The Hidden History of Grand Central Station
Like many people who read crime fiction, I enjoy “smart” thrillers—not just car chases and shootouts—books from which I’ve come away with a good measure of suspense and entertainment, but also enriched by something I’ve learned in the hours spent inside the story. In each of the Alex Cooper novels in my series, I’ve chosen to set the mystery against some aspect of New York City history, often a landmark location, using that background to explore the dark underbelly of Manhattan. No matter how refined or elegant the venue appears to be— Lincoln Center, the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Public Library, the ghost town on Governors Island, or the 843 acres of Central Park—once you begin to scratch the surface, there are haunting reminders of sinister deeds and motives from past adventures.
Grand Central Terminal is one of my favorite buildings in Manhattan. As a kid from the suburbs, it was my gateway to all the adventure that awaited me in the big city. Last year marked the centennial of the colossal structure, so I was tempted to explore it anew, from the perspective of a crime writer, to learn some of the secrets it held. In the days before its impressive rehabilitation, it had become a dangerous site: its great Vanderbilt Hall waiting room filled with the city’s homeless, many of whom were deranged. I prosecuted a good number of crimes that occurred there, some within the many miles of tunnels that stretched out from the marble concourses of the upper and lower floors. I remember the outrage thirty years ago that the terminal was dubbed the “wild west,” when its police officers patrolled for a night wearing only their hats, neckties, and shoes.
The terminal is an architectural wonder, with a labyrinthine design, and some of its elements so mysterious that there are entire sub-basement rooms that don’t appear on any blueprints. No wonder, then, that even Hitler (for you spy-thriller enthusiasts) sent men to try to infiltrate and sabotage one of these underground rooms, knowing that he could paralyze troop movements along the entire Eastern seaboard by shutting down Grand Central.
There is the dazzling celestial ceiling, brilliantly restored—which had actually been installed backwards in the original construction one hundred years ago. Since the 1930s, there has been an escape route designed for the president of the United States, since a train tunnel might be the only means of escaping the city in the event of an air attack. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WWII armored railroad car, specially outfitted to accommodate his wheelchair and touring car, still sits on tracks just yards from the terminal, on a siding used for the current getaway train whenever the sitting president is in town. The entire underground zone envisioned and constructed in the early 20th century was meant to connect travelers to hotels, private clubs, banks, and office buildings without their ever having to go out onto the streets above—a concept called “terminal city.”
I began my research the way I always do, by simply visiting the site and walking all the public parts of Grand Central Terminal, to take in the visuals as well as the sounds. It’s astounding how very different the rhythms and choreography are throughout the day—the morning and evening rush of commuters versus the midday traffic of tourists and locals enjoying the food courts. More than 750,000 people move through the building every day, a figure I found stunning, and it’s the sixth-most popular tourist attraction in the world.
After the repeated walking tours, I tried to get special access to the terminal, which happened in three different ways. First are the daily tours offered by the Municipal Arts Society, which go a bit off the beaten track and provide a ton of detail about the history of the building as well as some of its secrets. Next, I prodded some connections for an introduction to one of the brilliant architects whose firm, Beyer, Blinder, Belle, did the painstaking restoration after the terminal was saved from destruction. Frank Prial, Jr. took me twenty stories above the concourse to walk on the glass catwalks, which are so spooky that I knew I had a plot point for a suspenseful scene as soon as I caught my breath. He also showed me many other areas that are not available to the public, enough of them to fill a notebook. My last guide was amazing. Daniel Brucker, a Metro North PR man (think Danny DeVito on steroids) with a passion for Grand Central and a gift for storytelling, invited me to take a private tour with him. We went down to the secret sub-basements, out onto the railroad tracks, and uptown to see Roosevelt’s train and the hidden entrance from the subterranean tunnels into the elegant Waldorf Astoria Hotel. I fell in love with GCT all over again, ready to take up residence in the historic terminal, maybe a studio apartment right behind the massive Tiffany stained-glass clock face, looking out onto Park Avenue.
Once the touring was done, it was back to my desk to complete plotting the crimes, setting Alex Cooper and NYPD homicide detective Mike Chapman to work at solving them. Grand Central Terminal, the centerpiece of New York City, lent both its majesty and its mystery to the crafting of Coop’s sixteenth crime caper, Terminal City.
Linda Fairstein, lawyer, former prosecutor, and best-selling crime novelist, is one of America’s foremost legal experts on crimes of violence against women and children. Ms. Fairstein is the author of an internationally best-selling series of crime novels (translated into more than a dozen languages) which feature Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. She is also the author of a non-fiction work, SEXUAL VIOLENCE: OUR WAR AGAINST RAPE (1993), which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She is a regular contributor on criminal justice issues to magazines, journals, and on-line publications like The Daily Beast. Fairstein is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and a member of the International Society of Barristers. This June, Dutton will release Linda’s latest novel, Terminal City.
Photo: Peter Simon