Grand Central Terminal Turns 100

Grand Central Terminal

This 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal has been in the news for a few weeks here in New York City. While I missed much of WNYC’s reporting on the subject, I commemorated the anniversary by taking a 2-hour Municipal Art Society tour of the station yesterday, and by reading much of the 100-year-old New York Times special section, a PDF from the archives that the Times made available last week.

Here are five interesting facts I picked up in the last couple days:

  1. The Glory of Commerce sculpture above the 42nd Street entrance weighs 1,500 tons and was carried up in sections in June 1914. Designed by French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan, the final, full-size piece was carved in Long Island City, Queens.
  2. The Grand Central Oyster Bar also turned 100 yesterday. Though, like the station, the restaurant fell into decline in the 1970s, it has been in almost continuous operation over the last 100 years. Having heard what the station was like in the 1970s, I couldn’t imagine a restaurant as nice as the current oyster bar being in the station. Sure enough, it wasn’t that great of a place to eat. Owner Jerome Brody describes the decline of the restaurant, before he assumed ownership in 1974:

    With the decline of the long-haul passenger train system, came the decline of the restaurant. It had no position among New York restaurants, and while thousands of commuters passed by everyday, very few went inside to eat.

    In 1974, when I was approached by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to take it over, the old restaurant had been bankrupt and empty for two years, having become in its last days not much more than a sad, old coffee shop. Reluctantly, I inspected what remained of its former grandness. The elegant marble columns you see in the restaurant today were then painted aquamarine over wallpaper. The wall covering was yellow Cello-tex™. The furniture was upholstered yellow, in unsettling contrast with the red table cloths.

  3. Charles Mingus proposed to his second wife, Sue Graham, in the whisper gallery just outside the Grand Central Oyster Bar. I have never tried the whisper gallery, where two people can stand across the room from each other and hear each other’s whispers carried across the vaulted ceiling–but plenty of others were trying it yesterday.
  4. The use of ramps in a public building was fairly new. It was seen as an efficient way to move large amounts of people from one floor to the next, without the inconvenience (and danger) of stairs. The New York Times described the ramps in its Feb. 2, 1913 edition:

    The infinite pains taken in this respect is used as an illustration of the care taken in every detail. When it was decided that inclined walks should serve as the footways leading into the huge subterranean station, the idea was borrowed from the sloping roads that led the way for chariots into the old Roman camps of Julius Ceasar’s army–no pains were spared to arrive at just the proper angle of inclination.

  5. For 25 cents, you could store your bags, and then change your clothes in a private dressing room, with a maid or valet to assist you. Again, from the Feb. 2, 1913, New York Times:

    Should the woman passenger want to primp us still more, or if she should want to return after a shopping tour to change her costume for a social function, she may have her suitcase or her trunk, for that matter, sent to a private dressing room, for the use of which, with a maid in attendance, she will pay 25 cents …

    The man with two days’ business or pleasure to crowd into one can reserve a dressing room at the barber shop, leave his suitcase there all day, rush back at 6 o’clock to get into evening clothes, with the aid of a valet if he wishes, all for 25 cents. A haberdashery adjoining the barber shop is ready to replace a lost collar button or supply anything else needed. Here, at least, men are accorded equal rights with woman.

And there you have it. If you want to learn more, join the Municipal Art Society on one of its weekly Wednesday tours of Grand Central Terminal.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

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