On February 2, 1913, at exactly midnight, members of the public started streaming through the doors of the newly constructed Grand Central Terminal to get their first glimpse of the architectural and engineering marvel.
More than a century later, with the golden age of rail travel firmly in the past, the Beaux-Arts masterpiece continues to draw visitors from around the world; in fact, it’s the second-most-visited destination in New York City, after Times Square. Why are people so fascinated by Grand Central?
Unlike many of the city’s other architecturally significant structures from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Grand Central wasn’t demolished in the name of progress. Committees and individuals, including former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, fought to keep it standing. But preserving the past hasn’t stood in the way of upgrades to meet the city’s needs, such as the addition of Grand Central Madison, a station beneath the historic terminal that debuted in January 2023.
“New York City is constantly tearing itself down and rebuilding,” says Michelle Young, an adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University, and founder of Untapped New York, an online magazine that also offers tours of the city's hidden gems, including one on the Secrets of Grand Central. “That dynamism is part of the city's appeal, but its identity is actually about a delicate balance between modernizing and respecting the past. Grand Central epitomizes that, and is the child of New York City's preservation movement.”
There is also the visual allure of the grandiose terminal.
“Today, public places are designed by committee and often by politicians who are not experts in urban design, architecture, etc.,” Young explains. “Grand Central Terminal represents one of those buildings where it was built with money as almost no object, intended to be left as a legacy by one person who consulted others as to how to build an efficient, useful, but also aesthetically stunning building.”
Finally, there’s the mystery. Despite being open to the public for more than a century, and approximately 750,000 people passing through the complex each day, Grand Central Terminal has retained a few secrets and hidden features. Here are the stories behind eight of them.
There Are Acorns and Oak Leaves Everywhere
Today, the Vanderbilt name is associated with one of the wealthiest families of America’s Gilded Age, but this wasn’t always the case. The dynasty began with Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, a self-made shipping and railroad tycoon who amassed a multi-million-dollar fortune throughout much of the 19th century, including gaining control of the New York Central Railroad in 1867. He was also the driving force behind the construction of Grand Central Depot, which opened in Manhattan in 1871, six years prior to his death.
Within a few decades, Grand Central Depot could no longer accommodate the rail traffic of the rapidly growing city, and in 1903, the New York Central Railroad’s board of directors—which included two of Vanderbilt’s grandsons—approved plans to demolish the depot and construct a massive terminal in its place. Eventually, two architectural firms were hired to complete the project: one of which included a cousin of the Vanderbilts among its principals.
And while Cornelius Vanderbilt didn’t live to see the opening of Grand Central Terminal in 1913, there are reminders of his origin story and the family’s roots throughout the building—in the form of acorns and oak leaf ornamentations.
According to Concetta Anne Bencivenga, director of the New York Transit Museum, the motif comes from the Vanderbilt family crest, which is based on the motto, “out of an acorn, a mighty oak grows,” and there are many examples that remain today.
“[The acorn and oak leaf motif] is replete in the terminal,” she says. “It’s around the water fountains, above the doors to the platforms, atop the iconic clock and the ticket windows, and on a lot of the lighting fixtures. We think it’s a fitting homage to the family.”
An Unrestored Patch Remains on the Ceiling Mural
The sprawling celestial mural spanning the ceiling of the Main Concourse is one of Grand Central’s most recognizable decorative features. But if you visited the terminal in the early 1990s, the hand-painted sky would have been noticeably darker.
Visitors today have a much better view of the constellations, thanks to an extensive structural, architectural, and decorative restoration that was completed in 1998, and included careful, scientific conservation and restoration of the mural.
John Canning & Co., one of the country’s leading historic restoration, conservation, and preservation firms, carried out the work, and created an original cleaning agent formulated to remove the decades of built-up grime coating the ceiling—with the exception of a small patch in the northwest corner, near the Cancer (crab) constellation. But this wasn’t an oversight, nor a way to show the public the dramatic before-and-after transformation.
“[The patch] had nothing to do with showing people what the ceiling used to look like,” says John Canning, who led the project. “It’s up there for a scientific reason. It was, from a conservation point of view, doing due diligence.” This way, future conservators will not only have access to their cleaning formula and step-by-step process, but can also test the grime in the patch to learn more about what caused it—which, according to Canning, was not cigarette smoke and nicotine. Contrary to the widely circulated myth, he says that the grime is the product of years of car and truck exhaust, industrial emissions, and soot from incinerators that entered the terminal through its clearstory windows.
“When you solubilize nicotine, it will stain your clothes, hands, or gloves yellow, and that didn’t happen,” he explains. “Then we extracted samples of all the layers of dirt from the ceiling, and those were sent to McCrone Laboratories for testing. [The results] came back saying there was no nicotine whatsoever: a conclusion we had already drawn based on our work.”
Hidden Walkways Are Tucked Above the Main Concourse
Tucked away behind the enormous arched windows on the east and west walls of the main concourse are a series of walkways that connect the offices above the terminal.
“People still use them today, including Metro North employees, and I've been lucky to go through one,” says Young. “The view is spectacular! It's not open to the public, however, and you need a badge to get through.” The rare exception to that rule is when Grand Central Terminal offers occasional public tours of the walkways.
Remnants of an Old Movie Theater Exist in the Terminal
Several decades before the arrival of smartphones, passengers waiting for trains at Grand Central also passed the time catching up on the day’s news, and watching funny video clips—except on a much bigger screen. It was located inside the Grand Central Theatre, which opened in 1937.
Located on the main concourse in the Graybar Passage near Track 17, the 242-seat theater had standing room for 60 people, and its own cocktail bar. The Grand Central Theatre was what’s known as a “newsreel house,” because it screened the roughly 10-minute films highlighting the day’s current events, though it also showed shorts, cartoons and the occasional trailer for feature-length films, Motion Picture Daily reported in 1937.
According to a November 1936 article in the New York Times, it was designed “as a partial solution of the leisure time and cultural problems of the thousands of commuters and visitors using the terminal daily.”
But the theater occupied valuable real estate, and eventually closed in order to give commuters something else to do while they waited for their train: spend money.
“The theater operated for three decades, and then was gutted for retail,” Young explains. “Renovations to the terminal in the 1990s revealed the ceiling, which stylistically matches the one in the main terminal.” This space was originally the theater’s lobby, and is now home to a wine shop called Central Cellars. The most distinctive remnant of the theater is a mural of planets and shooting stars inside one of the ceiling’s arches.
The Terminal Contains a Sonic Curiosity
Fittingly, one of the secrets of Grand Central involves whispering. It’s an architectural feature that can be both seen and heard in Rafael Guastavino’s system of arches and vaults. His method was used to construct both the Grand Central Oyster Bar and the area directly in front of its entrance, using his signature laminated tiles in an interlocking herringbone pattern.
In addition to being visually impressive, the vaulted ceiling of the space outside the restaurant, known as the “whispering gallery,” can transmit a person’s whisper diagonally from one corner to another. Although it has become an attraction in its own right, Bencivenga says that the space wasn’t designed to create that effect.
“The whispering gallery is a fun, unintentional accident,” she explains. “Guastavino did not care about people standing in different corners and whispering to one another. But he did care about the sturdiness of the structure.”
A Secret Track Connects Grand Central to the Waldorf-Astoria
Not all of Grand Central Terminal’s tracks were originally constructed for passengers. This includes Track 61, which Young says was built to transport freight and function as a loading platform for a steam powerhouse that once stood on 49th Street, and served the terminal, as well as other buildings in the area.
This changed in 1929, when the powerhouse closed down, and the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria Corporation leased the air rights above a portion of Grand Central’s extensive network of tracks in order to construct their new property. A September 8, 1929 article on the hotel in the New York Times announced that there was “a private railway siding underneath the building,” which would allow guests with private rail cars to leave them “at a special elevator which [would] take them directly to their suites or to the lobby.”
While the track existed prior to the hotel, the elevator was likely new. “It is true that an elevator and stairway connect the Track 61 platform with the hotel’s exterior, but the elevator is believed to have been built during the construction of the Waldorf-Astoria, and appears to have opened into the garage, not directly into the hotel,” Young clarifies.
Ultimately, the track was only made available in rare circumstances, exclusively to high-profile hotel guests. On April 21, 1938, the New York Times reported that on the previous day, General John J. Pershing had become the first person to use the Waldorf-Astoria track. Pershing had traveled to New York City from Tucson, where he had been convalescing in a sanatorium following a “rather severe attack of rheumatism” that February, and was granted use to the track to save him from “any undue exertion” as he embarked on the final leg of his journey to his son’s wedding.
No, FDR Did Not Use a Secret Train Car
When a structure is as expansive, frequently visited, and historic as Grand Central Terminal, there’s bound to be some details that get lost in translation over the years. One example centers on a train car that sat abandoned for decades. Many people believe it has a connection to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And though it makes for a great story, it’s not true.
“For a long time, a myth persisted that a train car below Grand Central on Track 61 was once used by FDR to secretly get in and out of New York City,” Young explains. “Specifically, it was said that his Pierce Arrow limousine would be put on this car and he could get in and out of the Waldorf-Astoria without people knowing of his polio condition.”
Over the years, historians and other experts cast doubt on this story, and as Young began digging into it, she says that longtime railroad employees told her that they’ve always known it was a simple, utilitarian baggage car. In 2019, Young received a tip that the train car had been removed from Track 61 and brought to the Danbury Railway Museum in Connecticut. She tracked it down, confirmed that it was never used to shuttle Roosevelt—with or without a limo—and broke the story that debunked one of Grand Central’s most enduring myths.
This is not all to say that Roosevelt did not use the platform. In 1959, William D. Hassett, who served as Roosevelt’s assistant secretary between 1942 and 1944, published the diary he kept during that period, and noted that when FDR was campaigning in October 1944, he accompanied the president and Eleanor Roosevelt down the elevator in the Waldorf, traveling with them to Grand Central via the track.
Grand Central Includes an Apartment That No One’s Ever Lived in
Accessible via the balcony level of Grand Central Terminal, the Campbell Apartment has been used for a variety of functions over the years, but a private residence isn’t one of them. The name comes from John W. Campbell, a financier and New York Central Railroad board member who leased the space in 1923 to use as his office.
“Campbell was a pretty busy guy, so he wanted to have a space that was grand enough to host his guests,” Bencivenga explains. “To do that, he brought on an architect named Augustus Allen, who was most famous for designing the mansions on the Gold Coast of Long Island.”
Campbell took entertaining seriously, sparing no expense to impress his visitors with 13th century Florentine-inspired design, 25-foot hand-painted ceilings, a pipe organ, a piano, furniture imported from Italy, a steel safe built into an oversized stone fireplace, and, according to the New York Times, a butler named Stackhouse. “The most famous feature was a Persian rug, which was thought to have cost $300,000 at the time, which would be $3.5 million today,” Bencivenga notes.
After Campbell’s death in 1957, drop ceilings were installed in his former office, and “it fell into every weird use you can think of,” says Bencivenga. Though some were mundane, like serving as the signalman's office, an employee lounge, and storage space, she says that others were more exciting, like when CBS used it as a recording and radio studio.
And while the Metro-North Railroad transit police did make use of the Campbell Apartment, Bencivenga says that the popular claim that it once functioned as their jail is “a little bit overstated,” clarifying it was “more of a holding cell for when someone was up to no good.”
Today, there’s a bar on the spot where the holding cell once stood. It’s inside a cocktail lounge called “The Campbell,” which features opulent 1920s-inspired interiors, and is open to the public.