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).
On a dining car menu, 1953 – Grand Central Art Galleries. ((Menu from the author’s collection.))
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.
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!
When it comes to any monument with a long history like Grand Central, there’s plenty to write home about. As those who have followedthisblogfor awhileknow, 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!
2012 has been an interesting year here at I Ride the Harlem Line… we finished up touring the stations on the New Haven, Port Jervis, Pascack Valley, and Hudson lines, as well as visited some places far outside Metro-North’s territory. As if that wasn’t enough, we also began our Grand Central 100 for 100 Project, posting one image every day for 100 days, all to celebrate Grand Central Terminal’s centennial.
As is customary around the end of the year, let’s take a look back at what was most popular on the site this year, based on the number of reads… presenting the top 15 posts of 2012:
Starting off our countdown at number 15 is a photographic look at the old Milwaukee Road Depot in Minneapolis. Completed in 1899, the old station was renovated and turned into a hotel. An old train shed now offers an ice skating rink. This is one of a few posts on the blog about Minneapolis this year, from my visit there in April. Some of the other stuff from Minneapolis included the Stone Arch Bridge, a former railroad bridge converted to pedestrian use, riding around on the Hiawatha Line, the old and new Minnehaha Station, and the classical music playing Lake Street – Midtown station.
14th most viewed for the year is our Hudson Line tour to Yonkers. The nicely restored brick station at Yonkers, built by the New York Central, is definitely one of the gems of the Hudson Line.
There are plenty of hoaxes and tall tales related to Grand Central Terminal, but only one of them made our top fifteen list this year. Coming in at number 13 is the 1929 hoax in the Information Booth. As the story goes, a tricky scammer convinced a fruit seller that the railroad was planning on selling space in the information booth, and that prime space could be turned into a fruit stand. Of course, it was a complete lie, and the scammer skipped town with a nice wad of cash. Amusingly, you can buy apple in the Terminal today – either in Grand Central Market, or in the figurative sense, the Apple store in the main concourse.
Another Grand Central themed post comes in at number 12 on our countdown – featuring the sky ceiling that nobody really knows about. This painting can be found inside Grande Harvest Wines – it is the last surviving remnant of the 242-seat newsreel theater that was once in Grand Central Terminal.
Our tour of New Haven Line station Mamaroneck makes the list at number 11. Mamaroneck has a lovely old station that was undergoing a transformation into a restaurant called the Club Car – we managed to get a sneak preview of the place, and shared it along with the station tour.
The Hudson Line tour of Tarrytown station also makes the list, likely for our coverage of the new and most wonderful Arts for Transit piece by Holly Sears. The 1898 Richardsonian Romanesque-style station at Tarrytown was built by architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, who are most known for their stations on the Boston and Albany railroad.
One of the more memorable things I got to do this year was to have a brief chat with Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut. Having been with Metro-North since its inception, the man has a pretty interesting viewpoint regarding the history of the Harlem Line. We talked about Metro-North’s formation from ConRail, Millerton, and other admirable rail systems, among other things.
Before touring the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines, I wrote a brief introduction to the West of Hudson lines, which was the seventh most viewed post on the site this year. The intro included a few maps, time tables, and a look back on the damage Hurricane Irene wrought on the Port Jervis line.
Sixth on our top 15 countdown is a trip to Metro-North’s Operations Control Center. This is the workplace for the railroad’s Rail Traffic Controllers – one of the most stressful and possibly thankless jobs at Metro-North. The current OCC is certainly high tech, but we also got a glimpse of the old OCC, and an ad for one of the New York Central’s historical towers in Grand Central – which looked quite archaic in comparison!
One of the most memorable shots of Hurricane Sandy was this capture of a boat resting on the Hudson Line’s tracks in Ossining, which I couldn’t help but turn into an image macro. In other news, whoever happens to own that boat is probably a big asshole, as it seems to be named after a Nazi warship. I guess the owner never realized his boat would end up on the front page of several newspapers – or top 5 in our countdown.
Coming in at third most popular is the Grand Central 100 for 100 project, featuring 100 historical photos of the Terminal in the hundred days leading up to its centennial. By now we’re more than halfway through, so if you aren’t following the project on Facebook, you totally should be!
It appears that everybody loves Dobbs Ferry station, as our tour was the number two most read post on the site for 2012. Featuring another Richardsonian Romanesque station by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, Dobbs Ferry also has a nice location right on the Hudson River’s waterfront.
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.
When it comes to historical figures related to the subject of railroads, I don’t think you could find a more interesting person to read about than Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Commodore, as he was known, was brusque, at times ruthless, and didn’t really give a damn what anybody thought of him. While one biographer tells an interesting story of Vanderbilt’s sunset years – suffering from syphilis, going slowly mad, and operated like a puppet by his son – another biographer refutes that story as a complete fabrication (and he makes a fairly convincing case).
The undeniable thing we do know of Cornelius Vanderbilt is that he amassed a fortune first from steamboats, and later from railroads. The Commodore had no desire to split up his massive fortune upon his death, and thus the overwhelming majority was bequeathed to his son William Henry. From there the inheritance was divided between William Henry’s sons, with the larger portions going to the eldest two – Cornelius II and William Kissam. While the Commodore and William Henry were quite adept at making money, the next generation of Vanderbilts were quite fantastic at spending it. Today’s post is the first in a series about the extravagant things that this railroad fortune was spent on. A few of the Vanderbilt mansions are still in existence, two of which are in Newport, Rhode Island. The first we will be visiting is Marble House, which was financed by William Henry’s second son, William Kissam Vanderbilt.
Postcard view of Marble House, located on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island
Anyone who has been in Grand Central Terminal is somewhat familiar with the Vanderbilt family and some of the characteristics found in architecture created for them. A common motif is the acorn and oak leaf, which is frequently sighted in the Terminal, and at another Newport mansion – The Breakers – which belonged to Cornelius II. Other than its extravagance, not much about Marble House screams “Vanderbilt” – likely because it was wholly a creation of Alva Erskine Vanderbilt, wife of William Kissam, and architect Richard Morris Hunt. Alva and William wedded in mostly a marriage of convenience – she was sociable and knew her way around the high society the new generation of Vanderbilts desired to be a part of. He was certainly wealthy, but lacked the full acceptance of New York City’s elite. Together, however, they managed to host extravagant balls that launched them to the forefront of New York society.
Marble House was known as a cottage – or in the parlance of the wealthy of that era, merely a summer home. It was William’s gift to his wife for her 39th birthday – and an extravagant gift it was. The building cost around $11 million, $7 million of which was for marble alone. Built in the Beaux Arts style, the inside and out was influenced by both French and Greek art and architecture. After completion in 1892, Marble House remained in Alva’s possession until 1932 – despite her divorce with William in 1895.
Although a masterpiece for Alva, Marble House served as more of a gilded prison for one young Vanderbilt. Consuelo was the second child of William Kissam and Alva, and their only daughter. She described her mother as, “a born dictator, she dominated events about her as thoroughly as she eventually dominated her husband and her children.” She said of her father: “He was so invariably kind… gentle and sweet… with a fund of humorous tales and jokes that as a child were my joy,” but also noted “he only played a small part in our lives… our mother dominated our upbringing, our education, our recreation and our thoughts.”
Consuelo Vanderbilt, later in life. Drawn by Paul Helleu, the artist responsible for the sky ceiling in Grand Central Terminal.
Marble House was completed when Consuelo was 16, and it was not long after that Alva began searching for the perfect mate for her daughter. Though many desired Consuelo’s hand in marriage (and clearly, the money that came along with), her mother found the young Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough the clear winner. When Consuelo told her mother she would not marry the Duke, she was sequestered in the mansion: not permitted to leave, nor contact any friends. Her mother even faked a heart attack, “brought about by [Consuelo’s] callous indifference to [her mother’s] feelings.” Consuelo relented, and agreed to marry the Duke – who officially proposed to her in Marble House’s Gothic Room. Though the wedding was certainly paid for by Vanderbilt money, Alva did not permit any Vanderbilts to attend the ceremony, with the exception of her ex-husband.
Today, Marble House is maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County, who has owned the mansion since 1963. Regular people can tour the mansion, however, for the truly wealthy, you can rent the place out for an event. The weekend I was visiting, this was the case. One of the employees there even said to me that some of the guests arriving for the festivities, “had more money than God.” I suppose it turned out well in the end – while everyone was distracted with the wealthy visitors, I was able to surreptitiously take a few photographs of the inside of the mansion. Many furnishings in the house are original that were donated to the Preservation Society, though the visage of the Commodore is visible throughout the house. Assumedly, these are not original, as I can not imagine Alva keeping these in her meticulously designed abode.
In addition to the main house, the mansion has a small Chinese tea house in the back yard, right next to the water. Several years newer than the main house – the tea house was commissioned in 1912, and opened in July of 1914. The small tea house is 1125 square feet with 14 foot high ceilings, and played host to various meetings of Alva’s pet cause – womens’ suffrage. There is something slightly amusing about a woman who fought for womens’ rights, yet forced her daughter into an arranged marriage for a noble title, but Consuelo did not seem to hold this against her mother.
Back in February of 1986 I had not yet reached my second birthday… I’m not too familiar with the milestones of an aging child, so for all I know I could have still been wearing diapers at that time. Metro-North, founded in 1983, was a fledgling organization. Though we may be similar in age, Metro-North didn’t seem to have much of a “diaper wearing” stage. In terms of the Harlem Line, they hit the ground running – beginning major renovations to the line. The tracks were electrified from North White Plains to Brewster North (Southeast), and over 10 million was spent on upgrading Brewster yard (aka Putnam Junction) and shop. Metro-North was also trying to reach their customers – printing several guides to explain to riders what they do, and give a brief tour of the system.
I’d like to have one of these in my backyard. The loco and the castle.
Since SmartCat debuted about two weeks ago, I’ve still been working on adding plenty of new material for you all to peruse. Two of the newest things found in the catalog are two brochures Metro-North released in or around 1986. One was a guide to the Metro-North system, the other a Grand Central and Customer Service guide.
Just spotting the little things that have changed over the years is quite fun. It was a time where terrorism was not as much of a concern, and the Terminal had a room where you could temporarily store your bags. And people weren’t quite so health conscious either – Harlem and Hudson trains each had one car reserved for smokers, the New Haven Line had two. Vanderbilt Hall was still a waiting room, and many of the updates – including the other stairwell in the main concourse, and the cleanup of the sky ceiling – in Grand Central had not yet been made. Amtrak trains still stopped at the Terminal, and places like Crugers and Kent Road were still stops listed on the system map.
The old Omega departure board can be seen in one of the brochures. It was replaced by an LCD Solari board in the late 90’s.
You should definitely check out SmartCat if you haven’t already, or if you want to jump right to the aforementioned brochures, you can use these links:
As an addendum to this post, as I’ve gotten a few messages regarding adding things to SmartCat, I would absolutely love user submissions. If you have anything that you think would be archivable, whether it be a timetable, postcard, ticket, etc… send me a message. I’d love to add it!
Observant commuters may have noticed something new in Grand Central in November – a little booth by the ticket windows labeled Audio Tours. Or you might have seen it mentioned in the Mileposts, or perhaps in a poster on your train or at your station? Either way there is a new way to tour Grand Central – and I’m not talking about a giant tour group where you have to strain to hear the tour guide. Grand Central now has an official self-guided audio tour. While I was at Grand Central the other day I took the time to give the tour a shot – a review of sorts.
Audio tour booth, Metro North employee Patrick mans the booth during my visit
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I know a lot about Grand Central, and I figured that I wouldn’t learn anything new. But I was a tad curious to know what would be included in a tour of Grand Central, and how it would be described. There are a lot of things I know about the history of the place. And I am also aware that there are folks in the hardcore railfan community that are of the opinion that there have been some… shall we say, anecdotal embellishments added into the lore of the Terminal. But there is just so much that can be said about the history of this building, what exactly do you say to fit into an hour, and what parts do you leave out?
Handheld device for the audio tour
I must admit though, I enjoyed the tour. The technology used is great. If you don’t want to borrow the device and headset for the tour you can download it to your own mp3 player – or at least you’re supposed to. I’ve been unable to purchase it on the website, not to mention it lists the prices only in Euros, which irrelevant if the company that made the tour may be foreign, it just looks poor in a US market. The actual devices that you can borrow for the tour are not only audio devices, they have a small screen in which to show a photo of where you currently are on the tour. I love the fact that it really is a self guided tour – you enter the number of the location you currently are in to hear about it. If you don’t want to hear about it, you can always skip that location. Or you can go in whichever order you please. Plus if you want to learn more about something, you can hit the green button. You can customize the whole thing and do whatever you want to.
Plenty of important places are described on the tour – from the obvious 42nd Street façade, to the clock and sky ceiling to the somewhat lesser known whispering gallery, spiral staircase in the information booth, and the walkways in between the glass panels. I loved that there were mentions of the 20th Century Limited, as well as Jackie Kennedy and the fight to save Grand Central. There were also plenty of things that I thought the tour could mention, but didn’t. Since the tour sends you outside anyways to see the façade, why not make another outdoor stop to see the majestic eagle – older than the Terminal itself – which once stood on the original Grand Central Depot? I also don’t recall hearing anything about William Wilgus. Wilgus was the railroad’s chief engineer, and the conceptual mastermind behind Grand Central. The tour briefly mentions that the Terminal ushered in the era of electric trains, but fails to mention why – and this is important! Would the railroad have undertaken such a massive project if steam locomotives were not banned on Manhattan island? Would the massively expensive project have been considered if not for Wilgus’ concept of air rights, of covering over the formerly open-cut railroad tunnels and building on it to recoup expenses and make money?
The tour does fall more on the side of artistic/architectural than railfan. But just the fact that the purpose of the building is for servicing rail, I think more of that rail history ought to be thrown in. What makes Grand Central a great railroad station, and not just a pretty building? (and I am talking more about dual levels and loop tracks, as opposed to ramps, which were mentioned)
Eagle originally from Grand Central Depot
For the most part the main narration of the tour was great. It was informal, like you were listening to an actual tour guide as opposed to reading one of the many books on the subject of Grand Cental. There were amusing little anecdotes thrown in, like the person asking the person at the information booth where to rent a horse. A lot of the extra details and stories on the “secrets” were recited by Dan Brucker… and I mean no insult to Dan, but there were times where it was tiresome to listen to his voice. He spoke loud and slow, perhaps as one would speak to a non-english speaker, hoping that over-enunciating words will help them understand. “This. Is. Not. A. STA-TION. It. Is. A. TER-MI-NAL. Be-cause trains. TER-MI-NATE. Here.” Now although I’ve never formally met Dan Brucker, I’ve overheard him doing tours. He is animated and it is obvious that he loves this place. But I don’t think that gets through in the tour. (Sorry Dan, please don’t be insulted, I’d still love for you to give me a tour any day!)
One option on the tour, which I believe was called Visual Experience has not been completed yet. The device mentioned that it is being worked on and will include clips from shows filmed in Grand Central. I hope they’re talking about audio clips and not video clips, because even though the device has the capacity for video the screen is so small. And if I had a hard time seeing what was in the tiny picture, then I am certain the little old ladies that took the tour right before me would have a major difficulty. Something on the other hand that might actually work would be a small companion brochure or booklet that accompanies the tour. Right now you just get a big clunky sheet of laminated paper with a map, which you can’t keep. I’m sure tourists would love something that can actually be kept. If cost is a prohibitive issue I’m sure an extra dollar or two could be charged for the nicer booklet.
Well, this certainly turned out to be the long-winded review. Basically it comes down to this: Do I recommend the tour? Yes. The tour is ideal for people that enjoy the architecture and might not know a lot about Grand Central. If you know a lot about the place you’re probably not going to get as much out of it, but you’ll still probably enjoy it. Did I learn anything on the tour? Yes. Somehow I had never even noticed the mural on the ceiling of the Graybar Passage.
When I started out this blog, it was sort of just a portion of my own personal website. It had the same layout as my site, and was fairly integrated. I have been thinking for quite a while now though, this blog has really taken off in another direction, and is pretty much standing well on it’s own. So I felt that in order to reflect that new identity, the site needed a little bit of change in the aesthetics department. Enjoy the new layout that I’ve made, which I’ll probably be tweaking for a little while now that it is up. I’m not much of an illustrator, but I did want to try doing a little sketch for the title, with the Sky Ceiling in Grand Central in the background.
So what else is changing? Next week brings new schedules to the MTA, and conductors will be changing around their jobs… so you may see some new faces on your trains. I’m quite bummed that all the conductors on my train all got bumped off and had to take jobs on other trains.
Conductor winter wear will also make it’s comeback… though my proposed new hat for MTA conductors was denied.
If you do like changes though, especially changes in the leaves, you must check out the Fall Foliage Rail Excursion, over on the Hudson Line, which will be happening on the 24th. You can find more information about that tour here.
Lastly, if you missed October’s Mileposts, you may have missed some nice deals. When buying tickets for Cirque Du Soleil’s Wintuk, and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, you can save ten dollars, and get a free round trip train ticket. Just be sure to use the promo code METRO.
My name is Emily, though I am known by many who ride the train simply as Cat Girl, for the hats I customarily wear during the winter time. I am a graphic designer, a former Metro North commuter and lifelong Harlem Line rider. This site is a collection of my usually train-related thoughts, observations, photographs, and travels, as well as my never-ending hunt for intriguing historical artifacts.