Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grand Central (Park Ave btwn 45th and 42nd)

I've always known that Grand Central Terminal is a beautiful Beaux Arts building, but as a recovering commuter who once had a 3+ hour daily commute riding 30 year old Metro North trains to Connecticut, I was hardly in a frame of mind or mood to appreciate the architecture or the history until recently.  As part of my exploration of NYC, however, I thought I could hardly dismiss the building that attracts the second largest number of visitors in the City (700,000/day, 200,000 of which are tourists) so I took the self-directed audio tour (available in the main concourse as well as for download at for the same price $5; HINT: if you get the download you can keep the recording permanently and get 4 downloads).

The tour starts in the main hall, describing the Vanderbilt's adopted family symbol of the acorn and oak leaves that can be found throughout Grand Central in places like on the top of the central clock (see photo at right), in every light fixture, and engraved in walls. The Vanderbilts built this entire terminal and the railroad back in 1913 and it seems they wanted to put their stamp on everything so everyone would know it.
The Vanderbilts did not have a family crest, but liked the idea of how a mighty spreading oak tree grows from a humble acorn.  See the photo at left of the acorns and oak leaves that adorn the corners of each ticket window in bronze.

The tour also describes the original east staircase (see photo at right) and the later added west staircase (at the time the building was constructed, 1903-1913, the architects probably did not think there was anything worth going out to on the east side; back then, east of Grand Central was the location of factories, breweries and the occasional herd of goats) both modeled after the grand staircase in the Paris Opera House.  The tour also describes the 60 foot "walls of glass" that actually sandwich walkways connecting the various buildings surrounding Grand Central Terminal (see right), and how these windows had been used to not only bring in light, but also served as the sole ventilation system before air conditioning was added.

The details about the solid nickel chandeliers covered in gold plating (which were originally thought to be bronze because of the grime of decades until the restoration in the 1990s) that hang around the main concourse are not really my style, but they are over-the-top (see photo at left).  Each chandelier weighs 2,500 lbs, spans 11 feet in diameter and includes 144 lightbulbs, which was quite fancy for the times (when most homes did not have electricity).

A surprising factoid: the New York Central railway was the first entity (lobbying Congress unsuccessfully but ultimately prevailing by adopted usage) to implement Eastern Standard Time.  It is commemorated by the clock etched into the marble entry into the main concourse from Graybar Passageway (see photo at right).  I had no idea that standardizing time zones originated in NYC.

The whispering arches of the Guastavino tile vaulting just outside the famous Oyster Bar Restaurant, which is as old as Grand Central (see photo at left), are really interesting.  As a vegetarian, I was not lured but I hear this upscale eatery is worth a visit. 

I could go on and on, but really, if you have the time, you should take the tour to fully appreciate the history, restoration, and majesty of Grand Central.

I do want to share three of my favorite finds of Grand Central Terminal: 

The first is The Campbell Apartment, which was once the residence of John Campbell.  It has been restored to how it looked as a residence with painted wooden beams, stained glass windows, marble floors and a working fireplace; but it now operates as a bar (as you exit Grand Central from the top of the east staircase, turn left and again left up the stairs).  They have a gynormous house drink (I forget the name, but it packs a punch and is delicious).

The second is what I consider the best shoe and handbag repair shop, Leather Spa, in the City (if not the country).  The highest end shoe shops and designers send their customers and products to them for fantastic leather and fabric dying work (I sent my Manolo Blahnik wedding shoes here to dye them to a more practical black after my wedding).  Their main shop is on 55th Street, but you can drop off and pick up conveniently here at the lower level food court area of Grand Central.  This could be a real time saver, for all those Metro North commuters.

The third is the fantastic chandelier sculpture called Sirshasana (1998) by Donald Lipski hanging from the ceiling of the entryway of the Grand Central Market (on the Lexington Street side, see photo at right).  It is an absolutely spectacular art piece shaped like an upside down golden olive tree (symbolizing freedom and purity) with 5,000 crystal pendants in lieu of olives.  When the sunlight hits the crystals, it is breathtaking.

I have a new respect and admiration for Grand Central Terminal, and if you have the chance to take the audio tour, I highly recommend you do it.

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