grand central terminal new york

New York City! Who could ever forget their very first time in this great city? I remember strolling down the streets in complete awe of the buildings and the incredible energy gushing through the city. On my first visit in 1992, I was determined to see all the famous landmarks that I’d gotten to know so well through television and the movies. Being a big fan of architecture, I made my way across town, ticking off all the buildings on my list. It felt like a pilgrimage! I visited many of New York’s most famous buildings such as the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Guggenheim Museum and the Grand Central Terminal. Of these buildings, the Grand Central Terminal made the biggest impression on me. As soon as I entered the central concourse, I quite literally froze. It was one of the most stunning halls I’d ever seen! 

Grand Central Terminal New York

Grand Central Terminus (image courtesy of Alex Proimos)
Grand Central Terminus (image courtesy of Alex Proimos)

Stand for the first time in the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and you’ll be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the space around you. Tall enough to house a 12 storey apartment block and with a similar area to a full-size American football pitch, Grand Central Terminus is used by over half a million commuters each day as they pass through its vast complex of grand halls and marble corridors. Yet this iconic Belle Epoque building may quite easily not have been standing today, if its post-war owners had had their way. Here are some interesting things to know about Grand Central Terminal you may not have known of.

The history of Grand Central Terminal

The story of Grand Central Terminal reflects in many ways the story of New York itself. While the railroads of the 1800s brought mass transportation to Manhattan, they also brought noise, smoke and frequent accidents. As immigrants poured in and the city expanded northwards from Lower Manhattan, the wealthy moved uptown to escape the overcrowding and chaos in the poorer districts to the south of the city.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Grand Central Terminus, opened in 1913, was built by the tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt on the back of the advent of electricity. Vanderbilt promised a cleaner transport hub in a part of the city that was at the time far from the glamorous area it is today. The grand sweeping staircases are made of finest Italian marble while celebrated French artist Paul Helleu was commissioned to create the Sky Ceiling, one of the largest murals in the world. Everything about the building was designed to communicate the Vanderbilt’s status among New York’s money men. As with so many of New York’s finest buildings, it was ego that provided the ultimate motive to create such a work of art.

Shoe-shining in Grand Central
Shoe-shining in Grand Central

The East Side building boom

There is little doubt that Grand Central Terminal was the making of the east side of midtown Manhattan. With the advent of the railroad and the masses that now came to this part of town, the area boomed and hotels, offices and prestigious apartment buildings sprung up in the surrounding blocks. No fewer than 21 buildings are linked to Grand Central by inter-connecting walkways. Even the Waldorf Astoria, perhaps New York’s most famous hotel, would probably not have moved uptown from its original site on 34th Street (it made way for the Empire State Building) to its present location a few blocks north of the station had it not been for Grand Central.

Main concourse - Grand Central
Main concourse – Grand Central

But while the station may have made the East Side what it is today, its success also nearly led to its destruction. As air travel took off in the post-war years the railways declined and the building became used for trade fairs and office space, with many of its Belle Epoque features falling into ruin. Such a prime piece of real estate was attractive to developers who wanted to pull down the station and replace it with a 60 storey office building.

Thankfully the building was saved, even though it took the judgement of the US Supreme Court to deny the developers their destructive dream. A massive restoration project returned the station to its original state, allowing millions to once again admire the magnificent interior as they made their way to the platforms.

Grand Central Terminal tours

MAS (Municipal Arts Society) run tours of the station that explain how and why the terminus was created and the restoration work that was required to save this remarkable building. Our guide Joey led us through the building to the Whispering Gallery, the Kissing Gallery and even showed us the private apartments once owned by New York’s pre-war elite. The 90 minute tours run every Wednesday at 12:30 and are free (a $10 donation to MAS is suggested).

Grand Central Terminal is much more than merely a place to catch a train – with its own dedicated NYPD precinct it really can claim to be its own city within a city.

Written by Andy Jarosz.

7 Responses

  • It’s a beautiful building. In 2003, my wife was one of 450 lucky women who got to pose for the famous artist Spencer Tunick in the building (naked). It was a unique experience in a very unique building.

  • Thanks to all for the kind comments. I have to admit that when I spent almost a year living in New York I rarely went to Grand Central to appreciate its beauty. It’s only in going back as a tourist that I really explored its nooks and crannies. There are several buildings of that grandeur in Midtown – the NY Public Library just across the road is if anything even more spectacular, yet few tourists go and visit. Also the Empire State Building – while most people go straight up to the elevator to admire the view from the top, the ground floor is in fact one of the best preserved examples of Art Deco you’ll find anywhere.

  • Love this post Andy – very glad you were a guest writer! I remember the first time I went to the Big Apple on 2000 and the first building I went into was the World Trade Center. Being young at the time I felt very small and when I moved there as an adult I still felt small. I too stopped the first time I walked into Grand Central (even tho I was running late for a train and almost missed it!). I hope one day to move back there and be apart of one of the world’s greatest city. Thanks again for the post, I really enjoyed it!

  • I was at the Grand Central in 2006 and I remember getting lost in the midst of chaos. I think it’s a better place to visit than Times Square. Less touristy. =)

  • Andy is a great writer.. and Grand Central Terminal is a great place:) Ego eh.. I never knew that.. but I get it! 😀

  • As the grand central celebrates its centenary this year . It is befitting to call it a symbol of NYC as it is a part of the city right from the very beginning.

  • I have just learned that the central station celebrates its centenary and I am amazed at how it is being seen as one of the oldest landmarks in America. Yes, I agree with this post, millions and millions of people have walked through this and lives were changed forever and the station stood as a witness of it all.

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