Grand Central Terminal

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Grand Central-42nd Street is the New York City Subway station next to and below the terminal. For the former station in Chicago, see Grand Central Station (Chicago).
The clock in the Main Concourse© 2004 Metropolitan Transportation Authority
The clock in the Main Concourse
© 2004 Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Grand Central Terminal (often still called Grand Central Station, although technically that is the name of the nearby post office and New York City Subway station on the IRT Lexington Avenue Line) is a train station at 15 Vanderbilt Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, New York, a borough of New York City, located at 42nd Street and Park Avenue. Currently it serves commuters commuting on the Metro North Railroad to Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties in New York, and Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut. It is also a major station on the New York City Subway; see Grand Central-42nd Street.

Built by the New York Central Railroad (for whom it was named) in an era of many 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 situated on two underground levels with 41 tracks on the upper level and 26 on the lower.



Besides train platforms, Grand Central contains restaurants (the most famous of which is the Oyster Bar), fast food outlets, delis, newsstands, a food market, an annex of the New York Transit Museum and over forty retail stores.

Main Concourse

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 main information booth is in the center 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 Terminal.

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 high, the clock in the center having a circumference of 13 feet.

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

In 1999 a 12 year restoration of Grand Central Station revealed to commuters that the concourse had an elaborately decorated astrological ceiling, painted in 1912 by French artist Paul César Helleu, and which had been obscured by decades of tobacco smoke.

Dining Concourse

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

Vanderbilt Hall

Vanderbilt Hall, named for the Vanderbilt family who built and owned the station, is located just off the Main Concourse. It is used and rented out for various events.

Omega Board

The Omega Board was an electromechanical display mounted in Grand Central Terminal used to display the times and track numbers of arriving and departing trains. Shaped like a large black block with rows of flip panels to display train information on the front, the Board was visually incongruous with the rest of the terminal - its boxy shape contrasted strongly with the classical design of the Terminal. It was replaced with a more aesthetically fitting electronic display during renovation of Grand Central Terminal in the 1990s.

Subway Station

Main article: Grand Central-42nd Street (New York City Subway station)

The subway platforms at Grand Central are reached from the Main Concourse. The subway areas of the station lack the majesty that is present throughout most of the rest of Grand Central. The Grand Central shuttle platforms were originally the Grand Central express stop on the original Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) line, opened in 1904. Once the east side IRT was extended uptown in 1918, the original tracks were converted to shuttle use. Only the #1 track is still connected to the main line on the east side. A fire in the 1960s destroyed much of the 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 is a relatively recent addition that provides access to Grand Central from 47th and 48th streets. It is connected to the Main Concourse through two long hallways, known as the Northwest and Northeast passages, which run parallel to the tracks.


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, but the exact dates are not clear. 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 didn't 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.

Grand Central Station

Between 1899 and 1900, the headhouse was essentially demolished (it was expanded from 3 to 6 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

The 42nd Street entrance to Grand Central Terminal
The 42nd Street entrance to Grand Central Terminal

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 Feburary of 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 on the project who promtly appointed Alfred T. Fellheimer 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.

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 high, the clock in the center having a circumference of 13 feet. It depicted Mercury flanked by Hercules and Minerva and was carved by the John Donnelly Company.

A revolutionary station

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

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

Incoming trains would go underground under Park Avenue, and proceed to an upper-level incoming station if they were mainline trains, or further below to a lower-level platform if they were suburban trains. In addition, turning loops within the station itself precluded complicated switching moves to bring back the trains to the coach yards for servicing. Outgoing mainline trains were backed-up the conventional way to upper-level platforms.

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 GCT saw prestigious apartment and office buildings being erected, which turned the area into a most prestigious part of Manhattan.

The station also did away with cutting off Park Avenue by introducing a circumferential elevated driveway that allowed Park Avenue traffic to go around the station without encumbering nearby streets and going above 42nd street. The station 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 (fortunately, this never happened).

An endangered monument

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

During the 1960s, after the construction of the Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building), there were three sets of plans to construct a highrise to take advantage of the air rights over Grand Central. One set was prepared by I.M. Pei and took the form of a glass cylinder with a wasp waist. The other two sets were prepared by Marcel Breuer.

The Pei design was intriguing; the Breuer designs were far clumsier examples of blank-faced repetitive modernism, completely insensitive to Grand Central's heritage. The project caused a brouhaha in the New York press, damaged Breuer's reputation, and along with public feeling about the recent well-documented destruction of nearby Penn Station, triggered widespread opposition and a landmark lawsuit. The resulting case was the first time that the Supreme Court ruled on a matter of historic preservation. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a dedicated supporter of the terminal, wrote, "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."

The plans were ultimately scrapped. 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.

During the 1990s, the station was extensively renovated. These renovations were mostly finished in 1998, though some of the minor refits (such as the replacement of eletromechanical train info 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 which had been painted in 1912 by French artist Paul César Helleu and that had been hidden beneath soot and grime. 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 Metropolitan Transportation Authority's East Side Access project is expected to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into the terminal by 2012 to help relieve overcrowding in Penn Station and shorten commutes for Long Islanders who work on Manhattan's east side. [1]

Currently, the exterior of the terminal is being cleaned and restored, starting with the west facade 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 facade, restoring the copper roof and the building's cornice, repairing the large windows of the Main Councourse, 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.

Impact on design of transit centers

The design for Grand Central Terminal 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 Terminal were later incorporated into the hub airports that were built.

Next station Metro-North Railroad Next station
Harlem-125th Street        New Haven Line        Terminal
  Harlem Line  
  Hudson Line  

Grand Central Station in popular culture

As an accessible, photogenic New York City landmark, and as one of the prototypical Manhattan experiences, the terminal has had many appearances in pop culture.

The terminal is seen in films such as North by Northwest, Men in Black, Carlito's Way, and is prominently featured in two 1940s MGM films, The Clock and Grand Central Murder. In Terry Gilliam's 1991 The Fisher King, Grand Central commuters burst into a spontaneous waltz.

In fiction, atomic pioneer Leo Szilard (one of the senior researchers on the Manhattan Project) wrote a short story entitled "Grand Central Station," about alien scientists who explore Grand Central Station as part of their mission to learn how life on Earth became extinct. A highly-regarded novel, By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept, was written by Elizabeth Smart, in 1945.

And a dramatic radio program called "Grand Central Station" was broadcast from 1937 through 1995, beginning on the NBC Radio Blue Network, and opening with the words, "As a bullet train seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city."

See also

External links


  • Local News in Brief, New York Times September 29, 1871 page 8
  • The Grand Central Railroad Depot, Harlem Railroad, New York Times October 1, 1871 page 6
  • Local News in Brief, New York Times November 1, 1871 page 8
  • Federal Writer's Project, New York City Guide, Random House Publishers, New York 1939
  • Fried, Frederick & Edmund V. Gillon, Jr., New York Civic Sculpture. Dover Publications, New York, 1973
  • Reed, Henry Hope, Edmund V. Gillon, JR., Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York: A Photographic Guide, Dover Publications, New York 1988
  • Stern, Gilmartin & Massengale, New York 1900, Rizzoli International Publications, New York 1983

Major intercity railroad stations of New York City
Active terminals: Penn Station (PT&T) - Grand Central - Flatbush - Long Island City - Hoboken
Former terminals: Communipaw - Exchange Place - Pavonia - Weehawken
Other stations: Jamaica - Newark Penn Station - Secaucus
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