Grand Central Terminal is in the news, as limited Long Island Rail Road service entered the 110-year-old railroad shack last week for the first time in either GCT’s or the LIRR’s history. Long Island Rail Road service to Manhattan’s East Side has been in the works for decades, since the 1970s, and tunneling work began in that decade. Somewhere along the way, the project was expanded to bring LIRR trains into Grand Central, and an expansive station was constructed in the basement the equivalent of 15 stories beneath the surface. I haven’t visited the new terminal yet but figured now’s a good a time to present several hidden tidbits about GCT I’ve found over 40 years of visiting. I worked nights in the area from 1982-1988 and again for a few months in 2018 and passed through the main hall, much lovelier than anything in Penn Station, its cousin 11 blocks to the south and west.
Never in my life have I heard, “Meet me at Pershing Square.” As a rule, when meeting up with people in this part of town, we usually go to the iconic clock in the center of the vast marble floor at the center of Grand Central Terminal. Nonetheless the section of E. 42nd St. that’s overshadowed by the Park Ave. Viaduct, and formerly intersected by Park Ave. itself (between 41st and 42nd, Park Ave. is now a pedestrian passageway) is officially known as Pershing Square, the name emblazoned on the iron bridge that crosses E. 42nd.
General John Joseph Pershing (1860-1948) was the leader of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe when America entered WWI in 1917. Previously he’d served in the so-called Indian Wars, fighting the Apache and the Sioux from 1886-1890; he served in the Spanish-American War in Cuba in 1898 and later in the Philippines in 1903 after which President Roosevelt elevated him to brigadier general; he fought revolutionary Pancho Villa when he raided the American Southwest in 1916; and the Germans in WWI.
When the Park Avenue Viaduct was constructed in 1919 to being Park Ave. traffic around the terminal, the name of the still-relatively young Pershing was bestowed on its crossing over E. 42nd St.
The present Grand Central Terminal is the third railroad terminal building on this site. It was faced with demolition like its sister, Penn Station, but an intercession by preservationists which included the cachet of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis helped save the old barn, which underwent a tip-to-toe renovation for several years in the 1990s. The Park Ave. viaduct ramp’s original lamps, complete with incandescent bulbs, are still in place; they were renovated along with the rest of the terminal in the 1990s and repainted. Some, though, still have their reddish primary coats of paint.
There was another set of lamps that lit the ramps surrounding the terminal, in this case, sets of twins. About three decades ago they disappeared, replaced with simple pipes with luminaires attached to them. Most of those replacements are still there. However, the city has restored two of the Twins and restored them to the top of the viaduct over 42nd St. where it splits into two roadways.
However, for the centennial celebration of Grand Central Terminal in 2013, GCT turned to Historic Arts & Casting in West Jordan, Utah, which magnificently restored two of the bronze posts to a pristine appearance, and they were subsequently reinstalled. Will other reproductions appear?
I’m a Long Island Rail Road rider, so my experiences with the great Grand Central Terminal, which for the past few decades has been reduced to serving the commuter trains of Metro-North (formerly New York Central) are limited. I find it ironic that the mostly-dumpy Penn Station, whose grand Beaux Arts palace has been gone over 50 years, now handles all intercity rail transit, while GCT, restored to grandeur in the 1990s after deteriorating to a sorry state, handles only local trains.
After a job interview I got a sandwich at Mendy’s in the GCT basement. On the way to the #7 subway back to Woodside, I noticed that all the track indicators had a set of drawers under what are now video screens proclaiming the station stops. I wondered about this on Facebook and received the answer that they were used to hold the various plaques on which the station names were printed before the track indicators became video boards.
Sure enough, a Facebook friend provided me with a link to the online collection of the Railway Age Gazette from February 14, 1913, when the current GCT building was new, and it succinctly explains the system behind the station indicators, which was more intricate than what you’d think:
So there was once a National Indicator Company, which, I’d presume, was responsible for the signage on track indicators in railroad depots, and it was in Long Island City! I probably would’ve done a stint there. I once worked briefly at the company that produced the various signage found in Barnes & Noble bookstores, but the less said about that the better.
Since the Grand Central IRT station serving today’s #4, 5 and 6 trains opened beneath the great train terminal in 1918 it has featured mosaics on its side walls depicting a steam locomotive coming right at you, complete with bell stack and cowcatcher. The mosaic was the work of artist Jay Van Everen (1875-1947), who was part of the Synchromist movement of the early-20th century, an art theory that suggested sound can be depicted by colors and brushstrokes. Van Everen gained the attention of chief subway architect and designer Squire Vickers, also a painter, and designed some of the mosaics that weren’t executed by Vickers himself. I’ve always been fascinated with these subway works because many depict buildings and scenes that are no longer in existence.
Take steam engines and Grand Central Terminal. Steam engines have never entered the current GCT, which was constructed in 1913; however, they were certainly involved with the previous version, built in 1873: Park Ave. north of the terminal was one vast trainyard in the late-19th century, with puffing steam engines idling as well as traveling north toward the Bronx and points north. Trouble arose when the engines were placed in the Park Ave. tunnel after its construction as a horrific accident occurred on January 8, 1902 when a New York Central train rear-ended a stopped train in the tunnel. Steam and smoke had obscured a red light symbol. A law was passed the next year that mandated electrification of the NY Central by 1908.
Subsequently, the New York State Assembly passed the Kaufman Act in 1923 that banned steam completely within Manhattan and led to electrification of far-flung operations like Staten Island Rapid Transit and eliminated surface railroads on 10th and 11th Aves.—leading to the construction of the West Side Freight Railroad, today’s High Line, the high-concept linear park.
Here’s a view of the grand GCT main floor that few laymen get from one of the catwalks overlooking the floor and its iconic clock. I was on one of the Grand Central tours conducted by its longtime official guide, Dan Brucker. Unfortunately, Brucker was dismissed a few years ago for peddling disinformation that included his assertion that an old railcar on Track 65 in a GCT on tracks deep beneath the terminal was used to transport President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Lexington Ave. and E. 49th, which is almost certainly not true.
Two enormous iron eagles can be found outside Grand Central Terminal, one on the Park Avenue Viaduct as it curves past Vanderbilt Ave. and E. 42nd St., and this one, perched above a GCT entrance at Lexington Ave. and E. 43rd. I was surprised to learn that these eagles are not part of the 1913 Grand Central that exists today. Instead, they were added when the original GCT, constructed in 1873, was renovated from top to bottom in 1898. The two eagles, along with eight or nine others (it’s unclear how many), were in their original places until the building was torn down and replaced with the present GCT. The 13-foot wingspan, two-ton eagles were scattered around to several different owners until two found their way back to GCT. They were located on properties in Bronxville and Garrison, NY and donated to the MTA, which put them in their current positions.
Two can be found at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island; one is on a private estate in King’s Point, Nassau County; another at the Space Farms Zoo in Sussex, NJ; another at Philipse Manor in Sleepy Hollow (formerly North Tarrytown); another in upstate Phoenicia, NY; and two at St. Basil Academy in Garrison.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)