A "Grand" Central Terminal

Don’t call it a station, because Dan Brucker, a
Photos By: Kristin Burke/Peter Baker Studios
long-time employee, historian, and MTA spokesperson for Grand Central, will tell you it’s not a station, it’s a terminal—and the greatest train terminal in the world. “A station is a place where trains come through; a terminal is where the train journey begins and ends. Grand Central is often mistakenly called a station which it is not.”

What became clear on a recent Saturday morning is that Grand Central Terminal is a place of mystery, history, and intrigue. On that morning, I, along with my husband Edward, my daughter Nicole, and two good friends, Meredith and Eugene got a private tour of one of New York City’s greatest landmarks.

Our friends had become acquainted with Mr. Brucker when planning their wedding. The newlyweds met each other for the first time near the clock in the center of the great room more than a year ago. During their courtship, they would meet there each time Meredith would come in from Connecticut for a date with Eugene, a New Yorker. Eugene proposed to Meredith at the same location, and just recently they had their wedding ceremony on the east balcony. They met Mr. Brucker to ask permission to get married in Grand Central, and he was enchanted when hearing the story of their courtship.

Dan Brucker is the authority on Grand Central Terminal, and we felt fortunate to have been given his time. We’d been told he gives private tours of Grand Central to dignitaries, politicians, and the media. He also hosted a PBS documentary in 2004, The Seven Secrets of Grand Central and has contributed to many articles on the subject. In December 2005, National Geographic magazine published an article on Grand Central Terminal. In preparation for the article, the author took a tour of the terminal with Mr. Brucker.

Mr. Brucker began our tour at the information booth. Speaking with great animation and obvious passion, the thick-glassed and very gracious man started by telling us that Grand Central Terminal holds many mysteries—some of which have been solved, and others that, to this day, remain unexplained.

“There are many secrets in this great room and in this grand place…those which I will share with you.” We all looked at each other in anticipation and smiled because, after all, who doesn’t enjoy a good, intriguing story?

Mr. Brucker then proceeded to delve into some remarkable facts. We learned that every day, 700,000 people trek through the terminal. “That’s more than the population of San Francisco,” Mr. Brucker tells us. He went on: “Grand Central was built by the Vanderbilts in the heyday of the great railroad. Look around you and you will see acorn motifs everywhere. That is the sign of the Vanderbilts.” We looked around and, sure enough, there were acorns everywhere—built into the molding and stonework—even fashioned into staircase handrails.

He asked us to look up, and we noticed a hole in the ceiling. “That is a mark of the great age of space exploration,” he said, giving us one clue to that particular mystery. We also learned that many years ago, one of our presidents would make his escape from the press using a track in the terminal that was only accessible from a hotel.

Mr. Brucker continued with the tour. “Here in this room,” he said, “which happens to be the largest room of its kind in the world, there is a secret staircase. Those that pass by it don’t see it, but it is there. And somewhere in this room is an object worth $20 million dollars. I will reveal these secrets, but let’s first go to the lost and found.”
Photos By: Kristin Burke/Peter Baker Studios

As we walked to the lost and found, trying to keep pace with our very fast-walking leader, he continued to talk, churning out fact after fact. “The depth of Grand Central is equal to ten stories. Deep within the bowels there is much history of great significance. I will share this with you later.”

We got to the MTA and the nearby lost and found offices. “We have the greatest lost and found track record—no pun intended—of any lost and found anywhere. Here is the place where we keep cell phones, umbrellas, false teeth, and ashes of loved ones that have been found on the train or in the terminal. Each item is inspected, catalogued, and kept in safe storage. If we have contact information, that person gets contacted. Until then, each item is put away and kept until the rightful owner claims his or her item.

Next, we walked down to the Whispering Gallery, which is near the well-known Oyster Bar. It’s the area from which you can access the main concourse and the below street level room with its food, drink, and newspaper vendors. As we moved down the steep ramp to the gallery, the majestic chandeliers hanging overhead shone brightly. (According to Mr. Brucker, the chandeliers are made of gold.)

Photos By: Kristin Burke/Peter Baker Studios
The Whispering Gallery is a flat-surfaced area with columned arches in each corner. “Every one of you, go to a corner and stand in front of it,” we were instructed.

“Speak into the corner and then turn your ear to the wall, listen…you can hear the whisper of the person in the opposite corner.” We turned to each corner with our backs facing each other. We felt a little awkward, but we thought “what the heck,” and we spoke. Sure enough our voices traveled the thirty feet or so from each end, and we could clearly hear what the others were saying. It’s not known if this phenomena is intentional or not, and that’s one of Grand Central’s great mysteries. Regardless of its intention, it was amazing. Looking back, I think of all the times I’ve walked this area and have seen people standing there with their backs turned talking to the wall. Now I understand.

We next made our way to a nearby elevator with an Art Deco appearance. We went up a few floors and, when the doors opened, we walked down some winding corridors and found ourselves in the terminal’s massive control room. Sitting at many desks were MTA workers, each in front of his or her three computer monitors. On the wall in front of the workers was a huge built-in grid of all the train lines, small lights indicating where each train is located. The MTA workers smiled and nodded at us, but continued working, eating their Saturday morning donuts, and drinking their coffee. Mr. Brucker explained the intricacies involved in managing the huge network of trains throughout the entire system. Each train is programmed to come in on a certain track. The system is carefully monitored on a twenty-four hour a day basis. Mr. Brucker also let us in on a little secret: each train actually departs one minute after the posted time. If you run late, you’ve got an extra minute!

From there, Mr. Brucker led us to a walkway made of quartz, called a catwalk. I gingerly stepped onto it and saw light beneath me. To the left were steel-encased windows facing the street and to the right I could peer through large windows that offered a wonderful birds-eye view of the goings-on down on the main floor of the terminal. After about ten seconds of peering through the window, vertigo took over and I had to walk quickly back to the hallway that has “real” floors and “real” walls. I was content to let the others enjoy the view. Should you stand in the main concourse and look to the east and to the west, you will see the large windows and may likely see someone walking across the quartz walkways where we stood. The windows and the quartz walkways make the most of the natural daylight flooding into the terminal.

Mr. Brucker took us back to the elevator and we returned to the main area of the terminal. Our journey ended there, but not before Mr. Brucker revealed the remaining secrets we anticipated hearing about. “The hole in the ceiling near Pisces,” he said, pointing upwards, “was made in the late 1950s by a Redstone rocket they brought into Grand Central for display. It was about six inches too long so they had to cut a hole in the ceiling to get the nose of the rocket to fit!”
He then directed our attention to a dark patch of the ceiling in the northwest corner. “That was left as a memento when, ten years ago, the ceiling and marble were cleaned. Soot and tar from cigarettes and pipes and cigars, my friends, that’s what made the ceiling filthy. The original splendor of the ceiling is again revealed!”
“Another thing about the ceiling…you’ll like this,” he continued, “it’s all wrong!” We all looked up again, squinting, straining, and scratching our heads. “Yes, folks, the zodiac is backwards. It is speculated that the artist, Paul Helleu, intentionally did it. His idea being that it looked perfect for those viewing from the heavens looking down.”

Mr. Brucker shared a few more final secrets. We learned there is a secret train platform, “Track 61” underneath the Waldorf Astoria. When FDR was staying at the hotel, he’d take the freight elevator from the hotel down to the track, and then make his journey home to Hyde Park, free from the press and public. Today the track is still used, most recently for President Bush as an emergency exit route. We also learned that ten stories below Grand Central a huge terminal exists that, at one time,

housed ten working rotary converters each weighing one hundred tons. The machines converted the power used to run the trains that went in and out of Grand Central. Soldiers closely guarded the converters during World War II, and were ordered to “shoot and kill” on sight anyone who tried to enter that area.
Photos By: Kristin Burke/Peter Baker Studios

Mr. Brucker moved closer to the information booth, and we followed him. “Take another look around. Where do you think the secret staircase is?” We shrugged our shoulders. “It’s right in front of you, where the information booth is,” he said. “Behind the circular booth in the middle—that’s where! There are doors you can open to enter a spiral staircase that brings you down one level.” Ahhhh.

But we were not done yet…as we remembered that one secret was yet to be revealed. We waited for Mr. Brucker to continue. “And that pretty much concludes our tour” he said. We waited some more. Finally, Mr. Brucker continued: “Oh yes, so you must want to know the $20 million object that 700,000 people pass by each day? It’s the clock atop the information booth. There are four faces to the brass clock and each one is made of solid opal. They are completely and utterly irreplaceable and priceless, really.”

Mr. Brucker heartily shook our hands. “I hope next time you come back to Grand Central Terminal you will remember our tour and the great secrets that were revealed.” With that, Mr. Brucker took a smart turn to the right, and headed back to the Stationmaster’s office. We couldn’t help but notice him take an admiring look around the concourse as he did.

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