New York’s Grand Central Station draws 750,000 people a day.

SCOTT EELLS • Bloomberg News ,

Grand Central Station marks 100th year

  • Article by: Andrea Sachs
  • Washington Post
  • April 5, 2013 - 1:53 PM

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 belt 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. This is Grand Central’s year: her 100th birthday, which she is celebrating like a doyenne of advanced age and elegant taste.

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.

The Municipal Art Society has created the Official MTA Metro-North Grand Central Terminal tour, a daily exploration of the building from top to bottom, inside and out. The 75-minute guided tour complements the 22-stop audio tour available since 2010.

Our group 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.

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, all the clocks in the station are adjusted to the atomic clock at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

Cohen lifted the highlights from the dense history book while always keeping us moving.

Cornelius Vanderbilt’s heirs 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 Cohen 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.

Downstairs, Cohen led us through dining establishments featuring such New York eateries as Magnolia Bakery and Junior’s. We stopped outside the Oyster Bar and Restaurant, open since year 1, to hear the walls speak.

“The sound carries over the ceiling,” Cohen 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 is a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

I inched toward the receiving end of the ceiling phone and heard Cohen 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 Cohen does not), we returned to the Main Concourse, all dressed up with banners touting the centennial. Under the starry sky, Cohen quoted from the old-timey “Grand Central Station” radio series: “A gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily.”

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