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The Amazing Arches & Ceilings of Grand Central Station

Archways and Ceilings of Grand Central Station Terminal NYC
Archways and Ceilings of Grand Central Station Terminal - Courtesy of Grand Central Terminal

When you step out of the hustle and bustle of New York City, into the breathtaking halls of Grand Central Station, you can feel like you’re walking into another world.

Behind the façade of elegant arches and stylish spaces is the history of the rail yards and how this station came to be. The Grand Central Terminal has become something of a monument to New Yorkers with its beautiful architectural features.

Keep reading to find out more about the history of the Grand Central Terminal and its amazing arches and ceilings.

Grand Central Terminal History

The Grand Central Terminal came into fruition out of necessity. New Yorkers needed a central terminal to connect the Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroad.

The Vanderbilt family commissioned this new station and called it the Grand Central Depot. The project was completed in 1871 at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. However, due to frequent accidents involving pedestrians, Vanderbilt came up with the Fourth Avenue Improvement Project the following year. This project allowed trains coming from the north to descend into the Park Avenue Tunnel and move underground into the depot instead of on street level.

With traffic increasing very quickly, the Grand Central Depot reached capacity in the 1890s. As such, the building was reconstructed and renamed as Grand Central Station.

After an unfortunate accident in 1902, causing the death of 15 people, it was clear some changes had to be made. The entire building was torn down and the current Grand Central Terminal was built by the New York Central Railroad.

Two firms were selected for the project: Reed and Stem worked on the overall design of the terminal and Warren and Wetmore were responsible for the building’s Beaux-Arts exterior.

In 1913, the new Grand Central Station was revealed to the public, hosting the numerous architectural wonders that we can see today. Its ceilings stretched to the skies and it featured impressive rooms such as the Vanderbilt Hall.

In 1968, New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad, becoming Penn Central Railroad. As railroad traffic declined in the coming years, an office building replaced Penn Station. This was a great architectural loss and spurred the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee to give Grand Central Station landmark status.

Grand Central Depot
Grand Central Depot between circa 1861 and circa 1880 - Credit: C. K. Bill

Restoration And Improvements

After achieving landmark status, a massive restoration needed to occur. The station was modified and cleaned. This restoration included creating a retail space, scrubbing away blackout paint from World War II, and installing a marble staircase on the west side to match the one on the east. In addition, the ceilings were cleaned - revealing the beautiful starry mural that lay underneath.

Grand Central now features food halls with restaurants, fast food outlets, and fresh food markets among other vendors. There is also the Metro-North lost-and-found bureau and even an annex of the New York Transit Museum.

Grand Central Station Ceiling Architecture

Above and beyond the history, the thing that really sets Grand Central Station apart is its architecture. It took a concept of practicality and made it artistic with its swooping arches and detailed murals. 

The Main Concourse

Stepping into the Main Concourse will leave just about anyone and everyone speechless. The enormous barrel vault and igloo vault ceiling makes it feel as though the building soars into the heavens - especially with the celestial mural painted across it. This is probably the most famous ceiling today. But, creating these heavens was no easy feat. It took dozens of people and years to build the Grand Central Terminal ceilings.

Even though the terminal opened in 1913, it was only in 1930 that the magnificent arched ceiling was revealed to the New York public. It wasn’t long before commuters realized the design was the wrong way round. East was West and West was East. This sparked an age-old debate that adds to the character of this new terminal about whether it was the secret intention of the artist.

Grand Central Station Main Concourse - Barrel Vault ceiling
Grand Central Station with it's beautiful Barrel Vault Ceiling - Credit: MTA on Flickr

The Oyster Bar Ceiling

An absolute design wonder, the Oyster Bar’s arched ceiling still draws international architectural wonder. Designed and built by Guastavino and his son, the self-supporting igloo arches are enough to marvel at. But, to top it off, Guastavino laid the arches with fireproof tiles that would save grand central 96 years later.

This innovative concept, developed in 1901 saved the Oyster Bar from total collapse in 1997. As a fire-ravaged through the restaurant burning anything, the tiles protected the internal arched structure, and consequently the rest of the grand central terminal. 

The Oyster Bar restaurant in Grand Central Station with it's amazing Igloo Vault ceilings
The incredible Igloo Vault ceilings in the Oyster Bar restaurant in Grand Central Station - Credit: Restaurant Hospitality

The Graybar Passage Mural

Set between the Grand Central Market and Graybar Building, is the Graybar Passage which features a ceiling mural.

Edward Trumbull, a well-known artist in his time, painted this mural on one of the Passage’s  groin-vaulted ceilings . Although the colors have now faded to a sweet caramel, this mural once hosted extravagant colors and details.

As you enter the Graybar Passage from the Grand Central Terminal, you can see cumulus clouds on the first two vaults. The idea was to make the ceilings appear higher. The third vaulted ceiling displays Trumbull’s work, which displays various technologies that influence the world on each of the four sides. If you look closely, you can spot electric trains, skyscrapers, airplanes, and zeppelins.

Graybar Passage Mural on an Igloo Ceiling at Grand Central Station
The famous mural on one of the Groin Vaulted Ceilings in Graybar Passage in Grand Central Station - Credit: Daniel Thurber for Bookworm History

Grand Central Station Arches

The ceilings aren’t the only interesting architectural features you can find in Grand Central. There are many amazing arches throughout the building that create flow and light.

Arched Windows

As you step into the Main Concourse of Grand Central Station, massive  half-circle arched windows greet you. As these massive windows allow New York City to peer in on the hurry of commuters, it draws your eyes up to the beautiful barrel-vaulted ceiling. A cohesive flow of architecture that makes you feel small in its grandeur. 

And, if you allow your eyes to wander further up you will find  window arches , lining the celestial mural. These windows allow the natural light of New York City to fill in the Main Concourse, opening up the space so much more.

Majestic arched windows in the main concourse at Grand Central Station
Majestic arched windows in the main concourse at Grand Central Station - Credit: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Dual Radius Arches

What makes Grand Central Station such a historical and architectural wonder is its tasteful continuous use of arches. While most would focus on specific arched points, the architects of Grand Central Station did not hold back. As commuters travel through the concourse to catch their trains, passageways lined with  dual radius arches  lead the way. This fine attention to detail is what sets Grand Central Station arches apart from any other train station.

Some have even remarked that if you are not focused, you could lose track of time and miss your train. Archways lead to more archways, with beautiful arched windows. You can easily get caught in a world of wonder as you pass through the Grand Central arches. 

Dual Radius Arches line one of the ramps in Grand Central Terminal
Dual Radius Arches line a ramp to the lower concourse in Grand Central Terminal. Circa 1913-1920 - Credit: Library of Congress

Elliptical Arches

What truly sets Grand Central Station apart, more than anything, is its use of elliptical arches. Elliptical arches are some of our first arches used historically, dating back to the Roman era .

The architects of Grand Central Station were able to transform the elliptical arch from practical reinforcement to elegant walkways. As you leave the Oyster Bar, these arches balloon above your head, leading you through to Grand Central’s terminals. Elliptical arches are also found as you walk through Graybar's Passage, forming half of the barrel vaults that comprise the groin vaults. 

You may find that these arches, adorned by the classical murals and masterful tiling, set the trend for modern architecture.

Graybar's Passage in Grand Central Station is lined with Elliptical Arches
Graybar's Passage in Grand Central Station is lined with Elliptical Arches - Credit: Wikipedia

The Whispering Gallery

Perhaps one of, if not the, most famous of the Grand Central’s elegant centerpieces is the Whispering Gallery. This arch was popularized by tourists, once they realized that, through the cacophony of the New York Railroad, the quietest of whispering could be heard across the room.

This effect, created by  elliptical arches , is not uncommon. In fact, you find these corners of quiet amplification  all around the world in England, India, even Utah. But perhaps, the thing that makes the Whispering Gallery so popular is the fact that you are able to hear a whisper amongst so much noise in the city that never sleeps.

However, its secret is quite simple. The tightly packed and curved tiles carry the sound of the room from one end to another. And with nothing, no vents or rugs, to absorb the sound waves, they can travel easily from one end to the other.

The Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Station
The Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Station - Credit: Wikipedia

Final Thoughts

When transforming the original Grand Depot to Grand Central Station, the two architectural firms aimed to create a monument that embodied New York. Not only did they succeed, but Grand Central Station opened up the doors to architectural art. With the help of the masterful hands of Guastavino and other artists, Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore were able to make commuting a wonder to experience.

Grand Central Station hosts some of the most popular arches in the world, designed and finished by masters. In this, New York City had transformed arches and architectural elements from matters of practicality to works of art. This has created a center of human hustle and bustle, under the somewhat backwards, celestial skies.

We know you're probably not building the next Grand Central Station, but if you've thought about incorporating some of these incredible design elements into your own home, it’s important to get a professional’s advice. Don't hesitate to  contact a pro at Archways & Ceilings  on how you too can add some amazing arches and ceilings into your next project.

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