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One-Track Mind

New York Times reporter Sam Roberts ’68 offers an insider’s tour of Grand Central Terminal


It’s not technically a station. When it was built, it wasn’t central. But it’s undeniably grand.

Those lessons and more can be gleaned in Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by veteran New York Times urban affairs reporter Sam Roberts ’68. The release of the book, an anecdotal history of the Manhattan landmark, coincides with the hundredth anniversary of the station’s opening in 1913. “When we came up with the subtitle, I thought, Am I really going to be able to live up to this? It’s only a train station,” Roberts says. “But the more research I did, the more I discovered that, in fact, it was transformative.”

The legal principle of air rights. Standard time, established to regulate train schedules. The civil rights movement, which saw its beginnings in the unionization of Pullman porters. The cause of landmarks preservation, which gained urgency following the loss of Penn Station—and ultimately saved Grand Central from the wrecking ball. “There are so many things,” Roberts says. “When you say, ‘My God, this place is like Grand Central Station,’ everyone knows exactly what you mean. It’s the hustle, the frenzy, the controlled chaos. I’ve always thought of it as an urban ballet; you stand on one of the balconies and look down and see this crazed choreography. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone bump into each other—which is remarkable, considering that the terminal is probably more crowded now than when it opened.”

The main concourse, with sun streaming through high windows, in black & white

The Main Concourse in the decades before neighboring skyscrapers blocked the sun. Linderwood & Linderwood/Corbis

Roberts, bespectacled and white-mustachioed like a vintage train conductor from central casting, is standing in the station’s Main Concourse, next to what’s arguably one of the planet’s most popular meet-up spots: the marble-and-brass information kiosk, topped by the iconic four-faced clock. “There are urban legends that it’s worth ten to twenty million dollars,” he says. “I could not confirm that with anyone—but it clearly is priceless, made of opalescent glass. It’s just beautiful.”

It’s early on a Friday afternoon—nowhere near rush hour—but the great hall is predictably packed: a throng of bag-toting travelers, photo-snapping tourists, uniformed cops, and quick-striding commuters, not to mention umpteen diners and shoppers bound for the station’s many retail venues, from the Apple Store to the Junior’s cheesecake bakery to the famed Oyster Bar. Along one wall is a series of flat-screen TVs with rotating ads; every few minutes, the cover of Grand Central is splashed across them. Quips Roberts: “It’s the closest my name will ever be to being in lights.” The cover features a vintage black-and-white image of this very hall, with shafts of sunlight angling ethereally down from the high windows. “Unfortunately, that can no longer be reproduced,” he laments, “because the buildings across the street block the sun.”

Above his head is fodder for more Grand Central trivia: a small hole near the painting of Pisces (it was cut to anchor a rocket on display during the Cold War); a dark, rectangular patch in one corner (which was left to show how filthy the ceiling was before being cleaned in the Nineties). “It’s almost blackened, and they thought it must have been from the steam and smoke from all the locomotives,” Roberts notes. “But when they went up and inspected it, it turned out to be tar and nicotine from smokers.” But the ceiling’s most amazing factoid? The golden constellations, gloriously painted against a teal sky, are all backwards. “It’s not clear exactly why,” Roberts says. “A Columbia astronomer provided a sky chart and presumably thought they were going to hold it over their heads and paint them. Instead, they put it down—so what we have is a heavenly, sort of God-like view.”

Roberts heads out of the Main Concourse and down to another of the terminal’s delightful idiosyncrasies: the whispering gallery formed by an arched vault. Stand facing one corner, have your companion do the same at the corner diagonally across, and you can conduct a highly idiosyncratic interview. “This is the best I’ve ever heard it,” Roberts says, his voice bouncing across the stone and arriving with astounding clarity. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” On the way back up, past the bookstore that has Grand Central featured prominently in the window, Roberts holds forth on the subject of ramps. “When the terminal opened, they had to explain what ‘ramps’ were, because no one had any idea,” he says. “They were put here by William Wilgus, the chief engineer, because he figured people were not going to schlep their luggage up and down staircases. The derivation is from ‘ramparts’; when Julius Caesar invaded an ancient city, they would build ramps up to the city walls so they could go over. Here, people walk on them every day and never realize they can go through this entire station without ever using a flight of stairs.”

Roberts is a native New Yorker; when he was growing up in Brooklyn, his father would take him all over the city to see the sights. His love of Grand Central goes back to childhood—specifically, the day when he got to live out many a small boy’s dream. “I must have been about six or seven, and we were standing on one of the platforms, and I was gawking at a big New York Central locomotive. The engineer saw me, beckoned me up, and said, ‘Do you want to drive this thing?’ I couldn’t believe my ears,” Roberts recalls. “He sat me on his lap and put my hand on the throttle and we moved what seemed to be a mile, but was probably about two feet. There I was in Grand Central Terminal, driving Engine 371, which I remember to this day.”

Sam Roberts

Sam Roberts ’68.Frank English

Grand Central Terminal. In his book, Roberts points out that because Grand Central is the end of the line, it’s technically not a station. “Yet all over the world, including in New York, it is known as Grand Central Station, which is really a misnomer,” he says. “Although I did discover in my research there are at least two genuine Grand Central Stations: the subway station and the post office. But this is Grand Central Terminal, for sure—although if you stop people on the street and try to get them to say it, fat chance.”

It may surprise many—even some New Yorkers—that Grand Central isn’t publicly owned. As Roberts recounts in his book, it was built with Vanderbilt money and originally owned by the family’s New York & Harlem Railroad; now it belongs to a Delaware-based limited liability company called Midtown Trackage Ventures, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Metro-North Railroad has a lease that expires in the late twenty-third century. Despite the details of who may hold the title, though, Grand Central is a consummately public space. “It’s a glorious, majestic, cathedral of a building,” Roberts says, “and what’s so impressive is that it’s open to everyone.” By the way, speaking of the Vanderbilts: their stamp can be seen in a ubiquitous decorative theme. “I asked, ‘Why are there so many acorns here? It’s not a nature preserve,'” Roberts says, “and it turns out that acorns were on the Vanderbilt family crest.”

Researching the book gave Roberts the chance to go behind the scenes at Grand Central, to the nooks and crannies the public doesn’t see—from the “secret” spiral staircase inside the information kiosk to the little aerie behind the Tiffany glass clock, accessed via a rickety ladder. (Open the window at “VI” for a pigeon’s-eye view of Park Avenue.) He ventured to New York City’s deepest basement—ninety feet down, home to the cavernous room (rumored to have been targeted by Nazi saboteurs aiming to disrupt troop movements during World War II) where alternating current is converted to the direct that powers Metro-North trains. “What’s so neat about that is they preserved some of the old transformers,” he says, “so you have these giant, black, rotary behemoths and next to them are quiet, humming computers doing the same thing.” Perhaps even neater: Roberts got to visit the terminal’s “secret platform,” known as Track 61, located under the Waldorf Astoria. “I always thought it was another urban legend, but I was able to confirm that it was used by FDR. The presidential train would go onto a siding and his car would be rolled off into a boxcar or an elevator and taken up to street level—for security purposes, for convenience, and to hide the fact that he had polio,” Roberts says. “What I didn’t know was that when any president is staying at the Waldorf, there’s a Metro-North train kept running for him to make an emergency exit from the city if necessary.”

Once upon a time, Grand Central was the gateway to long-distance sleeper trains headed west; the term “rolling out the red carpet” was inspired by the décor on the platform of the luxurious 20th Century Limited to Chicago. (In scenes shot in the terminal, Cary Grant takes the train in North by Northwest, first calling his mother from a Grand Central phone booth.) Although that romantic era is long gone—the last Century straggled into Chicago in December 1967, half empty and nine hours late—the terminal doesn’t have to look backward to see its glory days. After narrowly escaping demolition in the Seventies to make way for an office building (thanks in large part to the efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), it underwent a $196 million, MTA-funded restoration and renovation. The quarry that had supplied the original Tennessee pink marble, closed since the Eighties, was reopened to supply an exact match; skylights painted over since the days of World War II-era blackouts were revealed to the sun; 65,000 square feet of prime retail space was added, including a dining concourse and a high-end food market; a grand marble staircase was built at the east end of the Main Concourse, balancing the existing one at the west end. (It hadn’t been included in the original design, Roberts says, because planners never imagined that travelers would want to exit toward the East Side; what was then a scruffy neighborhood of tenements is now some of the world’s most valuable real estate.) “They’re proud of this place, and justifiably so,” he says of the terminal’s overseers. “They spent a lot of money on it; they’ve made the retail space very valuable; they’ve kept it clean and maintained it well. One of the things I always test when I’m here is, do I see any light bulbs out? I’ve never been to anyplace in New York where a burned-out bulb is more rare.”

Back past the information kiosk, on the way to view the vintage benches in the station manager’s office, Roberts is buttonholed by a Metro-North official. “Arrest this man,” the woman says with a smile. “He’s trespassing.” Her name is Marjorie Anders, and she’s one of the railroad’s media relations reps; Roberts calls her “my lifesaver, my godmother at Metro-North.” They talk about the whirlwind of interviews Roberts has done during the book launch, including a tour of the terminal for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “It’s such a small town,” Roberts muses after she moves on. “That’s one of the funny things; if you stand here long enough, you’ll run into someone you know.” He briefly reconsiders. “Well,” he allows, “maybe not if you’re from Ithaca.”

All Aboard

In an excerpt from Grand Central, Sam Roberts ’68 chronicles the history of commuting

Book cover for Grand Central, and photo of the central kiosk with travelers purchasing tickets.

Right: the central kiosk, topped with a four-faced click, is a popular meet-up spot

If romantic long-distance trains defined the terminal in the first half of its hundred years, commuters have done so in the second half. Commuter trains never developed the cachet that their long-distance cousins acquired, but carrying passengers to and from New York’s suburbs—giving the city its “tidal restlessness,” E. B. White ’21 wrote—was becoming a larger share of Grand Central’s traffic. (White himself bought his first copy of the New Yorker in the terminal in 1925 and later recalled, “I practically lived in Grand Central at one period—it has all the conveniences and I had no other place to stay.”) In 1906, while the terminal was still being built, 10 million commuters rode the New York Central and the New Haven lines. By 1930, their ranks had more than tripled, to 36 million of the 47 million or so total passengers whom Grand Central Terminal accommodated that year.

For well over a century, suburban commuters have been caricatured and uncharitably denigrated as elitist tree-huggers rendered zombie-like by their daily ritual. The New York of the commuter, White acidly wrote, “is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night,” adding unapologetically, “The suburb he inhabits had no essential vitality of its own and is a mere roost where he comes at day’s end to go to sleep. Except in rare cases, the man who lives in Mamaroneck or Little Neck or Teaneck, and works in New York, discovers nothing much about the city except the time of arrival and departure of trains and buses, and the path to a quick lunch. . . . The commuter dies with tremendous mileage to his credit, but he is no rover.”

Few profiles were as eviscerating as Gail Sheehy’s in New York magazine in 1968, when New Yorkers were beginning to feel a little defensive about their town and wondering whether, in the middle of a transit strike two years earlier, the columnist Dick Schaap ’55 was engaging in bitter irony when, paraphrasing Mayor John V. Lindsay, he dubbed New York “Fun City.” Sheehy’s profile began: “They never stop moving. They come into Grand Central every morning off the eighty-six-seat sit-up hearses. And every night the blank faces look out of Charlie Brown’s bar at the Pan Am escalators and wait to go home at the same time on the same train in the same car with the same ‘congenial group.'”

The daily tide of commuters might seem anonymous—even to their fellow passengers—but they fell into categories that Sheehy acerbically described. They included the congenial Mad Men going home to wives and families. “Avid agency and fashion geishas know they can learn from these men,” she wrote. “Pick up the Avenue style, pick up a telephone recommendation from a bar car titillation. They are known as Belles of the Bar Car.” The regulars included a less congenial character, she explained: “No one wants to become a Tunnel Inspector, a man who sits alone, speaks to no one and—when the morning train goes under at Park and 96th—races through to stand between the couplings of the two head cars.” Regardless of which category the commuter belonged to, each shared the same fate, according to Sheehy: “There is one inexorable inevitability about his life: At both ends of his day, like margins, is another train to catch.”

John Cheever’s fictional Shady Hill was populated by desperate commuters, and Gregory Peck’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was one. But changing demography has challenged the stereotypes (nearly half the commuters today are women). And even when generalizations were more valid, each commuter had an individual story to tell, and the mass of commuters, like the earlier waves of long-distance passengers, came to Grand Central, at least when they first arrived, with dreams. Jim Link, an accountant from Greenwich, his grandfather, a psychiatrist, and his father, an artist, commuted in tandem from the suburbs for a century. “For over 100 years,” he said in 2002, “one of us has been walking through Grand Central.” Another commuter, Herbert Askwith of Larchmont, was responsible for single-handedly nudging the railroad to set its clocks and timetables to daylight time.

Commuting can foster a real camaraderie as fellow passengers celebrate passages into other life stages—people have been born and married in Grand Central and others have died there—or just enjoy a poker game or holiday cheer. By the middle of the 1930s, the impact of the Depression was beginning to fade, at least for well-heeled commuters from New Canaan, Connecticut. They petitioned the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad to restore the club car on the 5:12 from Grand Central with its white-coated attendant. “We’re not rich men,” said George H. Yuengling, an insurance broker. “We’re all hard working fellows who like relaxation and are willing to pay a little extra to avoid the discomforts of ordinary commuting.”

Statues at the entrance to the terminal

When the statues of Minerva, Hercules, and Mercury were unveiled, the where considered the largest sculptural group in the world.MTA Metropolitan Railroad/Frank English

Bill Geist, the CBS television commentator, once recalled the Christmas party on Car No. 8657 on the New Haven’s 5:20 from Grand Central to Westport. Regulars decorated the car and hired a six-piece band. Habitués of bar cars are no different from colleagues stopping at a saloon on the way home, except they are more likely to be excused for wobbling between stations.

A whole genre—stragglers who miss the last train before the terminal closes at 2 a.m.—has developed a culture of stranded “train wrecks,” some of whom wash away their tears in a local bar or offer themselves up as “Cinderella fares” to lucky cabbies. (In cold weather, one door on 42nd Street is staffed by a police officer who lets stragglers and the homeless into a makeshift lobby.) In 1932, Norman L. Holmes of Danbury was so determined not to miss his train home that he stole an ambulance from St. Vincent’s Hospital and drove it to Grand Central with its siren wailing (he crashed into a parked car on 44th Street and was arrested).

Other commuters managed happier endings. One man, a sixty-five-year-old lawyer from Queens who had no choice but to stand on a crowded train from Grand Central to White Plains, won a jury verdict against the New York Central of $11.80—a refund of his $1.80 fare plus $10 in damages for “discomfort.” That was in 1947, and his victory before a civil court judge was his second against the railroad. A decade earlier, he sued the New York Central because he was forced to stand on a train to Albany and won a precedent-setting verdict (a $2.80 refund and $45 for discomfort) that established the principle that passengers who purchased tickets for long-distance trains had to be guaranteed a seat.

Walter S. Titlar, an insurance man who had been commuting from Ossining to Manhattan for three months short of a half century, reaped his own reward after piling up 750,000 miles on the Hudson line. (When he started as a messenger for Metropolitan Life, his $7.20 monthly commutation fare was higher than his $5 weekly salary. When he retired at sixty-five, he was making $300 a week and paying $30.95 for his monthly commute.) In 1961, Titlar donned a visored cap and fulfilled a fifty-year boyhood dream, riding beside the engineer in the locomotive of  the 5:22 from Grand Central.


This is an excerpt from GRAND CENTRAL: How a Train Station Transformed America by Sam Roberts.
Copyright © 2013 by Sam Roberts. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

In Grand Central, Roberts devotes a chapter to exploring some of the terminal’s little-known facts. Here’s a sampling:

Why does such an elegant building have so many bare lightbulbs?

When Grand Central opened in 1913, gaslight was still the norm in many places. The New York Central and the Vanderbilts were showing off. Not only had its trains been converted to electricity, but its entire new terminal was electric. What better way to dramatize modern technology, railroad officials figured, than to expose the bulbs themselves? And if you’re wondering how many people it takes to change every lightbulb in Grand Central, the answer is six: about 4,000 bulbs in public areas were switched from incandescent to compact fluorescent bulbs in 2008.

Does anyone live at Grand Central and list 89 East 42nd Street as their address?

No, unless you count any remaining “mole people” below it and train crews that occasionally sack out in bunk rooms. Nor did the financier John W. Campbell live there. He installed a corner office in 1923 that re-created a thirteenth-century Florentine palazzo. It was restored, after having been reincarnated in various lesser forms, including as a signalman’s office and small jail for miscreants arrested by the Metro-North Police, since Campbell died in 1957.

Campbell was born in 1880, lived on Cumberland Avenue in a Brooklyn neighborhood now known as Fort Greene, and, without attending college, became senior executive and later president of his father’s credit-reference firm, Credit Clearing House, which specialized in garment industry finances and later merged with Dun & Bradstreet. In 1920, he was named to the board of the New York Central and later became chairman of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad (now PATH). Among his other quirks, he hated to wear socks; and he insisted that his pants never be wrinkled, so he hung them in his humidor while he worked at his desk in his underwear. He kept a steel safe in the fireplace.

While the 3,500-square-foot office was renovated in 1999 into a bar known as the Campbell Apartment (and included a pipe organ, a piano, a bathroom, and a kitchen), Campbell and his wife actually lived a few blocks away at 270 Park Avenue and later at the Westchester Country Club in Rye.

Can you rent the terminal for private events?

Vanderbilt Hall, the former main waiting room just south of the Main Concourse on the terminal’s south side, is available. Five gold chandeliers hang from the forty-eight-foot ceiling, and, Metro-North notes, their “light can be modified to create the ambience your event requires.” The starting price for renting all 12,000 square feet for a one-time event: $25,000.

Is it true that you can actually see sunspots in the terminal?

In midafternoon, when the sun shines straight up Park Avenue, place a white sheet of paper on the floor of the Main Concourse. The curlicued spaces in the semicircular grills on the terminal’s southern façade can produce the same effect as a pinhole camera, reflecting an image of the sun that is eight to twelve inches wide—complete with dark blemishes denoting sunspots.

Someone said Grand Central has the “safest” restroom in the world. C’mon.

Only if you define it as being safe from a speeding locomotive, then this is the place. The Lower Level restroom on the far western side of the terminal is buttressed by a crash wall several feet of concrete thick. It’s adjacent to the lower loop tracks on which incoming trains could turn around and head outbound.

What does the centennial logo mean?

The centennial logo, designed by a Westchester commuter, Michael Beirut, and his team at Pentagram (and drawn by Joe Marianek), features the concourse’s iconic brass, four-faced clock. The original self-winding mechanism was designed by two Brooklynites, Charles Pratt (who founded Pratt Institute) and Henry Chester Pond. Built by the Seth Thomas Company, the clock is aligned to true North. On the centennial logo, the clock is set at 7:13. In twenty-four-hour time, that is 19:13, which is the year Grand Central opened.