Every day more than 700,000 people pass through Grand Central Terminal, bustling through the crowds, trying to make their train. But in their rush to compress time, it’s highly likely few of these commuters even give a second thought to the history that surrounds them.
But did you know Grand Central Terminal (not Grand Central Station as even locals mistakenly call it) is full of architectural and design secrets? Here are a few things you might not know about one of New York City’s most famous attractions.
The Whispering Gallery
There is a whispering gallery in the basement of the terminal near the famous Oyster Bar and Restaurant. If you stand in one arched corner while your friend stands in the diagonally opposite corner, you can hear the other person whisper. The low ceramic arches were designed in such a way that allows your voice to carry. Here’s how you experience it. Turn into the corner of the wall, with your face a few inches away, and say something at a normal speaking volume. Your friend should be able to hear you from across the room as if you were having a face-to-face conversation. I tried this with my mother. I couldn’t hear everything she said, but I could hear bits and pieces, and if I changed the way I stood or my proximity to the wall, then I could either hear her better or worse.
The staircases in the west and east side of the main terminal are both modeled after the grand staircase in the Paris Opera House. But what’s really interesting about the two staircases is that they were inserted at separate times. Despite the feel and look of gothic New York, the east staircase was added to the terminal in 1998. It was not an easy feat. Architects reopened quarries in Tennessee and Italy where the original marble came from so that they could replicate the new staircase to look exactly like the old one. There are also a few differences between the staircases, but they’re quite subtle. The newer staircase is one inch smaller than the original, in overall size, scope and dimension. Secondly, the designs and engravings on the new staircase are muted compared to the first one so that, according to the audio tour that the terminal offers, “people hundreds of years from now who will first discover Grand Central Terminal…will know they were not put in at the same time.” It’s “a little secret message, very obvious to them, but not so obvious to you.”
Eastern Standard Time
In the Graybar Passage, toward the Main Concourse, there is a clock carved high up into the wall. Under the numbers, “Eastern Standard Time” is also carved in. When Grand Central Terminal was first built in 1871, there were no time zones. The railroad industry wanted time zones to be created around the nation so that train schedules could be printed, but Congress wasn’t up for the idea. That didn’t stop New York Central and other railroads from establishing the time zones anyway. Congress later adopted it. Pretty neat! New York Central was so proud of helping to establish time zones that it carved “Eastern Standard Time” into the marble.
There are many restaurants in Grand Central Terminal, and there is also a market full of multiple food options. However, there’s something else that makes the market worth a quick stop. In the Lexington Avenue entrance, there is a sculptural chandelier in the shape of an olive tree, made of aluminum and polyester, with 5,000 crystal pendants hanging from the ceiling. It is titled “Sirshasana,” by the artist Donald Lipski.
The Secret Basement
Far down below where patrons walk the halls of the terminal, there is a basement referred to as “M-42.” National Geographic’s Susan Orlean was able to go down into the basement with Dan Brucker, the man who responds to media inquiries about the terminal. Bruckner described the room this way:
“This is not just the deepest and the biggest but the most secret basement in the city. What’s so secret about it? During World War II there were shoot-to-kill orders if you showed up down here. Why? I’ll tell you why. Why is because this was where the power came from to move the trains for moving troops, that’s why.”
There are many more awesome things about Grand Central Terminal that aren’t covered here. Research online and set aside some time to visit the terminal and take the walking or audio tour to learn more.