Secrets of New York

The ultimate insider's guide to the best-kept secrets of NYC's must-see places and buzzed-about people.

Think you know everything about Grand Central Terminal?

Think you know everything about Grand Central Terminal? Think again. (Credit: Getty Images / Yana Paskova)

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Secrets of Grand Central Terminal

89 E 42nd St., New York, NY 10017
Grand Central Terminal is Gotham's Beaux Arts jewel, a monument to transportation that avoided demolition in the 1970s (unlike poor Penn Station a decade earlier) and ennobles the lives of the more than 750,000 people who use it daily. It's so vast, with nearly a century of history under its tracks, that it holds many secrets, as Metro-North Railroad spokesman Dan Brucker said. Here's a selection.
Every single time shown on those departure boards

Credit: Getty Images

The boards show you wrong departure times

Every single time shown on those departure boards is wrong. If that train to, say Croton-Harmon, is set to leave at 11:20, it's flat-out lying to you. It's leaving at 11:21. All trains leave a minute later than indicated on the departure boards. The reason is the safety and comfort of commuters who are making a mad dash to catch the trains.

Look up at the ceiling: In the northwest

Credit: Nina Ruggiero

A dark patch is there to remind us of the past

Look up at the ceiling: In the northwest corner, you'll see a little square black patch. Now imagine extending that color across the entire constellation that's painted on the ceiling. That's what was there before Grand Central Terminal was dramatically restored in the 1990s. That little black patch was left as a reminder of the old days. And what exactly does that black patch consist of? Decades of dirt? Try again. It was the result of decades of smoking in the terminal. That's old nicotine and tobacco residue that was preserved, and it's a testament to how dramatic this restoration was.

All around Grand Central you see what appears

Credit: Nina Ruggiero

Those designs on the walls aren't what you think

All around Grand Central you see what appears to be a "squashed pineapple," as Brucker put it. They are actually acorns, a Vanderbilt family symbol.

For years, one of the best secrets of

Credit: Getty Images

Free papers from the recycling bins, anyone?

For years, one of the best secrets of Grand Central -- and, really, it was an open secret -- was that you could wander onto the platforms, plunge your arms into the recycling bins, and walk away with free copies of all the day's newspapers. The New York Times wasn't too happy about this at all. So, in 2001, the recycling bins were redesigned so that commuters couldn't get their grubby mitts on the free newsprint, which they were doing to the tune of about a ton every morning.

The universe as depicted on the ceiling is

Credit: Courtesy of Grand Central Terminal

Yes, the universe is backward

The universe as depicted on the ceiling is beautiful, but it's also backward, a fact discovered by commuters almost as soon as Grand Central opened. The problem caused no small amount of consternation to the Vanderbilt family, but then they came up with a brilliant idea. They'd claim the error was indeed intentional, and say it was meant to depict God's view of the universe from somewhere up above.

Toward the center of the ceiling, above the

Credit: Getty Images/Nina Ruggiero

The rocket hole you never noticed

Toward the center of the ceiling, above the constellation Pisces, you'll notice a little hole. You'd never see it if you didn't know to look for it. The hole is a curious legacy of the space race. In 1957, the Russians put Sputnik into orbit and the U.S. was keen on selling the public on the importance of staying ahead. In a curious bit of showmanship, a Redstone rocket was brought in for display at Grand Central Terminal that same year. But, some genius didn't think to measure whether it would fit in the concourse. Well, surprise -- it didn't. It was rammed in, leaving a hole in the ceiling that can still be spotted.

Just outside of the Oyster Bar restaurant is

Credit: Getty Images

Grand Central, spiller of secrets

Just outside of the Oyster Bar restaurant is a vault covered in Guastavino tile. If you stand in one corner of the vault and say something, your voice is telegraphed perfectly to someone standing clear across the other side, dozens of feet away. So, maybe don't spill any big secrets while standing in that spot.

The grand marble staircase on the eastern side

Credit: Nina Ruggiero

Twin staircases that aren't exactly identical

The grand marble staircase on the eastern side of the terminal was built in the 1990s to resemble an older one that dates to 1913. Original plans did call for the construction of eastern stairs, but there is one crucial difference between the two. The new set is an inch smaller than its original twin across the concourse, and the reason was to make it clear to future generations that the staircases were not built at the same time.

The clock atop the information booth in Grand

Credit: Getty Images

The clock is worth millions

The clock atop the information booth in Grand Central Terminal is not just a beautiful work of art. It may be worth more than $10 million, according to auction house estimates. That's because of the four opal faces on the clock.

Well below the main concourse is a room

Credit: Getty Images / New York Transit Museum

The public may never see many of its secret spots

Well below the main concourse is a room with ancient machinery that was targeted by German saboteurs during World World II. In this room, there's even a red button that could halt train traffic above. The area is so deep that it cuts into bedrock. Farther north, under the Waldorf Astoria, you can find a platform, an elevator and an old rail car that Brucker said were used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who tried to keep his paralysis from the public.

In 1997, a fire started in the kitchen

Credit: Nina Ruggiero

A fire destroyed almost all of the historic ceiling in the Oyster Bar

In 1997, a fire started in the kitchen of the Grand Central Oyster Bar and engulfed the restaurant in flames, destroying the equipment, furniture and about 80 percent of its historic Guastavino tile ceiling from 1913. The ceiling wasn't entirely redone until March 2014. It took six months to match the new tiles to the originals, and a year to inspect and apply them one by one. You can see traces of the old ceiling against the shiny, new additions.

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