Grand Central Cathedral

The Guideposts editor-in-chief shares an inspiring story about Grand Central Terminal.

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Original photography & stitching by Diliff, horizontal correction by Janke, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My favorite cathedral in New York City is not St. Pat’s or St. John’s. My favorite New York cathedral is Grand Central station.

No, you’re right, it’s not exactly a church but it is a kind of basilica of humanity, both a terminus and a crossroads for upwards of a million people a day. And there is no place I like to visit more than Grand Central. 

My first experience of it was the night before Thanksgiving—the most insane travel night of the year—when I came down from school in New Haven to visit my hospitalized uncle before hopping a plane to Detroit to see the rest of my family (Uncle Eddie was in the city being treated for cancer at Doctors Hospital on the Upper East Side—he survived and is still alive some 30 years later).  

It was chaos and madness and I loved the hordes of people, the energy and excitement, the subways arriving from all over the city, the trains from all over the country and the people from all over the world. 

I remember my first look at the dazzling jeweled clock above the information booth and the huge, wide angle Kodak sign that then dominated the east side of the great concourse. And I remember looking up at the magnificent ceiling and practically being trampled as I stood there in open-mouthed awe. 

I moved to New York a few years later and Grand Central was my office. My roommate at the time was always fighting with his girlfriend so the station became a kind of haven where I could follow up on job leads using the endless banks of pay phones, had plenty of access to cheap hot dogs and fat hot pretzels, and a place to sit and read the paper or just watch the people. I could spend the whole day.

Later, when I finally landed a job, I made sure to cut through the station on my way to the office, going off course a bit just to stay connected. I remember walking a girlfriend to one of the last departing commuter trains and saying goodnight on the platform, waiting till just before the doors closed.  

Grand Central is full of secrets. The aforementioned clock could be worth as much as $10 million because of its four opal faces. Deep beneath the Beaux Arts structure is a cavernous machine shop and further uptown below the Waldorph-Astoria is a private rail station used by FDR when he would come up from Washington. 

Then there’s the whispering gallery adjacent the Oyster Bar (one of New York’s great old dining institutions) where a hushly spoken word can be clearly heard 40 feet away. The Guastavino tile that covers the vaulted ceiling magically carries the sound.

My favorite secret is the one I recently learned about—all departure times listed on the giant boards are one minute early. Trains leave promptly on schedule one minute after the posted time, a kind of grace period for tardy commuters. Time is not what it seems in Grand Central.

No doubt the most celebrated architectural aspect of the station—technically it’s a terminal and not a station, since most train runs terminate there—is the vast ceiling arching above the concourse, upon which the constellations of the zodiac appear. It’s a glorious depiction of the heavens, except for one little thing: it’s backwards. The artist transposed the celestial map. This cosmic mistake was noticed almost immediately after the station opened and the Vanderbilt family—who were to railroads what Bill Gates is to operating systems today—was extremely embarrassed. So they concocted a quick cover story: the backwards ceiling was meant to be a God’s-eye view of the cosmos. Right. Except the story was so much better than the truth that it has come to be accepted as fact.   

What I think of most when I think of Grand Central is movement, swirling masses of humanity funneled through this gorgeous piece of 100-year-old architecture that has seen our city through good times and bad. There is something about the place that stirs the soul and fires the imagination, a sense that it is the heartbeat of a great metropolis.

It is hard to believe that the whole thing was nearly torn down in the early 1970s to make way for a new station, similar to the vulgar insult to the dignity of all New Yorkers that supplanted Penn Station on the west side in the 1960s. 

Thanks to Jackie O and friends Grand Central was saved and gradually, lovingly, restored to its original glory (they ditched the Kodak sign that I kind of liked).

In the '90s the heavenly ceiling was finally cleaned of decades of dirt…what a magnificent unveiling it was! They decided, however, to leave one tiny patch of the reversed sky untouched, as a reminder of what time and grime can do. And as a kind of tribute too, I think, to the staying power of a great cathedral. 

That’s my story. What’s yours? Do you have a favorite spot in a favorite city? I’d love to hear about it.  

Edward Grinnan is Editor-in-Chief and Vice President of GUIDEPOSTS Publications.

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