Grand Central Terminal

By Enrico Grigoletti

Week 51

If you are visiting New York for the first time, the guidebook you most likely have in your hand you will suggest a trip to Grand Central Station, noted as one of the city’s most important historic monuments. For once, listen to the guidebook. Forget about that Sex & The City Tour or that pit stop at Abercrombie on 5th Avenue, and visit the Station instead, which will be turning 103 next February. The other historic monuments are alluring, but perhaps Grand Central is the most “New York” of them all; the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building can’t compete with the elegance of the most famous Station in the United States.
Here is a small list of its curiosities:

1) The Kissing Room
Located on the Grand Concourse across from Starbucks, The Biltmore Room was known as the “Kissing Room” during the golden age of train travel during the 1930s and 1940s. The Biltmore Room was where the famous 20th Century Limited Train from the West Coast used to arrive. The room was reserved for kissing between couples that were about to separate or had just reunited. From here, lucky couples got to ascend the stairs into the famous Biltmore Hotel.

2) The Clocks
Every day about 750,000 passengers pass through Grand Central, and given the haste with which American commuters – especially those in New York – ply the route from home to the office and back, slowing down that sprint to the platform is an absolute necessity. That is why all the clocks in the station are ahead by one minute compared to the actual train departure times. This is a well-known fact by all commuters who chant the refrain “fast clocks make for slower passengers”. In this way they can have a moment to catch their breath, and still make it to their train on time.

3) The Mafia, Italians, Pizza and a Mandolin
Ok, so the stroller scene from The Untouchables was not set in Grand Central Station, but rather Union Station in Chicago. Yet it could very well have been set in New York. There is a solid link between Grand Central Station and several films about the Prohibition, the Mafia and Italian immigrants who arrived in the mid 1900’s, like The Godfather and Carlito’s Way.

4) The First American Shopping Center
William Wilgus, one of Whitney Warren’s architectural collaborators, had imagined Grand Central Station to be a multifunctional space. It was intended to include hotels, offices and a number of businesses that could recreate the feeling of inhabiting a small town. Hey, it was 1913 after all.

5) The Oyster Bar
Opened in 1913 as the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant, Oyster Bar is perhaps the best-known commercial activity operating inside the station. It officially opened the day before the station (February 1, 1913) with a propitiatory dinner served to Warren and Wetmore (the architectural firm who designed the station) and 100 other guests. The restaurant closed its doors in 1974, and reopened some months later with the official name: Oyster Bar, the nickname it had been given by its customers for decades.

6) The Clock Tower
Designed by Jules Coutan, the massive clock and statuary group, weighing 1,500 tons was erected in front of the Terminal over a year after Grand Central officially opened. The delay could have been a result of Coutan’s dislike for the United States and the fact that he never actually set foot in the country. Instead he created a quarter size model of the statuary group, which was then replicated and transformed into the right dimensions by a handful of American sculptors under the direction of Whitney Warren. The architectural composition consists of three great portals crowned by the sculptures of Mercury, Hercules and Minerva. The other important part of the front façade is the large clock made of Tiffany glass. In fact it hides a little secret. The circle surrounding the Roman numeral six is actually a window, and from it one can enjoy an incredible view of the street leading up to Grand Central Station.

8) The Frescoed Ceiling
A hidden gem before our very eyes that rarely – especially if we are running to catch a train – gets noticed, as we never take the opportunity to stop and look up. Conceived in 1912 by Warren with his friend, French portrait artist Paul Helleu, the painted ceiling is one of the main characteristics of Grand Central Station. The astronomical ceiling consists of 2,500 stars and constellations including Orion, Taurus and Gemini. Unfortunately many were painted in reverse.