Take a Look Inside Grand Central Terminal Where Most People Never Get to Go
Travel + Leisure had the rare opportunity to take a private tour of the 103-year-old Grand Central Terminal, New York City’s Beaux Arts masterpiece that also happens to be the world’s largest metropolitan train station with 44 platforms and more than 100 tracks.
While the tour is normally only available to VIPs, T+L was invited to get an exclusive look at the private areas inside Grand Central Terminal by Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin, a trustee of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum and descendent of the family that built the iconic landmark.
Of the nearly 22 million people who visit Grand Central every year, few get the chance to venture underground to see the M42 sub-basement, visit the master control room and the private executive offices overlooking the main concourse, or climb up two steel ladders and peer out from the face of the famous Tiffany Clock.
We did that and more, and now you can too in these photos from the tour.
The Hidden Circular Staircase
The information desk in the center of the Main Concourse features a four-faced opal and brass clock that has been estimated to be worth at least $10 million.
There’s also a hidden circular staircase located beneath the clock, behind brass doors inside the circular booth, that allows station clerks to descend one floor down to the other information kiosk on the Dining Concourse.
Closed to the public, the private inner stairwells of Grand Central Terminal are used by Metro North employees to travel between floors.
Bannisters feature acorns, the official symbol of the Vanderbilts that reflects the family motto, “from an acorn a mighty oak shall grow.” The acorn motif can be found throughout Grand Central on many of the building’s architectural details. There’s even one atop the opal clock on the main concourse.
The brain of Grand Central Terminal serves as central command for three railroad companies: the Metro-North commuter railway, Amtrak, and the industrial freight and cargo trains operated by CSX.
Two giant screens broadcast real-time live maps of all three train lines, while rail traffic controllers manage the steady flow of traffic on the system’s Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven lines.
Park Avenue From the Tiffany Clock
Accessible only by a tiny crawl space behind a heavy metal door inside the master control room, visitors must climb two thin-runged ladders up into an air shaft to reach the clock room that houses the inner workings of the famous timepiece that overlooks 42nd Street.
The clock face is the largest piece ever designed by the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. A window at the base of the 13-foot clock (where the numeral VI is located) opens inward to allow visitors a chance to peer down Park Avenue.
42nd St. From the Tiffany Clock
The view of 42nd Street from the open window at the base of the Tiffany Clock.
Inside the Clock
Mark Saulnier, chief architect of Grand Central Terminal for Metro-North Railroad, peers out from behind the workings of the Tiffany Clock.
The Glass Catwalks
The glass hallways on the fourth and fifth floors above Grand Central Terminal can be spotted from the floor of the main concourse, near the top of the famous Palladian windows on the east and west ends of the main hall that make the world’s largest station seem more like a cathedral than a transit hub.
Inside the Catwalks
Walking the glass-floored catwalks is an exercise in nerves, especially for acrophobics. Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin calmly looks down into the main hall of Grand Central Terminal through its floor-level windows.
Bird's Eye View
The view of the main hall of Grand Central Terminal from the glass catwalks. More than 750,000 commuters pass through the station every day. The marble, travertine, and terrazzo flooring of the terminal is constantly being replaced, thanks to all that foot traffic. Grand Central’s building services team usually makes those much needed repairs in January during the post-holiday traffic slowdown.
The Director's Office
The desk of George Monasteiro, the director of Grand Central Terminal for Metro-North Railroad, is crowded with architectural renderings. His office is located on the fifth floor and overlooks the main hall of Grand Central and its windows can be seen from the central information desk.
The Campbell Apartment
Hidden off Vanderbilt Avenue near 42nd Street, the former office of John W. Campbell, a director of Metro-North precursor New York Central Railroad, is lined with leaded-glass windows and hand-painted wooden interiors.
After a renovation that restored the apartment’s neo-Florentine splendor, the room has operated as a popular cocktail bar since 1999. Though it's currently undergoing another renaissance, the Campbell Apartment is scheduled to re-open in 2017 under new management.
In early December 2016, the carpeting inside the Campbell was removed as part of a new renovation. On the day of our visit, we saw the original wood floors.
The Lowest Point in Manhattan
Inside a staircase 13 stories below Grand Central, there’s a massive chunk of 600-million-year-old bedrock. During the excavation for the foundation of the terminal in 1910, dynamite was used to blast the schist, which was later carried away using elevators and steam shovels. Those chunks of rock now line the riverbanks along the Hudson River Line.
The M42 sub-basement, off limits to the public, was the target of a thwarted attack by Nazi spies during World War II. In 1944, four German spies landed in Amagansett on Long Island via a U-boat and headed to Grand Central with the intent to shut down the electricity grid of the train system by pouring sand into these rotary converters, which provided the electric current to the system’s third rails. Their big mistake, according to docent-in-chief Daniel Brucker, was checking their suitcases into the terminal's luggage check. Because the U.S. was at war, all luggage was searched and the would-be saboteurs were apprehended.
Had they succeeded, the rotary converters would have instantly turned the sand into a giant block of glass, shutting down the entire train system.
The World's First Electronic Computer
Westinghouse built the world’s first electric-powered computer in 1913 to transmit messages from the rail line to central command at Grand Central. The coded messages were printed out via ticker tape, and agents would use a wooden switchboard to call the operations department to let them know about switch problems or a stalled train.
13 Stories Below Manhattan
Daniel Brucker, docent-in-chief and head of business development, and facilities and marketing for Grand Central, stands between rows of generators on the M42 sub-basement level, which is larger than the station’s main concourse.
The armored train car used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt sits abandoned and nearly forgotten on Track 61, located underneath the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The train would allow President Roosevelt’s Pierce-Arrow limousine to travel directly from Washington Union Station to the Waldorf-Astoria without having to drive the busy streets of New York, all in an effort to keep the wheelchair-ridden Roosevelt’s disability a secret from the American public.
World's Largest Train Station
Grand Central’s 32 miles of track cover 49 acres, all below street level.
Always Running Behind
The trains departing Grand Central always leave one minute after their officially scheduled time.
“That allows latecomers to make their trains,” says Grand Central Terminal director George Monasterio. "It's a safety issue, since it reduces the number of accidents as people rush down the platform."
The pedestrian passages, also known as Grand Central North, are one of the station’s best kept open secrets. Opened in 1999, the hallways allow passengers to enter the busy terminal at E. 49th St and travel underground to avoid rain and snow. They also reduce foot traffic to and from the terminal’s main entrances on W. 42nd St, and Madison and Lexington Avenues.
Subterranean Rail Yard
Grand Central's underground rail yard isn't just train tracks. There are also miles of electric wiring, plumbing, and air ventilation shafts.
The 10 opulent Beaux Arts chandeliers inside the main hall of Grand Central Terminal are made of gold-plated nickel and measure 11 feet wide and 18 feet high. In 2009, the 110 light bulbs on each chandelier were replaced with energy-saving fluorescent bulbs, for an estimated annual savings of more than $200,000 off the electric bill.
The Tennis Courts
From 1948 to 1964, CBS broadcast the CBS Evening News from Studio 40, located on the fourth floor of Grand Central Terminal. That studio was later converted into a sports club operated by Donald Trump until 2009. In 2011, a new tennis court opened as the non-membership Vanderbilt Tennis Club. The price for one hour of court time starts at $200.
The Whispering Gallery
Directly in front of the entrance of the famous Oyster Bar & Restaurant, the vaulted arches have become known for their perfect acoustics: When someone faces a column and speaks, their soft voice can be heard by anyone standing at the base of the opposite corner.
Visitors can learn more about Grand Central Terminal via a $9 audio guide, or sign up for a $25 docent-led tour.