Grand Central Terminal entrance at East 42nd Street
One of the nicest events we have as members of the Cornell Club is the walking tours that the club offers during the year. It really does give you an interesting perspective of New York City. I have toured the historic bars and saloons of Lower Manhattan, walked through historic Midtown Manhattan for a Victorian Christmas through the Ladies Shopping Mile, walked through the haunted historic sites of lower Manhattan and toured Chinatown through some of its oldest buildings and then lunch at a local restaurant. I even got to sit next to the gentleman who helped the President of Bloomingdale’s organize the big “China at Bloomingdales” exhibition. Now that was interesting.
The latest tour I went on was the “Secrets of Grand Central Station” tour on a recent Saturday. A group of about 25 of us met at the club to tour Grand Central Station and learn about various points of the history of the building. The tour guide was over an hour late so everyone on the tour got to know one another before we left the club.
When the tour guide arrived, we took the two block walk to the club and started at the staircases as you enter the building at Vanderbilt Avenue.
The Grand Central Terminal is right around the corner from the club
The terminal was not that busy that Saturday morning and we were still able to walk around with no problems. We started the tour at the top of the stairs leading into the Great Hall of Grand Central Station. We were able to admire the room from a distance and all the activity that train travel brings.
As the tour guide explained, Grand Central Terminal was meant to impress a visitor when they arrived into New York City from wherever they were traveling from. You entered the room to see the elegance and vibrancy of Manhattan.
Though splendid in its day, the original Grand Central Depot of 1871 had become a 19th century relic struggling to meet the demands of a 20th century city. Its 30-year-old rail tunnels couldn’t handle the steadily increasing traffic. The building lacked modern conveniences and signaling technology, as well as the infrastructure for electric rail lines. And having been designed for three independent railroad companies—with three separate waiting rooms—the terminal was badly outdated, crowded, and inefficient.
On top of that, the old station no longer reflected its surroundings. In 1870, 42nd Street was still a relative backwater. By 1910, it was the vibrant heart of a dynamic, ambitious, and swiftly growing New York City (Grand Central Terminal History).
The new Grand Central Terminal was built between 1903-13 and opened in 1913. This beautiful rail station was designed New York Central Vice-President William J. Wilgus and the interiors and some exteriors by architects Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore in the Beaux Arts design. The exterior façade of building including the famous “Glory of Commerce” were designed by French artists and architects Jules Felix Coutan, Sylvain Salieres and Paul Cesar Helleu (Wiki).
Grand Central Terminal Great Hall
The architects brought in Parisian artist Sylvain Saliéres to craft bronze and stone carvings, including ornamental inscriptions, decorative flourishes, and sculpted oak leaves and acorns (symbols of the Vanderbilt family.) Playful carved acorns festoon the Main Waiting Room’s chandeliers. The architects specified Tennessee marble for the floors, Botticino marble for wall trim, and imitation Caen stone for the walls (History of Grand Central).
The Great Hall of Grand Central Terminal right before COVID 2020
The view of the Great Hall from the stairs at the Vanderbilt entrance
The Landmarks Preservation Commission protected Grand Central from demolition, but the dilapidated terminal was still ailing. Restoring its former glory required an owner that recognized the station’s beauty and potential, craftsmen able to renovate its battered décor, and strong public support. It also required money. In 1982, Metro-North took over the terminal—now primarily a commuter hub—and launched a four-year, $12 million repair program that stopped further deterioration but didn’t erase decades of decay (Grand Central Terminal History).
In 1990, Metro-North announced ambitious plans to restore the station’s structural, architectural, and decorative glory. Peter E. Stangl, Metro-North’s first president and later Chairman of the MTA, led these efforts. Metro-North’s vision went far beyond simply refurbishing the building. Its master plan reimagined Grand Central as a vibrant shopping and dining destination, reclaiming its role as New York’s town square (Grand Central Terminal History).
The windows and the ceilings of the Great Hall
All the art on the window arches is dedicated to travel. The friezes were dedicated to travel, motion and speed. The theme of the sculptures was travel. The sculptures were designed by Sylvain Salières, who designed many other decorations around the terminal.
Artist Sylvain Salieres was born in France. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. He taught at Carnegie Institute as a Professor of Art.
The interior of the building is just as spectacular. When you walk into the building and stare from the top of the stairs, you see the power and bustle of New York City. When you look up you will see the famous ‘Constellation’ ceiling cleaned and lit with all the stars in the sky. There is still a small portion of the ceiling that was not cleaned to show how dirty it once was before the renovation.
The ceiling of the Great hall shows all the constellations
The ceiling had been designed with the help of a professor from Columbia University who taught astrology. The tour guide told us it was after the completion of the ceiling that the constellations were upside down and backwards (which was also noted in the video as well). Still you can see its magnificence in the details and the fact that it is lit up with lightbulbs to represent the stars.
The dirt on the ceiling
This small spot left in the ceiling in the corner was what was left after they finished cleaning the ceiling and renovating the rest of the terminal in the early 1990’s. Both the tour guide and the video said that this was from years of allowing smoking in the terminal. That was banned in the late 1980’s and early 90’s by both the Giuliani and Bloomberg Administrations.
The windows of the Great Hall which have walkways going across balconies
The tour guide explained to us that the windows were also skyways where people could walk across them. I did not believe it until I looked up and actually saw people walking across the windows. They are actually skylights that are double paned and there are three levels of walkways for people who work in the building to walk across.
The tile ceilings of the “hallways”Whispering Hall” of Grand Hall
In all the years I have been visiting Grand Central Terminal the “Whispering Hall” was the most fascinating part of the tour. You can stand on one side of the hall and hear someone talking on the other side of the room. It was fun testing it out and it really does work.
This remarkable acoustic oddity is caused by the unusually perfect arches, which are a version of Catalan vaults, that compose the gallery. The distinctive tile work in the gallery is known as “Guastavino” tiles, named for the patented material and methods of Spanish tile worker Rafael Guastavino in 1892, whose meticulous work and herringbone patterns can be admired here and elsewhere in the city (Atlas Obscura/Wiki).
The Grand Central Oyster Bar Restaurant inside the main terminal
My review on TripAdvisor:
The Grand Central Oyster Bar was closed that day but is one of the oldest restaurants in the city and was located there for the commuters who came and went from the terminal. It has been there since the beginning.
The chandeliers of Vanderbilt Hall make quite a statement. These were created to show off the new modern technology of electricity which was new back in 1913 when they were installed. The modern light bulb replaced gas lamps and candles of an earlier era. The Vanderbilts wanted to show how progressive they were with the railroads so these were created to dazzle the modern train rider.
The first part of the use electricity with these chandeliers
The vaults and chandeliers on the side of the Great Hall
A combination of soaring ceilings and modern lighting were to show the progress of the rail system and to dazzle customers as they came into New York City. These halls were meant to impress travelers when they entered this part of the Terminal.
The Vanderbilt’s wanted travelers to know that Grand Central Terminal was electrified which was unusual at the time when the building was built. This was very important as they wanted travelers to know that they were in the modern age of travel.
Next we toured the Graybar Passage Way which is part of the Graybar building that is part of Grand Central Terminal. The tour guide noted the very decorative chandeliers that lined the passageway.
The Graybar Passageway of Grand Central
The details of the chandelier in the Graybar Passageway
The mural on the ceiling
The tour guide and the video you can listen to below both explained that this mural was part of the original terminal from 1913. The mural is a bit faded and I had walked these hallways before and never noticed it. It is a depiction of train transportation. The video said that at the time murals should represent what the building was all about (Grand Central Terminal Video). I thought that was very interesting. It is very easy to miss.
The Food Court
We took a quick tour of the Food Court area in the lower level and some people had to go to the bathrooms. This is one of the many money making parts of the terminal and the profits help with the continuous renovation and upkeep of Grand Central Terminal. Since COVID, this are is still not at 100% of what it was pre-COVID but is still slowly making its way back. It has a lot of popular restaurants that are convenient to commuters, tourists and office workers alike.
The Food Court like most of the retail spots in the Terminal was created to bring in income for the renovation and upkeep of the Terminal. We headed back up the ramps to the main room and headed up the ramp and out the door. We stopped first in the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Foyer. This was dedicated to the former First Lady.
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Foyer leading to East 42nd Street
Notice the lamp in the shape of an acorn. This was part of the Vanderbilt coat of arms. The coat of arms symbolized “from an acorn a mighty oak will grow”.
This entrance way was dedicated to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who with members of the Municipal Art Society and the City helped save this treasured building. With the recent destruction of Penn Station, the former First Lady lent her celebrity to helping save and preserve Grand Central Terminal.
Jackie Kennedy Onassis with Bess Myerson and Ed Koch in front of Grand Central (The Attic 2020) trying to save this landmark
Grand Central was symbolic of old Manhattan, a city her grandfather, James T. Lee, had helped build (highlights include 740 Park Avenue). Onassis also cared about historic preservation, having restored the White House to its former glory and saved Washington’s Lafayette Square from being replaced by ugly government office buildings in the early 1960s (Bloomberg 2013).
She was the star of a press conference in Grand Central’s Oyster Bar. “If we don’t care about our past we can’t have very much hope for our future,” she said into a bank of microphones over the din of flashbulbs popping. “We’ve all heard that it’s too late, or that it has to happen, that it’s inevitable. But I don’t think that’s true. Because I think if there is a great effort, even if it’s the eleventh hour, then you can succeed and I know that’s what we’ll do.” (Bloomberg 2013).
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Plaque in the foyer
This entrance was dedicated to her for all her work in preserving the building for future generations.
When we walked outside, the tour guide pointed at the grill work that surrounds the building. I never really thought of it because I had never looked at it before. All over the grill work is tiny acorns and leaves, the Vanderbilt coat of arms that was created by Alice Vanderbilt. They were all in the details of the grill work. This was a symbol of the Vanderbilt’s influence at that time.
The Grill Work on the outside of Grand Central Terminal
The Acorn Coat of Arms of the Vanderbilt family
Acorns and Oak Leaves are all over the Terminal as a symbol of the Vanderbilt family and the lasting of the family business. Within one generation the railroads and the family fortune would be gone.
The Statue of Mercury and the famous Grand Central clock “The Glory of Commerce”
Jules Felix Coutan artist
There is a true beauty to the statuary and stone carvings on the outside of the building. Each of these were done by different artists. Some of the statuary was taken from the original railroad terminal such as the statue of Commodore Vanderbilt and the Eagle statues on both side of the front of Grand Central Terminal.
The Commodore Vanderbilt Statue
The statue was designed by artist Ernst Plassman a German born American artist who moved to New York in 1853. The artist studied under many famous artists in Europe before founding the “Plassman’s School of Art” in New York City in 1854.
Artist Ernst Plassman
The Eagle statues were taken from the previous terminal.
They are two of the 11 or 12 eagle statues that ornamented the terminal’s predecessor, Grand Central Station. In 1910, when the station was demolished to build Grand Central Terminal, the eagles were dispersed throughout the city and New York State (Wiki). These two statues now are located on both sides of the Terminal. This eagle was returned to the Terminal in 2004.
The Eagle Statue on the outside of the front of the Terminal
The Vanderbilt Eagle plaque in the Vanderbilt Plaza
The terminal housed the New York Central Railroad and some of the busiest routes. It now houses the New Haven, White Plains and Poughkeepsie lines and stop overs for some Amtrak lines. In 2020, it was house the new lines of the Long Island Railroad.
The new Grand Central Madison Avenue Concourse:
The Grand Central Madison Avenue is a brand new terminal that is situated deep underneath Manhattan’s East Side. In the next few months, 296 LIRR trains per day will be rolling in and out of the terminal. This will mean more frequent train service to Long Island and better access to the East side of Manhattan.
The project was first proposed back in the 1960’s and then began in the 1990’s. After 25 years, the project was finally finished with an 11 billion dollar price tag. The project delays were because of budget cuts, 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and other issues that the City was dealing with over the last forty years. The terminal finally opened fully in March of 2023 (Tour Guide/Wiki).
This is the new Madison Avenue Concourse to the Madison Avenue Terminal
In the lower terminal, steel and glass creates a sleek, modern feel. As passengers rise toward the 350,000 passenger concourse and street level, however, visual references to Grand Central’s Beaux-Arts style will create a smooth transition to the century-old landmark above. The Grand Central Madison Terminal provides eight new miles of track to connect Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. Transportation efficiency meets energy efficiency! Green design at the new LIRR concourse and terminal will combine maximum comfort with minimal power and water use (Grand Central Terminal History and tour guide).
The new artwork that dots the terminal and all the hallways is just beautiful. Many artists were commissioned to decorate the new rail terminal. These glass mosaics decorate the halls and subway entrances to the new part of the terminal.
“River Light” by artist Kiki Smith
Artist Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith is a West German-born American artist whose work has addressed the themes of sex, birth and regeneration. Her figurative work of the late 1980s and early 1990s confronted subjects such as AIDS, Feminism and Gender but her most recent works concentrate on the human condition and how it relates to nature. She studied at the Hartford Art School and is a member of Collaborative Projects, an artist collective (Wiki).
Further down the hall, we were greeted by this delightful and whimsical wall of surrealist images of happy and playful pictures. These engaging images were by artist Yayoi Kusama.
The artwork on the hallways of the new terminal area by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama “A Message of Love, Directly from My Heart unto the Universe 2022”
“The other part of the artwork”A Message of Love, Directly from My Heart unto the Universe 2022” . The other side of the piece.
Artist Yayoi Kusama
Artist Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese born artist who studied at the Kyoto School of Arts & Crafts and is known for her installments and sculptures but also works in film, performance art and fashion among other mediums and is known for influence in ‘Pop Art’ . She is currently the most successful living female artist in the world and is still going strong in her early 90’s. She currently is working on a second line of merchandise with Louis Vuitton (Wiki/Artist Bio).
Please watch the video of Yayoi Kusama
On the lower levels at each subway platform entrance, there is a new piece of art by Artist Kiki Smith, who continues to show here creativity in a series of local points of nature as she interprets it. Each work of art has a different theme and use of creativity and color.
The artwork at each track entrance “The Sound” by Artist Kiki Smith
The artwork at the track entrance “The Spring” by Artist Kiki Smith
The artwork at the track entrance “The Presence” by Artist Kiki Smith
The artwork at the track entrance “The Water’s Way” by artist Kiki Smith
“I made images from nature that hold affection and personal significance to me as I hope they will for others,” Smith said. “I am very honored to be included in the tradition of artists making work for the MTA, particularly as I have rarely had the opportunity to make something that lives within the public realm.” (6SqFt 2023)
We finished our tour at the last piece of artwork and then made our way back to the Cornell Club. I stayed for a half hour taking more pictures around the terminal and admiring the architecture one more time now knowing its history in more detail. It is amazing to walk around a building your whole life and never really know its history or its details. It was a wonderful tour.
The new modern entrance is now open for business and people can enjoy these wonderful pieces of art created for them to enjoy on their way to their trains and subways.
Grand Central Terminal at night
When I left for the evening, I got to see Grand Central Terminal at night and it really is nicely lit. You get to see the building at its best. It really is a beautiful building.
This was the closest tour I could find online of what I experienced:
Listen to the YouTube video while you are reading the blog. We had the same tour as on this video.