A worker pushing a cargo trolley cuts a path through a clump of visitors, causing them to scatter like marbles. A traveler toting a ski bag nearly pokes a passerby while making a sharp turn without a signal. A trio of girls belts out “Call Me Maybe,” complete with teenage bedroom dance moves. A loudspeaker crackles. A dog barks. People propel themselves forward, spin around, carry on.
What is this . . . Grand Central Station?
Well, it isn’t your parents’ kitchen on Thanksgiving, so it must be Grand Central Station. Though in deference to the grande dame and centenarian (you did it, old girl!), we should call her by her official name, Grand Central Terminal. Or GCT, if you’re racing to catch the 12:37 to Stamford and are short of breath.
Grand Central wakes up in the morning to help transport commuters between midtown Manhattan and the northern suburbs of New York and Connecticut. But the city’s second-most-popular attraction, which draws 750,000 people a day, is also a cultural and historical touchstone. Holden Caulfield, as you may recall from English class, stashed his bags in a locker here, and Cary Grant, in “North by Northwest,” attempted to dodge his pursuers by purchasing a ticket at what is now window No. 6. “Saturday Night Live” flashes a replica of the terminal’s famous clock in its opening sequence, and Justin Timberlake professes his love to Mila Kunis on the sweeping staircase. (C’mon, now. I saw “Friends With Benefits” on a plane.)
This is Grand Central’s year: her 100th birthday, which she is celebrating like a doyenne of advanced age and elegant taste. Through March 15, Vanderbilt Hall is hosting “Grand by Design: A Centennial Celebration of Grand Central Terminal,” a comprehensive exhibit arranged by the New York Transit Museum. Other special events will follow, such as an art installation by Nick Cave and an evening performance of poetic odes to the Beaux-Arts beaut.
The Municipal Art Society has also created the Official MTA Metro-North Grand Central Terminal tour, a daily exploration of the building from top to bottom, inside and out. The guided tour complements the 22-stop audio tour available since 2010. How to decide between the two? Price, perhaps, or time commitment, or preference for live vs. taped voice. Or sometimes you won’t have a choice: The tour on Presidents’ Day sold out.
Our group of 60, which was split into two pods, convened at Platform 29. A more fitting rendezvous spot, though, would have been at the brass clock. As in, “I’ll meet you under the clock.”
“This is the most iconic meeting place in New York,” said docent Cliff Cohen, referring to the round Tiffany clock with the four-sided opal face. “It’s a symbol of the city.”
The timepiece, he continued, occupies an even greater place in history than helping Bobby find Sally in the crowds.
Before the rise of railroads in the 19th century, cities set their own local time based on the sun’s position at high noon, which meant that Boston was a few minutes ahead of New York. To synchronize train schedules across the country, the railroad barons created four time zones. Now, if you’re late, you can’t blame Galileo. In addition, all the clocks in the station are now adjusted to the atomic clock at the Naval Observatory in the District. So synchronize your watches, people.
With 100 years of subject matter to cover, we’d need at least 100 days; we had only 75 minutes. As a compromise, Cliff lifted the highlights from the dense history book while always keeping us moving — from the Main Concourse to 42nd Street, back inside to Vanderbilt Hall and the Biltmore Room (code name: Kissing Room), downstairs, upstairs and done.
For the origins chapter of the story, Cliff ushered us outdoors, but for only “seven minutes,” he promised on the bitterly cold day. Facing the ornate limestone sculpture of Mercury, Minerva and Hercules, Cliff introduced us to Cornelius Vanderbilt (who also presides over the entryway), the mega-wealthy industrialist who brought steam locomotives to the northern terminus of Manhattan in 1871. After a fatal accident in 1902, the trains switched to electric power and moved underground, where they wiggle through the city like moles.
“I always know that at 96th Street, when we head into the tunnel, I should start collecting my bags,” said a New Yorker on the tour.
To usher in the new age of train travel, the Vanderbilt heirs (Cornelius died in 1877) commissioned an $80 million terminal that still glitters like its younger self. The first train departed after midnight on Feb. 2, 1913, pulling away from what Cliff called a “showoff palace.”
Panache is the aesthetic POV. The floors, as smooth as a skating rink, are made of Tennessee pink marble. Chandeliers shaped like acorns, the Vanderbilt crest, dangle like heavy fruit. On the ceiling of the 125-foot-tall Main Concourse, a mural of a cerulean blue sky twinkles with the winter constellations of Orion, Aries, Pegasus and other zodiac figures.
But look closer at the universe, and you’ll see tiny flaws. The astronomy is laid out backward, though the Vanderbilts disposed of the criticism by claiming that it was the view from God’s perch. There’s also a hole in the ceiling caused by wires that propped up a nuclear warhead rocket displayed in 1957, as well as a small patch of black, a souvenir from a 1998 renovation project.
“They left it as a story and a cautionary tale of what happens when you let things get out of control,” said Cliff, referring to the thick coat of cigarette smoke that had clouded the sky.
The initial vision was to create a “terminal city” with upscale apartments, high-end businesses, entertainment and a hotel that allowed pampered travelers to move seamlessly from the luxurious 20th Century Limited train to their New York accommodations. Modern-day needs have since stepped in and colonized. The hotel is now the Bank of America Plaza, and a wine shop occupies the former Grand Central Theatre. Yet the concept of the terminal as a lifestyle destination persists.
Downstairs, Cliff led us through an array of dining establishments featuring such New York eateries as Magnolia Bakery, Junior’s and Mendy’s Kosher Delicatessen. (There’s also a market upstairs, with fresh breads, meats, seafood, prepared foods and more.) We stopped outside the Oyster Bar and Restaurant, open since year 1 (but closed on Sundays and major holidays), to hear the walls speak.
“The sound carries over the ceiling,” Cliff explained of the arched hallway. “Two people standing in diagonal corners and facing the wall can carry on a conversation.”
To demonstrate, he stood in one corner of the Whispering Gallery and directed a member of our group to an opposite spot. Before turning his back to us, he said that he was going to utter the name of a famous person who was a direct descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
I inched toward the receiving end of the ceiling phone and heard Cliff say, “Anderson Cooper — you got that?” I did, and I was only an eavesdropper.
Now past the 75-minute mark (the trains may run on time, but Cliff does not), we returned to the Main Concourse, all dressed up with banners touting the centennial. Under the starry sky, Cliff quoted from the old-timey “Grand Central Station” radio series: “A gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily.”
He then wished us farewell — “We’ll see ya in 100 years” — and released us into the chaos of what really is Grand Central Terminal.