started a chain of 25 barber shops, which he ultimately sold to focus on business ventures in Grand Central. His first established Grand Central endeavor was a barbershop in 1905 – several years before today’s Terminal was constructed. Like several other businesses in the old station, Carey reestablished his barbershop in the Terminal when it was completed, though it was much expanded.


Postcards showing Carey’s barber shop in Grand Central Terminal. From the collection of Steve Swirsky.

Carey’s barbershop in the new Terminal was truly a spectacle, and was claimed to be the largest barbershop in the world. Measuring 10,000 square feet and part of GCT’s mens’ waiting room, it was filled with plate glass mirrors, high polished Carrara glass, cream tiling, and marble basins. Only the best-trained barbers stood at the ready in white uniforms, waiting for patrons. In addition to walk-ins, you could also reserve an appointment by phone, or by telegraph from your train. The shop operated from 6 AM to midnight, and in addition to the barbers employed 2 cashiers, 3 coat and hat attendants, 3 shoe polishers, and 2 podiatrists (or as they were then called, chiropodists). The shop also contained a Russian steam bath, offered at a cost of 50 cents, and large enough to accommodate 33 men. For the women, Carey operated the manicure parlor and hairdresser as part of the women’s waiting room, which employed 6 manicurists and 2 hairdressers.


1913 ads for Carey’s businesses in Grand Central Terminal, shortly after opening.

Not only did Carey have a keen business sense, he had quite a talent for sensing what patrons of the Terminal needed. When I posted about the Grand Central Theatre, I tried to make the point that Grand Central morphed along with changing demographic of people that used it, and constantly reinvented itself to remain current and relevant. In that respect, Carey’s inventiveness perfectly reflected that spirit of Grand Central. At first the barber shop tailored to the high profile guests of the Terminal – people that relished their privacy, and could wire the barbershop from their train to reserve a private appointment. Soon after, Carey opened yet another barbershop – a no frills affair geared to the more everyday folks using Grand Central. Not long after that Carey noted that not just passengers were interested in getting their hair cut, thus he opened smaller shop in Grand Central’s office building for employees and train workers.


Carey also operated a men’s clothing shop, or as the folks wishing to ooze class would say, a haberdashery. Postcard from the collection of Steve Swirsky.

At most, Carey is said to have operated twelve different businesses in the Terminal, including a clothing shop, laundry, luggage check, and car service. While some people were at first skeptical of the commercial space in the Terminal, calling it “barnlike” and having “storerooms [that were] too scattered,” Carey realized the opportunity, and created new businesses to fill the void. One such business was a haberdashery, or men’s clothing shop, which survived for many years in the Terminal.

Believing that Grand Central represented amazing opportunity, Carey focused on acquiring as much commercial space in the Terminal as possible. In 1920 Carey managed to oust fellow longtime tenant Mendel’s check room and luggage when their lease ran out, acquiring the space for himself. Like Carey, the proprietor of Mendel’s first established his shop in the previous Grand Central, though much earlier than Carey, in the 1870’s. When their lease came up for renewal, the owner, unaware they even had any competition for the space, put in a bid matching what he had been paying previously. Unbeknownst to him, Carey entered a higher bid, and by the time Mendel’s tried to up their bid, it was too late. Knowing that the check room and luggage shop was a necessity for the station, Carey opened his own version in the newly acquired location.


Advertisement and postcard for Carey’s transportation business. Below, right: photo of a Carey bus at JFK airport.

In 1921, right outside the walls of the Terminal, Carey embarked on his most significant and profitable venture – car transportation. Using the fanciest cars available at the time, Carey’s drivers chauffeured wealthy patrons arriving and departing Grand Central Terminal – rumored to include Babe Ruth, John F. Kennedy, and J. Edgar Hoover. Eventually the car service was expanded to include New York’s airports, and buses were added to the fleet. Though the company has gone through many changes and transitions over the years, Carey International is the current form of the company started so many years ago outside Grand Central.


In a move that would likely be frowned upon today, Carey fashioned himself a logo modeled after the New York Central’s. Below is the logo in use by Carey International, the current form of the company that J.P. Carey started many years ago.

Carey operated all of his businesses in the Terminal until 1940, when he retired due to illness (he died not too long after, in 1942). Many of the businesses he set up in the station, like the men’s clothing store, lasted for at least 50 years. The baggage check service was ultimately rendered obsolete when the New York Central installed lockers for travelers. As mentioned above, a successor firm to the transportation service Carey started still exists under the name of Carey International.

One final vestige of the Carey name still exists in the Terminal – a spot called Carey’s Hole (visible in this Metro-North floor plan). Until recently, Carey’s Hole was a locker facility used by Metro-North’s conductors and engineers (these locker facilities have now been relocated to the third floor). Located below the spot where Carey’s barbershop once was, this basement area was likely used for storage many years ago. For a man who spent much of his life on endeavors in Grand Central Terminal, it seems appropriate that at least one spot in the Terminal bears his name – even if it is just a basement.

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The Mystery of Grand Central’s Suburban Concourse

Every evening, steady streams of people race into Grand Central to get on a train and head home. They look up at the departure board, scouring it for their train, and then make their way to that track. As any astute commuter knows, Grand Central’s gates are made up of two and three digit numbers – double digits signify upper-level tracks, and triple digits for lower-level tracks. But what if I told you this wasn’t always the case – that the lower level once had single digit numbers? You probably wouldn’t believe me…


The photo that started the “mystery.” This photo from the collection of the New York Public Library shows track gates 8 and 7 in Grand Central Terminal – on the lower level of the Terminal.

If you don’t believe me right now, I don’t blame you. At first I didn’t believe it either. Plenty of books and articles have been written about Grand Central. Not one that I’ve found mentions the train gates ever getting renumbered. How could something major like this have happened in such a famous building, and yet, nobody knows about it? But as you’ll see in this post, there is overwhelming evidence that the track numbers on the lower level have been changed. In fact, you can see it with your own eyes!

track6
Though near impossible to take a decent photo, the marks from the previous numbering are visible if you look close enough. Next time you’re in the lower level, take a look. You will see the same “Entrance to Track 8 / Track 7” as visible in the above photo.

The mystery began when I was collecting images for my Grand Central 100 for 100 project, and I found the top photo at the NYPL. It fueled my curiosity because it absolutely made no sense. Today there are no gates numbered 7 and 8. If they did exist, where did they go? But after looking at the photo long enough, it started to become obvious that this couldn’t be the upper level. The low ceiling and light fixtures bear an uncanny resemblance to the lower level. Not to mention the two trains listed on the departure board are for suburban trains, which always left from the lower level in this time period.

(more…)

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The life of a Grand Central commuter – Photos from the Farm Security Administration

In the late 1930’s, when the United States was still in throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted various economic programs focusing on recovery called the New Deal. One of the new federal agencies established by the New Deal was called the Resettlement Administration, a group that focused on building relief camps for migrant workers and refugees from the droughts in the southwest. A photography project to document the work was established, and when the Resettlement Administration later became the Farm Security Administration, the documentary photography project was expanded. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the FSA photographers captured some very iconic images of American life during and after the Depression, or as he said “introducing America to Americans.”

 
Typical photos from the Farm Security Administration photo documentary project – Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange at left, and Sharecropper by Walker Evans on the right.

While the Farm Security Administration photographers captured many images of Americans struggling through tough times, you may be surprised to note that not all of the photos were of farmers and migrant workers, or even poverty. The FSA’s photo archives contain many images of just regular American life between the years 1935 and 1944 – including several shots in Grand Central Terminal. Two particular photos, captured by visual anthropologist and FSA photographer John Collier, are quite iconic, and have even used on video boards in Grand Central Terminal advertising its upcoming centennial.

Below you’ll find some of Collier’s photos from Grand Central, including the two more famous ones, all taken in October of 1941. It is pretty cool to compare the first and second photos in the set – the first is the fairly famous capture, while the second is of the same people in the Terminal, just from the other side. The angle – with the sun shining in from the windows, illuminating the people and casting long shadows – really made the shot.

 
  
 
  
 
  

Now when I said that the Farm Security Administration photographers endeavored to capture views of American life, I totally meant it. Undoubtedly, the photographers could have spent the entire day wandering around Grand Central, capturing the various people walking in and out of the Terminal and call it a day. But the FSA, they didn’t work that way. Collier went beyond Grand Central and followed some commuters home – snapping photos of them in the bar car, playing cards on the train, or just reading the newspaper. For one particular commuter, an unidentified advertising executive from Westport, Collier captured the man’s breakfast with family, photographed him running out the door to make the 7:40 train, and even snapped the moment he kissed his wife goodbye at the station. The following photos are truly a gem – illustrating not just an American life, but the life of a commuter to Grand Central in the early 1940’s.

  
  
 
   
  

Scant months after the above two sets of photos were taken, the large east windows of the Terminal were completely covered with a massive photo mural paid for by the Treasury and advertising war bonds and stamps. The mural not only used photos from the Farm Security Administration’s collection, but was documented from start to finish by the FSA photographers. Dedicated in December of 1941, the mural was claimed to be the largest photo mural in the world, measuring 96 by 118 feet.

Visible on the mural was the following text:

That government – by the people shall not perish from the Earth. That we may defend the land we love. That these may face a future unafraid. That we may build for a better world. Buy defense bonds and stamps now!


Artists in Washington DC plan the mural to be put up in Grand Central

 
Three of the main FSA photos used in the mural. A total of 22 different Farm Security Administration photos were used.


Scale model of what the mural would look like installed in the Terminal. Note that the text is slightly different than what was actually used.

  
   
  

The adjusted mural in Grand Central
When the mural was originally planned, the United States had not yet entered into World War II. Work for the mural had begun at least three months prior to its installation, though it was dedicated in December – just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. At some point, assumedly sometime after the US entered the war, the sign was changed to say “War Bonds” as opposed to “Defense Bonds,” which is visible in this photo (it was hard to read – “war” is written in black, covering over the “defense” written in white).

After the US entered the war, the FSA’s photography unit was reassigned to the Office of War Information, and then a year later, disbanded. Collier remained with the photography project when it was transferred to the OWI before leaving in 1943. His mentor, and fellow FSA photographer Dorothea Lange opted for a job with the War Relocation Authority. Lange captured hundreds of Japanese Americans as they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during the war, where her depictions of reality were at odds with her employers. In the government’s desire to gloss over the fact that we too operated concentration camps during the war, the photographs were confiscated and only recently uncovered.

The railroads were quite involved in the war effort - through advertising, and the movement of troops and supplies
The railroads were quite involved in the war effort – through advertising, and the movement of troops and supplies.

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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’s Biltmore Room – the “Kissing Gallery”

Just a few months ago, Metro-North released plans for changes in Grand Central Terminal’s Biltmore Room – a room that has an amusing nickname – the Kissing Gallery. Of course the media couldn’t resist reporting on what they called the “kissing room,” and thus it found its way into most people’s awareness for the first time. As times have changed significantly over the past one hundred years, the room’s original purpose, and even the social niceties warranting the room in the first place, are rather different. Nonetheless, I think the story of the Kissing Gallery is an interesting bit of Grand Central history, and highlights one of the original concepts that made the Terminal great.

In March of 1912, just less than a year the before the opening of Grand Central Terminal, the New York Central’s chief engineer George W. Kittredge announced that the Terminal would have a designated “Kissing Gallery.” There was likely much jest in the dialogue, as Kittredge also called the entrance to the room the “perfunctory peck spot” – though he was said to prefer the term “greeting gallery.” Other folks named it the “Romeo and Juliet room” – no matter what it was called, the room (rumored to be built with soundproof walls and roof) had an important purpose in the Terminal.


The Biltmore Room in the 1950’s. Photo by Boris Klapwald.

Nowadays, heading through Grand Central Terminal is a bit chaotic. People run through the main concourse en route to the subways, the passageways, or any of the various exits. Grand Central was not always like this, however. One of the wonderful things about the Terminal when it was first built was that everything was highly organized. It was acknowledged that a variety of people would be using the station – commuters, long-distance riders, arriving passengers, and even those who were not going to take a train. The goal was to keep each audience separate – if they never mixed, there would never be a “traffic jam.”

Commuters dwelled in Grand Central’s lower concourse, and as they made their way out to either the subway or the street, they traveled up the ramps, never having to enter the main concourse. Long distance departures left from the gates in the main concourse, where a passenger could see all of the tracks in one glance, and quickly find their train. Incoming long-distance trains arrived in the Biltmore Room – and it was here where the Kissing Gallery was found.

The Biltmore Room was named for the Biltmore Hotel, located above and accessible via this room. The idea was that arriving passengers could ascend directly to their hotel without ever having to step outside, and as an added amenity bags would be taken directly from your train right up to your room. As the designated greeting room, kissing was permitted here – as long as it abided by several rules…

Rules on Kissing – Grand Central Terminal

Rules regarding kissing will be enforced by GCT staff

No kiss shall last longer than 5 seconds

Keep your tongue in your own mouth

The attendants will have orders to stop all osculation and send the particpants to the Romeo and Juliet room. No soul kisses… only straight ‘goodby’ and ‘how-are-you’ greetings of less than five seconds duration.

No kissing in any part of the Terminal other than the Kissing Gallery

Those who meet by chance in other parts of the station than the “kissing gallery” will be under the watchful eye of attendants who at the first sign of an affectionate embrace will politely request that the kiss parlors are the proper place for that sort of thing.

Please abide by the above rules

The purpose of the [room] is to do away with this promiscuous kissing around the station, and centralize it.

In all seriousness, the one main reason that these rules were in place was to deal with the aforementioned “traffic jams” that Grand Central was designed to avoid. In the main concourse passengers were supposed to have the ability to see every gate from anywhere in the room and know from exactly which spot their train would leave. Groups of stationary couples showing public displays of affection would not only hinder movement, but block the line of sight. Not to mention that this was 1913, and people were certainly more reserved. I suppose in a place where every single detail was well thought out, having a designated kissing area doesn’t sound too abnormal.


Left: Me about 10 years ago with my friend’s uncle in front of a DC Metro Kiss and Ride sign. Right: A Kiss and Fly sign at San Francisco International Airport. Photo from JPG Magazine.

I think the interesting thing to note is that there are still train stations in the United States and beyond that have similar concepts. I was rather amused by the “Kiss and Rides” found at many DC Metro stations when I first rode the rails there. Some airports also have “Kiss and Fly” versions. Since Grand Central’s Kissing Gallery was located in the arrivals hall, there was more of a focus on people greeting someone special arriving by train. These Kiss and Ride, or Kiss and Fly areas seem more focused on passengers departing – giving them a kiss and letting them go on their way.

Today there are no long distance trains that leave Grand Central – service is strictly commuters – but in its heyday Grand Central carried many different groups of people. The train was really the only way anyone traveled long distance in the early 1900’s, and the railroad was integral for moving troops during the world wars. Thus I wonder how many “thank god you’re still alive after the war” kisses happened in the Biltmore Room. Another thought to ponder about the Terminal we all know and love.

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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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Celebrating Grand Central Terminal’s Centennial: The 100 for 100 Project

Provided you haven’t been living under a rock recently, you may have heard that Grand Central Terminal’s Centennial is fast approaching. While Metro-North will be kicking off celebrations in February, I thought it would be more fun to get the party started now. That’s why I Ride the Harlem Line will be counting down the next 100 days to Grand Central’s Centennial with a historical photo of the Terminal. That’s right – 100 historical photos, posted one per day, for the next 100 days. I like to call it the Grand Central 100 for 100 Project. While there will, of course, be a few iconic photos in the mix that you’ve certainly seen before, I’m hoping that the majority of them you haven’t seen. It is a great way to visually explore the history of the Terminal, and to see Grand Central in a new light.

Grand Central is truly a monument of New York City. Not only is it functionally important – a great example of what a train station should be – it is architecturally significant, and paramount, an important precedent for historical preservation in the United States. Besides all that, Grand Central means a lot to me – and this is one of the few ways a lowly commuter interested in history such as myself can celebrate it. Grand Central, and its Centennial Committee, plan to hold their festivities on the first of February – which seems entirely appropriate – for the committee contains the rich, and the famous. Grand Central unofficially opened on the First of February in 1913 – not to the public, but to the rich and the famous. It was not until the gorgeous Information Booth clock’s hands moved to midnight, commencing the new day of February 2nd, that the Terminal opened to the public. Thus, February 2nd is the day that our project will be counting down to, one photo at a time.


A poster advertising Grand Central Terminal’s opening on February 2nd, 1913.

Our photographic countdown will be comprised of nine different topics, with the photos in each moving in a roughly chronological order. Posting a new photo on the blog every day doesn’t seem to be the best format in which to present these images – thus I’ve decided that the better place to post them all will be on social media. Facebook and Twitter are conducive to sharing – and I want you to share these photos. I want everyone to celebrate Grand Central and its 100th birthday – for it is our monument, not just a pretty building for the privileged.

Part 1: Construction of Grand Central Terminal
Thursday, October 25th

Part 2: Outside views, and the Changing Urban Landscape
Sunday, November 4th

Part 3: Waiting for the Train
Saturday, November 10th

Part 4: Trains in the Terminal
Sunday, November 18th

Part 5: Famous Faces
Friday, November 30th

Part 6: Around Grand Central
Sunday, December 9th

Part 7: The Main Concourse
Saturday, December 29th

Part 8: Noteworthy Events in the Terminal
Wednesday, January 9th

Part 9: Grand Central Terminal, Restored
Thursday, January 24th

So today, we begin. The first photo, and all subsequent photos, will be posted daily at 11 AM. Make sure to like or subscribe over on Facebook, or follow @mtaHarlemLine or the hashtag #100for100GCT on Twitter to see all the photos. There is also an unofficial countdown clock on the top of this site, which will link to the project photos, and count down to the centennial. We’ll also be celebrating with other Grand Central-themed posts over the span of the next hundred days, and will have something special on Grand Central’s birthday, February 2nd. Let the festivities begin!

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Random photos from a weekend full of trains…

I hope everyone had a spectacular weekend… Although I managed to get slightly sunburnt, we certainly had some lovely weather! Maybe you even partook in some of the events for National Train Day in Grand Central? I saw quite a few of you there, apologies to the folks I never got a chance to meet up with and say hi.

My weekend was quite full with Train Day festivities, as well as my first photographic foray to the foreign territory that is the Hudson Line. At Poughkeepsie I achieved the milestone of my 100th Metro-North station photographed. When you think about it, I mostly take pictures of stations, not trains (though stations do look better when there are trains present). But there was certainly an exception to that over the weekend, as I managed to snap quite an array of trains in various places along all three lines. Want to know how my weekend was? It is far easier to show you in photographs than it is in words – so here is a little bit of randomness from the past few days.

  
 
  
 
  
 
  

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