NEW YORK — Grand Central Terminal is featured in lots of movies, from Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” to the animated “Madagascar,” and with good reason: It is a magnificent Beaux Arts monument, one of the finest examples of civic architecture in the country. In February it will celebrate its 100th birthday.
My wife and I recently took the official audio tour of Grand Central Terminal. We paid $7 each at the ticket window on the main concourse and were provided with headphones, audio player, and a map, which took us on a 21-stop tour inside, below, and outside the station. We went at our own pace, taking about 90 minutes to complete the tour.
Grand Central was built in 1913 by the Vanderbilt family, owners of the New York Central Railroad, who wanted a terminal that would reflect their wealth and power. Their railroad is no more, but their monument remains, now operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Commuters arrive and depart on the Metro-North Railroad connecting Grand Central to the counties just north of the city and in Connecticut.
We started at the heart of the terminal, the four-sided brass clock on top of the information booth right in the middle of the grand concourse, as hundreds of tourists, commuters, and New Yorkers shouldered past us. According to our audio guide, 700,000 people pass through this building every day. Some walked with determination, head down, while others took photos and gawked at the architecture as the loudspeaker announced, “Now departing from track 42.”
On the lovely cerulean blue ceiling 125 feet above our heads was a dazzling depiction of the nighttime sky complete with constellations outlined in gold leaf. We were able to pick out Aries, Pisces, and Taurus.
At one time that night sky was completely black, covered by layers of grime, accumulated from years of cigarette and cigar smoke. Workers cleaned it by hand during the building’s $250 million restoration in the 1990s, leaving behind a little dark patch high in the ceiling near the western windows as a reminder of how dirty that ceiling once was.
Three gigantic 60-foot arched windows in cast iron frames dominate the eastern and western walls of the terminal. They are actually double windows, wide enough apart to allow catwalks in between, giving pedestrians access to the skyscrapers surrounding the terminal. During WWII they were blacked out and were not completely cleaned until 1998.
Commuter David McNamara, who takes the train on the Harlem Line from Chappaqua every morning, remembered back in the 1980s when those windows were still dark. “Now the windows let in a lot of light,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling to see the stars in the ceiling.”
The grand west stairway made of Tennessee marble took us from the main concourse to the second level, giving a sweeping view of the interior. A parallel east stairway was added in 1997, made from marble from the same quarry as the original.
During restoration, the huge chandeliers throughout the terminal were given a thorough cleaning. The restorers were astonished to find that though they were thought to be bronze because of their dull color, they were actually shiny nickel and gold.
Beneath the main concourse in the bustling Grand Central Market, the smell of fresh fish competed with the fragrance of fresh-cut flowers. Customers come here to buy fresh vegetables, chocolates, and meats as well. The terminal houses three fine dining restaurants, over a dozen places to grab a quick bite, and about 30 shops offering everything from spices to leather goods.
We ate lunch that day at the venerable Oyster Bar and Restaurant, which has been there since the terminal was built. I had the cherrystone clam stew, huge clams in a milky broth, while my wife had Manhattan clam chowder. We washed it all down with local ales.
The Oyster Bar boasts one of New York’s most exhaustive selections of shellfish. At the raw bar, Chicagoans Marc Parker and Shannon Fasser were sampling from dozens of clams, mussels, and oysters listed on the big board behind the bar. “This place was highly recommended by my boss,” said Parker, who didn’t seem disappointed.
That Grand Central will still be around to celebrate its 100th birthday is something of a miracle. New Yorkers, such as Jacqueline Onassis, were shocked by the demolition of nearby Penn Station in 1964 and didn’t want Grand Central to go the same way. They fought all the way up to the US Supreme Court in support of the New York Landmark Law that gave Grand Central protective status.
We saw the fruits of their labors during our tour, but longtime commuters like McNamara have seen it all.
“You appreciate how beautiful it is,” he said, “because I remember what it once was.”
Grand Central Terminal
87 East 42d St., 212-340-2583, www.grandcentralterminal
.com. Check website for centennial celebration schedule and for dining and retail hours.