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8 Secrets of Grand Central Terminal

More than 700,000 others pass through Grand Central Terminal each day. Since it opened its doors in 1913, there has always been a palpable magic to this train station. Something about the marble walls, twinkling constellation sky, and perpetual motion create a feeling of expectation — that amidst the momentum of travelers coming and going, something as unexpected as a flash mob might break out.

But too often, that magic goes unappreciated. Most commuters traverse the main concourse at breakneck speed, dodging tourists and jumping through photo ops. With a bit of exploration, however, one discovers many secrets in this opulent, and seemingly clear-cut New York landmark.

1) Grand Central’s main concourse is both architecturally and aesthetically legendary, reflecting the grandeur of the Vanderbilt name. (Cornelius Vanderbilt controlled several major railroad lines, and built the original Grand Central Depot in 1871.) One of the most iconic places within the terminal is the center clock above the information desk. The timepiece, valued at somewhere between 10 and 20 million dollars, is made of opalescent glass and brass, and synchronized to the U.S. Naval Observatory’s atomic clock. Behind the desk beneath the clock is a hidden spiral staircase. It allows clerks to move to the lower-level information desk and, down even further, to a break room at the very center of Grand Central.

2) There are two prominent and seemingly identical staircases in the lobby, modeled after the stairs of Paris' Palais Garnier opera house. But only one is an original. The West Staircase was built in 1913, but apparently, according to architects at the time, there was nothing worth seeing on the east side to necessitate a separate exit. From marble out of the same quarries in Tennessee and Italy, the East Staircase was added decades later during major renovations undertaken in the 1990s.

3) Behind the stairs in the Main Concourse, both the terminal’s east and west sides feature large windows. But surprise — they’re not just windows. If you wait long enough, you can catch someone walking inside the glass in one of the five catwalks on each side, designed for those working in adjacent buildings to pass quickly through Grand Central.

4) A private office was originally placed above the West Staircase. Millionaire financier John Campbell, a friend of the Vanderbilts and a New York Central Railroad board member, had his own luxurious space at the station. Today, it has been restored to its original splendor as a cocktail bar called The Campbell Apartment.

5) Running parallel to the Grand Central Market and linking the Main Concourse to the Graybar Building, Graybar Passage features a marble clock high up above its entrance. The words “Eastern Standard Time” are carved beneath the device, commemorating the railroad’s role in constructing contemporary time zones themselves. As long-distance railroad travel became more common, railroad companies faced huge scheduling difficulties due to the varying local times of several cities — many cities having their own local time based on sun positioning. The powerful railroad companies, seeking uniformity, divided the country into four time zones.

6) Right off of the lobby is Vanderbilt Hall, the original waiting room for long-distance, cross-country travel. A few of the original wood benches that once filled the room still line the walls. Today, Vanderbilt Hall is known as an exhibition room and the site of various markets and events. It is also a coveted wedding spot, with a waiting list of at least four years, and was recently the site of the Zac Posen ready-to-wear fashion show.

7) Downstairs in Grand Central, you’ll find the dining concourse — an area dear to many commuters' hearts — where more than 10,000 businesspeople and tourists eat lunch each day. Taking a short ramp up leads to the famed Oyster Bar, which opened with the station in 1913 and was restored in 1974. Just outside the Oyster Bar entrance is one of Grand Central’s former secrets, the Whispering Gallery. Whisper into one end of the Rafael Guastavino arch, and you can be heard in the corner located diagonally opposite.

8) Train stations aren't the most likely spots for a game of tennis, but an elevator ride to the fourth floor brings you to the Vanderbilt Tennis and Fitness Club. Public courts are available to rent.

There are still many mysteries surrounding Grand Central, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s abandoned train car on the mysteriously dormant Track 61. The track has direct access to the Waldorf-Astoria, and FDR used this passage during his Manhattan visits to move about the city without revealing his polio to the public. Other tales of New York’s most famous terminal could just be the stuff of rumor and myth. But Grand Central was designed to be a city within a city, and it truly is.

For a brief virtual tour of the terminal, see the following:

Editing by Ery Shin. Photographs by Christine Murphy.

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