In mid-January of this year, the Children’s book group headed up to Midtown to take a behind-the-scenes tour of Grand Central Terminal. We were lucky to have as our tour guide a Grand Central legend: the extremely knowledgeable Danny Brucker. Danny has been giving tours at Grand Central for over two decades, and his energy and ceaseless enthusiasm for the history of the building were infectious.
As someone who has lived in Westchester County for over ten years, Grand Central is my lifeline. I spend five to six days a week rushing across its marble floors, wandering through Posman Books when I have time to kill before my train, or just admiring the blinking stars of the iconic ceiling above the Main Concourse. So, I was more than a little excited to find out the secrets of Grand Central.
1. It’s a Terminal. Get It, Got It, Right!
The first thing that Danny made very clear to all of us is that Grand Central is not a station—it’s a terminal. Once upon a time, when the building was home to luxurious trains that took passengers across the country in style, it was a station. However, the Metro-North trains that now come in to Grand Central terminate there; they’re not passing through on their way to other places. Grand Central is quite literally the end of the line. (This is also why Penn Station, which connects New York with New Jersey, Long Island, and national Amtrak trains is a station.)
2. Secret Staircase in Plain Sight
Grand Central is the second most visited tourist destination in New York City, with over 750,000 visitors every day. Many of these visitors, wandering about the building, cameras in hand, pass directly in front a staircase that leads to the lower level without ever realizing it’s there. It is, in fact, part of one of the most recognizable places in the building—the Information Booth. This focal point at the center of the Main Concourse, topped by the iconic four-faced clock, actually contains a spiral staircase that connects it with a second information booth directly below it on the lower level Dining Concourse.
3. Multimillion-Dollar Timepiece
When we started our tour on the Main Concourse, Danny delighted in posing lots of intriguing trivia questions about the secrets of Grand Central, promising to reveal them when we reached the end of the tour. As someone who loves Grand Central, I admittedly already knew the answers to most of the questions he posed. However, I was definitely stumped when he asked the group if they knew the secret of the $4 million priceless gem located on the Main Concourse, in full view of everyone passing through the terminal. Was it the ceiling? The giant golden chandeliers? No, it’s that iconic four-faced clock. Each face is crafted out of a solid piece of opal worth $1 million dollars each!
4. Bare Bulbs
If you spend enough time in Grand Central, one of the things that may catch your eye is all of the light fixtures. Some of them are as grand in scale as the station itself, while others are merely functional, but they all have one thing in common—bare bulbs. Almost every one of the over 35,000 light bulbs in the building remain uncovered, and it’s always been that way. When the station first opened in 1913, it was a modern wonder and one of the first full-electric train stations of the time. The Vanderbilts, understandably, wanted to show off this fact by making sure every one of the light bulbs was fully visible. The bulbs have since been updated to newer energy-saving models, but they still remain bare. It’s also worth noting that many of the light fixtures (and other decorative features throughout the terminal) are decorated with acorns, a symbol adopted by the Vanderbilt family.
5. The Backward Ceiling
Throughout the tour, Danny loved to explain how Grand Central, while beautiful, is also full of mistakes. Some of them are quite intentional (every departure time listed on the boards on the Main Concourse is actually off by one minute), while others are definitely not. The biggest one of all, Danny explained, is as large as the Main Concourse itself! Grand Central’s beautiful ceiling, designed by French oil painter Paul-César Helleu, and featuring constellations made up of over 2,500 stars, is in fact completely wrong. It wasn’t until a commuter, who also happened to be an amateur astronomer, brought it the attention of the station’s executives that they realized that the map of constellations had been painted on backward. My favorite part of this story is that the most common explanation given for the mistake supposedly comes from the Vanderbilts themselves, who reasoned that the ceiling isn’t backwards, it simply shows the stars as viewed from heaven, looking down on earth.
Be sure to check out Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark by the New York Transit Museum and Anthony W. Robins, Introduction by Tony Hiss (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2012), available now wherever books are sold.
Melissa Faulner is an editorial assistant for ABRAMS.