Grand Central Terminal's best-kept secrets (photos)
Road Trip 2010: You might not know it, but New York's most famous train terminal is bursting with hidden gems and great mysteries.
Bird's eye view
NEW YORK--Though it has had its ups and downs over the years, Grand Central Terminal is as strong as it has ever been. Every day, more than 700,000 people pass through, including 200,000 visitors. Yet, while so many people use the famous terminal, few know about some of the terrific secrets it harbors.
On Road Trip 2010, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got a chance to tour Grand Central and experience some of those secrets first-hand. He also got a very rare visit to the catwalk overlooking the terminal's famous concourse, and was able to shoot this wide-angle picture of the great room.
With the hated (by New Yorkers, at least) Met Life building in the background (which used to be the Pan Am building), Grand Central Terminal's famous 42nd Street facade stands tall and proud and in better shape than it has been in decades.
The central information booth, seen here from a bird's eye view photographed high above the main concourse, contains two of the terminal's secrets. One is that it has a spiral staircase hidden inside it that allows employees to discreetly descend to a lower-level information booth. To discover the second secret, read on.
To most visitors, the clock atop the Grand Central main information booth is nothing more than an attractive time piece. But in fact (and this is the second secret that's part of the Information Booth), its four faces are made from extremely valuable opal, and the clock has been appraised at around $20 million.
Deep under Grand Central Terminal--in a location that is hidden away and can't be revealed here--there is a secret train station that dates to the 1930s. It was built to serve a single passenger: then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The New York resident would often return to the city but didn't want anyone to see him in the wheelchair that his polio forced him to sit in. So this underground station was built to allow FDR to arrive secretly.
The president would arrive in a specially built train car that held FDR's specially designed armored Pierce-Arrow limousine. The train car had doors wide enough to allow the limo to drive straight off, and it would then drive through the doors of an extra-wide elevator. Finally, it would emerge in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel above, and no one would be the wiser about FDR's physical condition.
The secret station remained fully in operation until 1945, when FDR died. Today, the train car--seen here--remains under Grand Central and will likely stay there until the FDR museum can raise the funds to have it moved.
Although the White House had demanded the construction of this special station, the federal government did not pay for the work. Instead, that responsibility fell on the Grand Central management.
A view of the hidden train station, as seen on July 9, 2010. Even though it has long since stopped servicing FDR and his special train car, it still has a solemn presidential duty.
Whenever the current U.S. president is in New York City, this station--and a special platform--is ready for any emergency that might cause the president to need to be evacuated by rail.
When the president is in town, a special rail car is held at the platform and is tightly guarded by federal and local authorities, including the Secret Service and the FBI. If anyone was to attempt to go near the special platform, or even to try to go through any of the entrances that get there, they would likely be held by the Secret Service until the president leaves New York.
One of the great success stories at Grand Central has been the creation of a world-class efficient lost-and-found system. More than 80 percent of items that are turned into lost and found are eventually returned to their owners, and that is due mainly to a sophisticated cataloging system, as well as the dogged determination of the staff that work in the department, who will do just about whatever it takes to locate an item's owner.
Here, lost-and-found clerk Chris Stoll examines a purse, looking for clues as to its owner. Inside the bag were three cell phones, as well as other potentially identifying items.
One of the secrets of the Grand Central lost-and-found system is a meticulous cataloging system in which staffers keep track of just about every salient detail on an item. They are also kept together by category and date turned in. Here, we see a group of large umbrellas that were discovered in June.
This box contains cell phones found in June. With cell phones, staffers will try calling the last dialed numbers, as well as numbers in the contacts list--assuming there is battery power--in hopes of talking to someone who knows the identity of the owner.
This small dark rectangle on the ceiling of the main Grand Central concourse is the sole remaining evidence of the color that used to cover the entire ceiling. Thought to be the collected diesel smoke from decades of trains, or smog, or steel rail filings, it turned out on forensic examination that the dark color was actually accumulated tar and nicotine from decades of cigarette smoke.
As part of a major renovation of the terminal done between 1996 and 1998, the ceiling was fully cleaned, uncovering the stunning map of the stars beneath the soot.
Each year, millions of people use Grand Central for nearly as many purposes. On July 9, 2010, Michael Kim and Tammie Kim, who were married in 2009, were taking additional engagement pictures all around the terminal, mainly because "it is such an historic location."
The Kims are seen posing for a photo inside Vanderbilt Hall, which is unusually empty. Normally, the hall--named for the famous family that built Grand Central--is filled with some sort of exhibit, and it rents for $12,000 per side, per day.
All around Grand Central, beautiful chandeliers hang from the ceilings. In every case, and all around the terminal, all light bulbs are bare, because of a faithfulness to the original, all-electric nature of the terminal.
At Grand Central, all train schedules show departures as being one minute earlier than the trains will actually leave. That is so conductors can caution passengers running at top speed to catch the trains that they can slow down and be careful as they board.
The Grand Central main concourse ceiling features this amazing depiction of the stars in the sky and many of the constellations. However, the depiction of the sky is actually a mirror image of the way it actually is due to a mistake in the ceiling's design.
High up on the ceiling is this small hole, which no one would ever notice or think to question. In fact, however, it is there because of a NASA promotional program in the late 1950s, when the government was trying to raise awareness and support for America's space program, which brought a rocket to the concourse. However, the measurements of the rocket turned out to be wrong, and it was six inches too tall for the the ceiling. So this six-inch hole was punched in the ceiling to accommodate the rocket.
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET, original courtesy of MTA / Caption by:
Deep under Grand Central, there is a basement that is as tall as the main concourse itself. For decades, the basement contained this group of rotary converters, which turned A/C power to D/C power. Security was very tight around the converters during World War II, because the government worried that saboteurs would try to ruin them by pouring sand into them, effectively shutting down Grand Central and stopping the movement of materiel and troops in the Northeast. Indeed, a Nazi plot to do just that was discovered and stopped before it was too late.