Approximately 750,000 people visit New York’s Grand Central Terminal (GCT) each day. Two-thirds of them race to catch trains, while the remainder, tourists, stroll through the historic Beaux-Arts landmark. GCT has been featured in hundreds of movies, TV shows, novels, music videos, photos, advertisements, and other media formats. As a result, the stately building has become the World’s sixth most visited tourist attraction and is recognized around the globe.
In her latest novel, Terminal City, best-selling author Linda Fairstein pays tribute to GCT, and has once again created a fast-paced police procedural featuring her popular protagonist, New York City DA Alexandra Cooper. I enjoy Fairstein’s novels because they have such a strong sense of place, that the location becomes an additional character.
Built by and named for the New York Central Railroad in the heyday of American long-distance passenger rail travel, GCT is the world’s largest terminal covering 49 acres with 33 miles of track. Its architecture is opulent, immediately recognizable, and critical to the plot development of Terminal City.
The ceiling of the GCT features prominently in the novel. As noted by Fairstein, the star filled sky depicted has a number of astronomical inaccuracies. Some constellations appear correctly, while others are reversed left-to-right. Additionally, the overall arrangement of the constellations is flipped. In the novel, Fairstein recounts a story, in which GCT owner and builder Cornelius Vanderbilt said the constellation painting was meant to reflect God’s view of the heavens, rather than man’s. Of course, this could only be true if the entire image had been painted as a mirror image. The official explanation takes the notion of otherworldly viewing into account, and says that artist, Paul Helleu was inspired by a medieval manuscript that showed the heavens as they would have been seen from outside the celestial sphere.
Eagle eyed visitors to GCT will want to search out two ceiling secrets not mentioned in Terminal City. First, there is a small hole in the midst of the stars right above the image of Pisces, and is the result of the NASA’s 1957 American Redstone missile exhibit. Second, there’s a small, black rectangle on the side of the mural. Workers using cheesecloth dipped in soapy water took one year, and $1 million, to scrub the ceiling clean. The small black patch shows how dirty the ceiling was prior to renovation; analysis of the sludge showed it was primarily cigarette tar.
The secrets of GCT continue below the main concourse level. While it may not be officially acknowledged, lower levels conceal a special track built for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Some secrets of the terminal may seem far-fetched, but Fairstein proves once again that she knows her stuff and sticks to the facts. Many visitors are familiar with the GCT Clock, that reportedly has four faces made of opal. If that’s true, it would have an estimated value of $10-20 million.
Less apparent is the secret staircase hidden inside the information booth. The central brass cylinder houses a spiral staircase that leads to the lower level information booth in the dining concourse.
Grand Central Terminal Tours are available. If you go, be sure to visit the Whispering Gallery outside of the Oyster Bar restaurant. The vaulted tile ceilings produce an acoustical quirk. Stand in one of the corners facing the wall and whatever you say will be carried across to the other corner, no matter how softly you speak. Fans of Mad Men will recognize the Oyster Bar, and its famous vaulted, Guastavino tiled ceilings.