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 there 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.
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 61. 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!