Grand Central Terminal

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Architecture; Railway transport

The main concourse
The main concourse
Grand Central Terminal at Night
Grand Central Terminal at Night

Grand Central Terminal (GCT, often still called Grand Central Station) is a terminal rail station at 15 Vanderbilt Avenue ( 42nd Street and Park Avenue) in Midtown Manhattan in New York City. Built by the New York Central Railroad (for which it was named) in the heyday of American long-distance passenger trains, it is the largest train station in the world by number of platforms: 44, with 67 tracks along them. They are on two underground levels, with 41 tracks on the upper level and 26 on the lower.

It serves commuters traveling on the Metro-North Railroad to Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties in New York State, and Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut.

Although it has been properly called "Grand Central Terminal" for a century, many people continue to refer to it as "Grand Central Station". Technically, that is the name of the nearby post office, as well as the name of a previous rail station on the site.


Besides train platforms, Grand Central contains restaurants (the most famous of which is the Oyster Bar) and fast food outlets (surrounding the Dining Concourse on the level below the Main Concourse), delis, bakeries, newsstands, a gourmet and fresh food market, an annex of the New York Transit Museum and over 40 retail stores.

Main Concourse

The clock in the Main Concourse.© 2004 Metropolitan Transportation Authority
The clock in the Main Concourse.
© 2004 Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Grand Central Terminal, along 42nd Street, next to the Grand Hyatt New York and the Chrysler Building.
Grand Central Terminal, along 42nd Street, next to the Grand Hyatt New York and the Chrysler Building.

The Main Concourse is the center of Grand Central. The space is cavernous and usually filled with bustling crowds. The ticket booths are here, although many now stand unused or repurposed since the introduction of ticket vending machines. The large American flag was hung in Grand Central Terminal a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The unusual ceiling of the Main Concourse is described below. The main information booth is in the centre of the concourse. This is a perennial meeting place, and the four-faced clock on top of the information booth is perhaps the most recognizable icon of Grand Central. Each of the four clock faces are made from opal, and both Sotheby's and Christie's have estimated the value to be $10m-$20m. Within the marble and brass pagoda lies a secret door that conceals a spiral staircase leading to the lower level information booth.

Outside the station, the clock in front of the Grand Central facade facing 42nd Street contains the world's largest example of Tiffany glass and is surrounded by sculptures carved by the John Donnelly Company of Minerva, Hercules and Mercury. For the terminal building French sculptor Jules-Alexis Coutan created what was at the time of its unveiling (1914) considered to be the largest sculptural group in the world. It was 48 feet (14.6 m) high, the clock in the centre having a circumference of 13 feet (4 m).

The upper level tracks are reached from the Main Concourse or from various hallways and passages branching off from it.


In fall 1998, a 12-year restoration of Grand Central revealed the original lustre of the Main Concourse's elaborately decorated astronomical ceiling. The original ceiling, painted in 1912 by French artist Paul César Helleu, was eventually replaced in the late 1930s to correct falling plaster of the original ceiling. This new ceiling had been obscured by decades of what people thought was coal and diesel smoke. Spectroscopic examination revealed that it was actually tar and nicotine from tobacco smoke. A single dark patch remains above Michael Jordan's Steak House, left untouched by renovators to remind visitors of the grime that once covered the ceiling.

There are two peculiarities to this ceiling: the sky is backwards, and the stars are slightly displaced. One explanation is that the ceiling is based on a medieval manuscript, which visualized the sky as it would look from outside the celestial sphere: this is why the constellations are backwards. Since the celestial sphere is an abstraction (stars are not all at equal distances from Earth), this view does not correspond to the actual view from anywhere in the universe. The reason for the displacement of the stars is that the manuscript showed a (reflected) view of the sky in the Middle Ages, and since then the stars have shifted due to precession of the equinoxes. Most people, however, simply think that Helleu reversed the image by accident. Embarrassed, the Vanderbilts explained it away by saying that the ceiling depicted the heavens as they would look outside the celestial sphere, from God's vantage point.

The Redstone missile making a guest appearance.
The Redstone missile making a guest appearance.

There is a small dark circle in the midst of the stars right above the image of Pisces. In a 1957 attempt to counteract feelings of insecurity spawned by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, Grand Central's Main Concourse played host to an American Redstone missile. With no other way of erecting the missile, the hole had to be cut in order to lift it into place. Historical Preservation dictated that this hole remain (as opposed to being repaired) as a testament to the many uses of the Terminal over the years.

Dining Concourse and lower level tracks

The Dining Concourse is below the Main Concourse. It contains many fast food outlets and restaurants, including the world-famous Oyster Bar with its Guastavino tile vaults, surrounding central seating and lounge areas and provides access to the lower level tracks. The two levels are connected by numerous stairs, ramps, and escalators.

Vanderbilt Hall and Campbell Apartment

Vanderbilt Hall, named for the Vanderbilt family who built and owned the station, is just off the Main Concourse. It is used and rented out for various events. The Campbell Apartment is an elegantly restored cocktail lounge located, just south of the 43rd Street/Vanderbilt Avenue entrance, that attracts a mix of commuters and tourists. It was not only the office of 1920s tycoon, John W. Campbell, but for a time his home, and is designed to replicate the galleried hall of a 13th-century Florentine palace.

Omega Board

The Omega Board was an electromechanical display used to display the times and track numbers of arriving and departing trains. It contained rows of flip panels to display train information. It became a New York institution, as its many displays would flap simultaneously to reflect changes in train schedules, an indicator of just how busy Grand Central was. A small example of this type now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art as an example of outstanding industrial design.

It was replaced with an LED display during renovation in the 1990s.

Subway station

The subway platforms at Grand Central are reached from the Main Concourse. Built by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) rather than the New York Central Railroad, the subway areas of the station lack the majesty that is present throughout most of the rest of Grand Central, although they are in similar condition to its track levels. The shuttle platforms were originally the express stop on the original IRT line, opened in 1904. Once the IRT Lexington Avenue Line was extended uptown in 1918, the original tracks were converted to shuttle use. One track remains connected to the downtown Lexington Avenue local track but is not in revenue service. A fire in the 1960s destroyed much of the shuttle station, which has been rebuilt. The only sign of the fire damage is truncated steel beams visible above the platforms.

Grand Central North

Grand Central North, opened on August 18, 1999, provides access to Grand Central from 47th and 48th streets. It is connected to the Main Concourse through two long hallways, the Northwest Passage (1000 feet long) and Northeast Passage (1200 feet long), which run parallel to the tracks. Entrances are at the northeast corner of East 47th Street and Madison Avenue (Northwest Passage), northeast corner of East 48th Street and Park Avenue (Northeast Passage) and on the east and west sides of 230 Park Avenue ( Helmsley Building). Ellen Driscoll, an artist from Brooklyn, designed the mosaics in Grand Central North.

The entrances to Grand Central North were originally open from 6:30 AM to 9:30 PM Monday through Friday and 9 AM to 9:30 PM on Saturday and Sunday. As of summer 2006, Grand Central North was closed on weekends, with the MTA citing low usage and the need to save money by the shutdown . Prior to the closing, about 6,000 people used Grand Central North on a typical weekend , and about 30,000 on weekdays.

Ideas for a northern entrance to Grand Central were floated around since at least the 1970s. Construction on Grand Central North lasted from 1994 to 1999 and cost $112 million. It was originally scheduled to be completed within three years on a budget of $70 million. Delays were attributed to the incomplete nature of the original blueprints of Grand Central and previously undiscovered groundwater underneath East 45th Street. As of 2006, the passages are not air-conditioned.

The depths of the passages in relation to the terminal are:

  • Metro-North Railroad upper level, 20 feet below street
  • Northwest and Northeast passages, 20 feet
  • 47th Street cross-passage, 30 feet
  • 45th Street cross-passage, 50 feet
  • Metro-North Railroad lower level, 60 feet


Three buildings serving essentially the same function have stood on this site. The original large and imposing scale was intended by the New York Central Railroad to enhance competition and compare favorably in the public eye with the arch-rival Pennsylvania Railroad and smaller lines.

Grand Central Depot

Looking out the north end of the Murray Hill Tunnel towards the station in 1880. Note the labels for the New York and Harlem and New York and New Haven Railroads; the New York Central and Hudson River was off to the left. The two larger portals on the right allowed some horse-drawn trains to continue further downtown.
Looking out the north end of the Murray Hill Tunnel towards the station in 1880. Note the labels for the New York and Harlem and New York and New Haven Railroads; the New York Central and Hudson River was off to the left. The two larger portals on the right allowed some horse-drawn trains to continue further downtown.

Grand Central Depot was designed to bring the trains of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroad together in one large station. The station opened in October 1871. The original plan was for the Harlem Railroad to start using it on October 9, 1871 (moving from their 27th Street depot), the New Haven Railroad on October 16, and the Hudson River Railroad on October 23, with the staggering done to minimize confusion. However the Hudson River Railroad did not move to it until November 1, which puts the other two dates in doubt. The headhouse building containing passenger service areas and railroad offices was an "L" shape with a short leg running east-west on 42nd Street and a long leg running north-south on Vanderbilt Avenue. The train shed, north and east of the headhouse, had two innovations in U.S. practice: the platforms were elevated to the height of the cars, and the roof was a balloon shed with a clear span over all of the tracks.

The New Haven and New York Central trains were initially in side by side different stations creating chaos in baggage transfer. The combined Grand Central Station service both railroads.

Cornelius Vanderbilt died on the same day that a blizzard caused a collapse of the glass roof.

Grand Central Station

Between 1899 and 1900, the headhouse was essentially demolished (it was expanded from three to six stories and an entirely new facade put on it) but the train shed was kept. The tracks that had previously continued south of 42nd Street were removed and the train yard reconfigured in an effort to reduce congestion and turn-around time for trains. The reconstructed building was renamed Grand Central Station.

Grand Central Terminal


View in the excavation for the new Grand Central Station, Sept. 1907
View in the excavation for the new Grand Central Station, Sept. 1907

Between 1903 and 1913, the entire building was torn down in phases and replaced by the current Grand Central Terminal, which was designed by the architectural firms of Reed and Stern and Warren and Wetmore, who entered an agreement to act as the associated architects of Grand Central Terminal in February 1904. Reed & Stern were responsible for the overall design of the station, Warren and Wetmore added architectural details and the Beaux-Arts style. Charles Reed was appointed the chief executive for the collaboration between the two firms, and promptly appointed Alfred T. Fellheimer as head of the combined design team. This work was accompanied by the electrification of the three railroads using the station and the burial of the approach in the Park Avenue tunnel. The result of this was the creation of several blocks worth of prime real estate in Manhattan, which were then sold for a large sum of money. The new terminal opened on February 2, 1913.

French sculptor Jules-Alexis Coutan created what was at the time of its unveiling (1914) considered to be the largest sculptural group in the world. It was 48 feet high, the clock in the centre having a circumference of 13 feet. It depicted Mercury flanked by Hercules and Minerva and was carved by the John Donnelly Company.

Covering Park Avenue

In order to accommodate ever-growing rail traffic into the restricted Midtown area, William J. Wilgus, chief engineer of the New York Central Railroad took advantage of the recent electrification technology to propose a novel scheme: a bi-level station below ground.

Arriving trains would go underground under Park Avenue, and proceed to an upper-level incoming station if they were mainline trains, or to a lower-level platform if they were suburban trains. In addition, turning loops within the station itself obviated complicated switching moves to bring back the trains to the coach yards for servicing. Departing mainline trains reversed into upper-level platforms in the conventional way.

Burying electric trains underground brought an additional advantage to the railroads: the ability to sell above-ground air rights over the tracks and platforms for real-estate development. With time, all the area around Grand Central saw prestigious apartment and office buildings being erected, which turned the area into the most desirable commercial office district of Manhattan.

The terminal also did away with bifurcating Park Avenue by introducing a "circumferential elevated driveway" that allowed Park Avenue traffic to traverse around the building and over 42nd Street without encumbering nearby streets. The building was also designed to be able to eventually reconnect both segments of 43rd Street by going through the concourse if the City of New York demanded it.

Upper level (mainline) layout
Upper level (mainline) layout
Lower level (suburban) layout
Lower level (suburban) layout

Terminal City

View of Grand Central around 1918.
View of Grand Central around 1918.

The construction of Grand Central created a mini-city within New York, including the Commodore Hotel and various office buildings. It spurred construction throughout the neighbourhood in the 1920s including the Chrysler Building.

In 1928, the New York Central built its headquarters in a 34-story building (now called the Helmsley Building) straddling Park Avenue on the north side of the Terminal.

From 1948 to 1964 CBS headquartered its intial television broadcasting centre in the station in "Studio 40". The CBS Evening News began its broadcasts there with Douglas Edwards. Many of the historic events during this period, such as John Glenn's Mercury Atlas 6 space mission, were broadcast from this location (although the Walter Cronkite broadcasts were from studios in Washington, D.C.). Broadcasts from the studio were famed for shaky videos caused by train arrivals.

Proposals for demolition and towers

In 1947, over 65 million people, the equivalent of 40% of the population of the United States, traveled through Grand Central. However railroads soon fell into a major decline with competition from automobiles and intercity plane traffic.

In 1954 William Zeckendorf proposed replacing Grand Central with an 80-story, 4.8-million square foot tower, 500 feet taller than the Empire State Building. I. M. Pei created a pinched-cylinder design that took the form of a glass cylinder with a wasp waist. The plan was abandoned. In 1955 Erwin S. Wolfson made his first proposal for a tower north of the Terminal replacing the Terminal's six-story office building. A revised Wolfson plan was approved in 1958 and the Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building) was completed in 1963.

Although the Pan Am Building bought time for the terminal, the New York Central Railroad continued its precipitous decline. In 1968, facing bankruptcy, it merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad to form the Penn Central Railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad was in its own precipitous decline and in 1964 had demolished Pennsylvania Station to make way for an office building and the new Madison Square Garden.

In 1968 Penn Central unveiled plans for a tower designed by Marcel Breuer even bigger than the Pan Am Building to be built over Grand Central.

The plans drew huge opposition including most prominently Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She said

"Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes."

New York City filed a suit to stop the construction. The resulting case, Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978), was the first time that the Supreme Court ruled on a matter of historic preservation. The Court saved the terminal, basing its decision on the notion that only if a change to a historic structure prevented said structure's owner from bankruptcy could such an alteration be made.

Penn Central went into bankruptcy in 1970 in what was then the biggest corporate bankruptcy in American history. Its successor, American Premier Underwriters, continues to own the station. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) via Metro North in 1993 signed a long term lease and began a massive restoration.


Donald Trump

Grand Central both inside and outside and its neighbourhood fell on hard times during the financial collapse of its host railroads as well as the near bankruptcy of New York City itself.

In 1974 Donald Trump bought the Commodore Hotel to the east of the terminal for $10 million and then worked out a deal with Jay Pritzker to transform it into one of the first Grand Hyatt hotels. Trump negotiated various tax breaks and in the process agreed to renovate the exterior of the terminal. The complementary masonry from the Commodore was replaced with glass. In the same deal Trump optioned Penn Central's rail yards on the Hudson River between 59th and 72nd Streets that would eventually become Trump Place—the biggest private development in New York City.

The Grand Hyatt opened in 1980 and the neighbourhood immediately began a transformation. Trump sold his interest in the hotel for $142 million, establishing him as a big-time player in New York real estate.


Throughout this period the interior of Grand Central was characterized by huge billboard advertisements, with perhaps the most famous being the giant Kodak Colorama photos running along the entire east side and the Westclox "Big Ben" clock over the south concourse.

Amtrak left the station on April 7, 1991, with the completion of the Empire Connection, which allowed trains from Albany, Toronto and Montreal to use Penn Station. Previously, travellers would have to change stations via subway, bus, or cab. Since then, Grand Central has exclusively served Metro-North Railroad.

In 1993 the MTA and Metro-North signed a long term lease on the building and began massive renovations. All the billboards were removed. These renovations were mostly finished in 1998, though some of the minor refits (such as the replacement of electromechanical train information displays by the entry of each track with electronic displays) were not completed until 2000. The most striking effect was the restoration of the Main Concourse ceiling, revealing the painted skyscape and constellations. The original baggage room, later converted into retail space and occupied for many years by Chemical Bank, was removed, and replaced with a mirror image of the West Stairs. Although the baggage room had been designed by the original architects, the restoration architects found evidence that a set of stairs mirroring those to the West was originally intended for that space. Other modifications included a complete overhaul of the Terminal's superstructure and the replacement of the electromechanical Omega Board train arrival/departure display with a purely electronic display that was designed to fit into the architecture of the Terminal aesthetically.

The original quarry in Tennessee was located and reopened specifically for the purpose of providing matching stone for not only replacement of damaged stone, but also the new East Staircase. Each piece of new stone was required to carry a marking on it denoting its installation date, and the fact that it was not a part of the original Terminal building.

The exterior is once again being cleaned and restored, starting with the west façade on Vanderbilt Avenue and gradually working counterclockwise. The northern facade, abutting the MetLife Building, will be left as is. The project involves cleaning the facade, rooftop light courts and statues; filling in cracks, repointing the stones on the façade, restoring the copper roof and the building's cornice, repairing the large windows of the Main Concourse, and removing the remaining blackout paint that was applied to the windows during World War II. The result will be a cleaner, more attractive and structurally sound exterior, and the windows will allow much more light into the Main Concourse. The work should be finished in 2007; as of 2006, restoration of the west and south façades has been completed.

LIRR's East Side Access Project

The MTA is in the midst of an ambitious project to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into the terminal via the East Side Access Project. The project was spurred by a study that showed that more than half of the LIRR riders work closer to Grand Central than Penn Station.

A new bi-level, eight-track tunnel will be excavated under Park Avenue, more than 90 feet below the Metro-North track and more than 140 feet below the surface. Commuters on the lowest level, more than 175 feet deep, will take about 10 minutes to reach the street.

LIRR trains will access Park Avenue via the existing lower level of the 63rd Street Tunnel, connecting to its main line running through Sunnyside Yards in Queens. Extensions are being added on both the Manhattan and Queens sides.

Cost estimates jumped from $4.4 billion in 2004 to $6.4 billion in 2006. The MTA has said that some small buildings on the route in Manhattan will be torn down to make way for air vents. Edward Cardinal Egan has criticized the plan, noting concerns about the tracks, which will largely be on the west side of Park Avenue, and their impact on St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The project is scheduled for completion by 2012.

Impact on design of transit centers

The design for Grand Central was an innovation in the way transit hubs were designed, and continues to influence designers to this day. One new concept was the use of ramps (as opposed to staircases) for conducting the flow of traffic through the facility (as well as aiding with the transport of luggage to and from the trains). Another was the wrapping of Park Avenue around the Terminal above the street, creating a second level for the picking up and dropping off of passengers. As airline travel superseded the railroads in the latter half of the 20th century, the design innovations of Grand Central were later incorporated into the hub airports that were built.

Grand Central Terminal in popular culture


Covers 49 acres (20 ha) of land, 33 miles (53 km) of track, 44 platforms
660 Metro-North commuter trains
About 125,000 a day
575,000 a day
Cost of renovation 1996–98
$250 million
Retail Businesses
Oldest Business
Oyster Bar, opened 1913
Meals served in terminal daily
Percentage of trains on time
Items in lost and found
Most frequently lost item
Coats [up to 2,000 a year]
Return Rate
Over 60%, close to 98% for computers and iPods

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