Field Trip: Behind the Scenes at Grand Central Terminal

When Adam saw that the Historic Districts Council was offering a tour of Grand Central Terminal, we couldn’t resist—he has always wanted to get inside those glass catwalks inside the windows above the Apple store, and I like to go anywhere I’ve never been, particularly if it’s typically off-limits. The tour was expensive ($100 each), but opportunity only knocks so often. On a recent Wednesday morning, we met up with the guide (who’s with Metro-North) and about 20 other folks.

Old-fashioned elevator dial

I’m wary of tours because as much as I love exploration, it’s usually accompanied with lots of explanation. When the guide started off with a bit of schtick about Grand Central Station vs. Grand Central Terminal, I knew we were in trouble—that’s New York City 101. It was followed by a barrage of stats: Grand Central Terminal takes up 49 acres; it’s more than 10 stories deep; it has the city’s deepest, largest basement; around 700,000 people pass through every day. I felt like the encyclopedia was being read to me. The guide was lively in a Borscht Belt way, but as tough as leading a tour in a noisy spot like Grand Central must be, he had a frustrating tendency to vary his volume, so that you’d lean in to catch something he was saying, only to have him turn quickly and BELLOW RIGHT INTO YOUR FACE.

You can imagine how I felt when, after asking one of the organizers how long the tour would be, I was told, “Oh, it’s usually between three and four hours.” There was no advance warning. I temporarily left the group to buy a chocolate-chip cookie.

That said, I learned quite a bit. There was much more than the highlights below—especially along the lines of historical facts, the Whispering Gallery, the lost and found department, and the wonders of the terminal in general—and if you find these appealing, I suggest you contact the HDC or Grand Central to see when another tour will be offered. I didn’t get the impression that ours was such a rarity, particularly with the terminal’s centennial coming up next year.

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The acorn and oak leaf clusters used as motifs throughout the building—not only in prominent spots like top of info booth clock but also behind the scenes—are there because they’re the Vanderbilt family symbol.

The little (painted-shut) drawers under the platform signs were where the letters were kept back when signs were updated by hand.

In Vanderbilt Hall, the guide directed the group to a plaque honoring Jackie O., so we swarmed over to look at it—causing a woman having an intense phone conversation in front of it to go positively fetal.

After about 90 minutes we got to go somewhere interesting: The “situation room” where they meet for blackouts, blizzards, etc. Best of all, there were chairs! All that standing was killing my feet. The guide made a big deal of how we could see the new control room from the situation room.

Although the excitement abated somewhat when we then went into new the control room. The moon screensavers made me wonder if Metro-North is planning an expansion.

A door in the new control room led to a ladder (if you duck)….

…which led to another ladder.

Our destination was the room for the 13-foot diameter Tiffany clock on the building’s south side.

As if that weren’t cool enough, the guide opened a panel where the 6 is and we all got to look out and take photos of the hands.

The catwalk, however, was a disappointment. We had expected to walk on one of the main ones, but the guide took us to the topmost one, where only a couple of feet of the main hall were visible, because it was the only level where you could open windows, thereby getting better photos because the other glass has chicken-wire in it. I mean, the view is magnificent—see the photo at the top of the post—but we wanted the full-body catwalk experience. Also, on the other levels the floor is apparently clear glass.

Adam and I bailed at three hours, even though the tour wasn’t over. It was supposed to go to the secret basement to see FDR’s private train car, but access was denied: “We actually never got to see the secret basement because apparently there is some construction being done,” emailed the organizer when I emailed later to ask a couple of questions (the guide liked to drop hints about secrets that would be shared at the end of the tour). “But we were invited to come back once the work is complete so we can see the train car that FDR used to get in/out of the city!”

I hope it happens—but this time, I’m packing snacks.

P.S. It’s fair to say I was the only person to take a photo of this sign, but it cracks me up—I love workplace signs like this….

Previous Field Trip articles:
••• The Howard/Crosby Microneighborhood
••• Federal Reserve Bank of New York
••• East River Ferry
••• Museum of American Finance

7 Comments

  1. I did the free tour quite a few years ago and we did the catwalk, but maybe that’s changed by now. There’s an entrance near the Campbell Apartment.

  2. There is a tennis court up in one of the side buildings. When I played there, many years ago, it was not accessible by the elevator in that building. We had to take the elevator in the opposite side building and walk across on one of the catwalks. By the time I got to the tennis court, I felt like I was playing in the boiler room of the QM2.

    This city is full of wonderful secret places.

  3. E-
    Thanks for sharing!
    Especially all of the clock/clock hands shots.

  4. I walk through GCT everyday and had no idea about the catwalks (or anything else) until I read this article! Very cool, thanks!

  5. When you do cool tours like this, would you mind sharing how you were able to get hooked up? Since it seemed like it might be at least a semi-public tour, it seems like it would be useful to know who others could take the tour too…

    I can’t recall if it was TC or another source, but apparently there are tours of WTC1, if you have the right hookup as well…

  6. @Adam: Sorry, I thought it was clear that it was through the Historic Districts Council. But since I’m pretty sure it was the only GCT tour they’ll organize for a while, your best bet is probably get on the GCT email newsletter list (at grandcentralterminal.com) or contact the terminal office to ask.

  7. Interested in tours available