Grand Central Terminal Behind the Scenes

We’ve been eying this tour since the summer. We read it gets really hot in some areas so we waited for cooler weather to go. Behind the Scenes Grand Central Tour is one of our favorites. We booked it through New York Adventure Club which is one of our favorite off the beaten path local tour companies.

We have Jackie O to thank for saving Grand Central Terminal. The Supreme Court ruled to allow a developer to build a 59 story building atop the Beaux Arts building. Jackie O joined a movement to preserve Grand Central and she went on to lead it. Here’s a good article by my other favorite local tour company, Untapped Cities about what they were thinking in the 1950s when they wanted to alter/demolish it. Thankfully that never happened. Two things I remember very well from childhood is my Dad saying, “Some of the saddest moments in NY was when we lost the Brooklyn Dodgers to LA and when Penn Station was torn down.” He used to tell me that if I thought Grand Central is pretty, it paled in comparison to Penn Station.

Grand Central Terminal was built in 1913. The trains featured chefs rivaling restaurants, had air conditioning for private cars, and they used to roll out the red carpet in Vanderbilt Hall. Grand Central is the largest regional transit service. There are 400 routes and they are 98% on time, the top performing terminal in the nation, and third performing in the world according to our guide, Dan Bruckner. He is a passionate guide and if you aren’t native to NYC, you’ll get a good dose of what natives are like. He’s awesome. I didn’t expect the cursing and that was great, I felt like I was speaking with a local. When you are standing in the terminal, keep in mind you are standing on top of the city’s deepest basement. If you placed a 10 story building in it, it won’t reach the street level.

The railroads served our nation back in World War II. Our soldiers, equipment, everything was shipped by train. By the end of the war everything – tracks, switches, etc were worn down. While the federal government was financing airports and highway projects, the railroads were neglected. Air and road projects were subsidized and the railroads were left on their own even though they paid taxes. Air travel added to a loss of freight and passengers.

The railroads were broke. The walls and ceiling were black from tar and nicotine from smoking. The black square on the meridian line is the color the terminal use to be before it was restored. Posters covered the walls (they did anything to make money) and  homeless slept in the station. Grand Central was barely saved. That’s why Penn Station was torn down in 1963, to get money for air rights and pay for the bankrupt railroads.

At one time, the skylights were painted black, the hall leading to the whispering gallery was office space. Guastavino, the guy that designed the City Hall train station built the whispering gallery.

In 1996-1998, municipal bonds were sold to help raise funds to restore Grand Central Terminal. They had to research everything about the terminal. The marble you see is from Italy and they had to find where and who knew how to carve it. They still needed to make more money so they decided to add shops and food. People were skeptical about this approach and thought it would fail. Grand Central is the most successful shopping center in the country and a good example of public/private relationship.

We got to see one of the basements way down. It was really cool seeing the exposed bedrock. We got to see rotary converters which covert AC current into DC current. All our trains are electric and DC current.

Exposed bedrock.

Rotary converters.

An ex-patriot traitor that used to work at Grand Central tipped Hitler and the Nazi’s off about how Grand Central operated. Hitler knew that if you killed the rotary converter it would shut all the trains down. The Nazi plan was thwarted and you can read about it here. The plan was almost successful but they made the mistake of checking in their luggage which gave them away. The Americans knew the Nazi’s where here so they were checking all checked bags.

We even got to step foot on a “floor that doesn’t exist” and were taken upstairs to the walkways in the windows. When you are standing in the main concourse and look at the windows, you can see people walking along the sides. Nice experience  seeing Grand Central from a different angle.

My Dad loves Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR had polio. There’s a long abandoned track below Grand Central, track 6

1. It houses a private elevator and  FDR’s armored-plated Pierce Arrow car. His train ran on electric and diesel, just in case the electric died. Now the track is used to shuttle the President in case of emergencies and General Assembly in and out. It was put back in use under George W. Bush.

I knew we were going to see it but I didn’t realize we would be able to hang off it and take a picture! If you’ve been following my blog, you know I LOVE trains. Choo choo! I was so so excited to be able get up close and touch FDR’s train. We even got to see the gun turrets at the top!

Choo choo!



16 thoughts on “Grand Central Terminal Behind the Scenes

    1. We discovered it through NY Adventure Club, otherwise we never would have known. It’s great. They connect you with a lot of Behind the Scenes things in and around NY.

  1. Lovely article bringing an icon building to life. We have St Pancras station in London as the UK’S contribution to great world railway stations… industrial cathedrals!

    1. Thanks! I really wish I could have seen Penn Station in person. The pictures are so much more grand then here. When the time comes and we travel to London – we’ll check out St Pancras. Thanks for the suggestion.

    1. I get it. I get lost in there all the time. Vic use to work around the area so he has the place memorized. I usually run around in a circle before I find my way if I’m by myself. We took Amtrak to Philly once and loved that train station too.

    1. Thank You! We were so excited when we learned of this tour. Today we had lunch with our friend who brought one of his friends along. Turns out that guy was working on a photography project and he got to crawl through the walls and take pictures from behind the clock! We’d love to be able to do that but I don’t think they’d let everyday people crawl around in the walls.

  2. Loved this post. I have to add the tour to my bucket list. That street scene is absolutely incredible. If it didn’t have your copyright in it I would have sworn it was a lost Edward Hopper painting..

    1. Thank You! We have to go back. The building on the left got torn down for development and it’s the first time you can see GCT’s full side. I saw pics and it’s really nice. We’ve taken so long to go back I fear we may have lost the opportunity to see the side of the building. The day of our tour we were rushing to see a movie so we didn’t have time to check it out. Highly recommend this tour. We left out some secrets you’ll learn on the tour:)

  3. Great photos! I’ve rushed through Grand Central in the past but never paused to check out its architectural details. Now I feel bad that I ignored them. The place was so busy when I’ve traveled through there, I was always afraid I’d go down the wrong hallway and get lost.

    Too bad the old trains have been left to rust and gather dust! It’d be awesome if they restored them and displayed them as museums.

    1. Today we ate lunch with a guy who did a photography project and got to climb behind the clock! He showed us pics – they were really cool. I can’t picture them allowing tourists to go behind the clock. There was climbing and gaps in the walls by the way he was describing it. Seems like a liability for everyday folks to go to the clock. But I want to so bad.

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