I love a good backstory! And the Grand Central Station History backstory is one of the best! If you’ve taken the subway in NYC, you have probably spent a moment in Grand Central Terminal….or Grand Central Station as it’s commonly known. But have you really taken the time to experience this gem of Manhattan? Well….all aboard…for some Grand Central Station Facts, and a brief tour of one of my favorite sites in The Big Apple!
Grand Central Station History
First, a brief history: In 1830, the first steam-engine train connected Prince street in lower Manhattan with Harlem, however by 1854, all steam engines were banned below 42 street, in an attempt to keep the polluting soot out of the most heavily populated areas of the city.
This stopping point for trains demanded some kind of depot, so in 1871 the Grand Central Depot was constructed. According to the Grand Central Terminal web site,“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having been designed for three independent railroad companies—with three separate waiting rooms—the terminal was badly outdated, crowded, and inefficient.On top of that, the old station no longer reflected its surroundings.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.”
Fascinating Grand Central Station History, if you ask me!
Grand Central Station Facts
- Because thousands of commuters pass through Grand Central Terminal every day, there’s a market, filled with delicious pre-prepared foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and even a small outpost of the EAT Gifts that I wrote about in this post. As a tourist, this is a GREAT place to pick up delicious goodies for an impromptu picnic in Central Park, or snacks for midnight cravings in your hotel.
Grand Central Restaurants
- If you have a little more time, consider having a meal at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. First opened in 1913, this is truly a party of Grand Central Station History! This restaurant is a true NYC gem, offering up over twenty varieties of fresh oysters, a large menu of fresh, grilled and fried seafood choices. There’s a special ambience that makes The Oyster Bar a very fun dining experience!
- Just outside the entrance to the Oyster Bar, is a space with a high vaulted ceiling. The four corners offer a bit of magic. If you and a friend will stand on opposite corners, you can speak directly into the wall, and the geometry of the space will carry your message up the wall, across the ceiling, and to your friend on the other side, earning the area the informal title of “the whispering walls.” It’s a ton of fun, and kids will get a HUGE kick out of sending and receiving messages!
- If cocktails are more your speed, The Campbell Apartment is a super swanky spot. The space was first rented out in 1923 by William Kissam Vanderbilt II, whose family built the terminal. It was once the ornate private office of early 20th century railroad exec and financier John Williams Campbell, and later a studio for CBS Radio and a jail used by Metro-North Railroad. Today, The Campbell Apartment is a step back in time, and a little hard to find, making cocktail hour both glamorous and a little mysterious. Cheers to Grand Central Station History, y’all!
As a side note, both The Campbell Apartment and the Oyster Bar are among over 30 recommendations in my NYC Restaurant Guide, for the best, and most unique, dining opportunities in NYC.
If pure history is what you are after, take some time to admire the the zodiac mural on the ceiling of the Grand Concourse, one of New York City’s most beloved pieces of public art, created by French pastelist and etcher Paul César Helleu in 1912.
The signs of the zodiac from October to March are outlined in gold leaf and modeled with nearly 2500 tiny, stippled gold leaf stars. The turquoise background simulates the blue-green skies commonly seen over Greece and Southern Italy from October to March, and two broad bands of gold arching from east to west are the Ecliptic (the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun) and the Equator (the imaginary dividing line between the earth’s northern and southern hemispheres.) The Milky Way, composed of countless tiny stars, stretches from the southwest to the northeast corners of the ceiling.
By 1924 the ceiling had sustained severe water damage, leading the New York Times to chide, “comets have grown spontaneously in long streaks of water stain. Another astronomical innovation which has made its appearance is the mildewed way.” Portions of the original paint were replaced in 1930s to correct falling plaster, and over the following decades, tar and nicotine from tobacco smoke encrusted the ceiling with grime. Finally, in 1998 the Terminal completed a restoration of the painting that returned the mural to its original luster. For even more history about Grand Central Terminal, there are group and self-guided tours offered daily, details and costs can be found here.
Be sure and walk outside to 42nd street, and admire the gorgeous facade on 42nd Street, particularly the imposing sculptures of Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva at the top. I never tire of the view, both during the day and at night, and few sites make me feel more truly in the heart of Manhattan than time spent in Grand Central Terminal.
I’d love to know your impression of Grand Central!!! Let me know in the comments!