Thursday, October 8, 2009

Central Grandeur

As I research for more exotic adventures (though never knowingly illegal ones, I have to promise -- otherwise, how could I publish them?) my day-to-day travels through New York bring me in contact with more and more underground features that we tend to take for granted. Grand Central Terminal (not "Station," much to my surprise) is an awfully interesting subset of the underground New York. It could almost qualify as an "underground city," were it not for the fact that its underground portions are predominantly for transportation purposes. The main room itself is below street level on the west side, and then the rest of the complex just keeps going on down. With the addition of the MTA's East Side Access project's tracks 140 feet below the surface of Park Avenue, the whole thing will have dimensions reminiscent of an iceberg.

There have been three different buildings, each of increasing size and complexity, on the same site where Grand Central Terminal now stands. As you can see from the cross-section above, even the plans from the early 20th century structure (the extant third iteration itself) demonstrate an impressive hive of subterranean rooms and passages. Though for a short while in the 60s there were plans to build the Terminal upward, all major additions have continued to burrow further down through New York's famous bedrock. The image below of one of the first excavations of the site alone is an exciting glimpse of dieselpunk possibilities, for those of you so inclined.
I was in the GCT last week to meet up with someone, and we spent much of our time in its truly subterranean "dining" concourse -- I must confess, rather by my own design. This concourse is approximately the same floor dimensions as the main one above it, but subdivided by support arches and other foundational structure into rough two areas: the inner hallway of seating, and the outer circumference of food shops and entrances to the tracks. What immediately struck me as I entered it last week was the problem of lighting; here was a space that would cling to its darkness at every opportunity. By and large, the designers overcame this by the sue of hundreds of regular ol' lightbulbs, at regular intervals.

There were plenty of other, more creative solutions to filling some of those pesky lower areas of murk, such as illuminated poles built into each food shop's structure -- a must-have for any underground market, I should think.

The main seating areas (divided in two by a central open, bar-like shop) are cleverly patterned after older-fashioned train cars, including luggage racks. Actually, the whole dining course has rather suffered from a "Disney-fication" along the lines of Times Square, though they have made sure to include some authentic touches to such cheery nostalgia. The inner seating areas also feature warm-feeling wooden cross beams that serve to make the place feel rather like a well-lit vault but also, more importantly, no doubt serve to cut down on the sheer acoustic assault echoing marble can create in such a bustling place.

There are wall sconces, too! Light, light, everywhere! Below is a shot from outside the seating vault, further accenting its vaultiness with arched, spear-tip-gated portals. I'm unsure as to why there is a grand portal, and that wee imitation beside it. Perhaps it's indicative of some aspect of the original support design for the upper concourse.
Gleam also takes care of some of the lighting, as the polished marble reflects a lot of that bulbed light. A glimpse down one of the many track entrances shows just how significant the color of those incandescent bulbs can be. As you can see, too, most of the tracks are in fact further underground from the dining concourse.

There are a good amount of secrets attached to the GTC, of course. One of the best known (and by extension, least covert) is a secret "platform 61" beneath the Waldorf-Astoria, nearly ten blocks north of the terminal building itself. A great write-up about this platform's history and purpose by Joseph Brennan can be found here. In addition, there are various abandoned and converted tracks, as well as some secreted rooms. Sub-basement M42, though it has been explored by a few television programs (including Cities of the Underworld) is in a location still kept secret. As it provides the traction current to the Terminal, its undermining would mean a whole lot of mess. During World War II, Hitler sent spies with the specific intent to find and disable this key component in troop transportation in the US.

As I headed for the 7 train to make my return to Queens, I was reminded of DC's expansive metro platform tunnels. Most of New York's platforms are very modest, function-over-form affairs, and quite small, but the 7 platform beneath the GCT dates from the same period and has a huge, arching ceiling. It is nothing to paint a portrait of, but I wonder at how it was lit before someone installed its current Brutalist fluorescent lighting scheme.

An incandescent set of headlights saves us all (even the dude in the red sport coat) from the lightsaber-like glare...

Vast, subterranean and semi-submerged spaces hold a certain unique appeal. Not all caves and caverns are cramped, or chaotic in their structure. Some are more like mansions, or cathedrals.


  1. How odd that you just posted but it backdated to Thursday? Must've been when you started it - thats fine if that's what you intended.

    Hey, you didn't by chance take a closeup of that carving over the entrance to tracks 108/107 did you? It looks really cool.

  2. Nope, but I may be back there soon.