The Secrets of Grand Central Terminal
by Sean Leahy
I know several photographers who go by the axiom “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”. I suppose in the cut throat world where the difference between you and the guy getting paid is whether or not you got the shot, not whether or not you followed the rules, that might be valid. On the other hand, good things do come to those who play it by the book.
At the moment I’m lucky to have a job that gives me some free time in New York City several days a month. A friend, Byron, mentioned in conversation that it might be fun to go into New York’s Grand Central Terminal with a tripod and do some longer exposures. I thought that was a great idea, but began to wonder what the rules were, post 9/11 New York City and all. Once we had decided on when we wanted to go, I started making the phone calls to get the clearance we needed.
“It’s a terminal. Grand Central is a terminal. It’s not a station. It’s a terminal. Trains stop here. It’s the end of the line. The subway has a station, but Grand Central is a terminal.” Once we got that settled, I answered a few questions regarding my purpose in photographing the place. “This is your lucky day!” said the colorful character on the other end of the line. “It just happens that I will be giving someone a tour of the M42, the lowest sub-basement at the terminal, the lowest point on Manhattan Island, and Platform 61—FDR’s private, secret platform at the Waldorf Astoria.” On a second call to firm up a few details, the pot was sweetened to include a trip to a more or less forbidden catwalk above the west balcony.
When we arrived we met our guide, who looked at a schedule board and took us out to the train platforms. “Ok, follow me.” He said, “I’m going to get you set up for some great shots. I know you’re the photographers, but trust me.” I was able to get a few good ones of commuter trains arriving and about 1,000 people pouring out of each.
After about half an hour, and setting up at a few different tracks, we headed for the West side catwalk.
Our guide had to call ahead to let the security know we were going to be there. And we were told to hold on to our camera gear tightly. If something were to get loose and fall from our perch, we’d all take our last breaths before it hit the ground, and more importantly, of course, our host that day would lose his job. We were afforded ample time on the catwalk, never felt rushed, even though our host repeated that we really shouldn’t be there and we should get our shots quickly. Byron and I worked up a sweat in short order—making our shots, changing lenses as quickly and safely as possible, switching between tripod and hand-held, making use of the three open windows available to us. I used my Sigma 10-20mm most for this location, coupled with my Pentax DA* 16-50mm f/2.8. I had my Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 with me as well, for longer shots or detail work, but didn’t use it from this vantage point, or much at all for this shoot.
The special tour we were afforded was originally planned as a birthday gift for Sheryl (AKA *Bitch Cakes*) whom we now met (read Sheryl’s side of the GCT story on one of her other blogs). Sheryl is an interesting character; every day she dresses herself in 1940s and 50s vintage-style clothing, which is in stark contrast to her many tattoos. We followed our guide to a nice vantage point over the main concourse for some portraits (an interesting perk to the photographic marathon that was our day).
Next we were taken down on a rickety old service elevator to the super-sub-basement level of the terminal, known as M42. We arrived as our guide was telling us the story of a plot to sabotage the railway during WW2. The M42 was a super secret level to the terminal that wasn’t on any of the design plans. Few people more than those who actually worked down there or those who built it knew of its existence. During WW2, if you were to find your way down to that level, without the proper clearance, you’d have been held there till the end of the war. Hitler came to know of its existence, though, and launched a plot to sabotage the AC to DC converters kept in the M42 by pouring bags of sand in them. This would have effectively crippled all troupe movement along the Eastern Seaboard. So, if you were caught holding bags of sand when those doors opened, you’d have been shot on sight. The CIA, however, was aware of the ploy, and the would-be saboteurs were caught before they could perpetrate their crime.
The M42 is a large, cavernous room, nearly 3 stories. About half of the floor space along its main concourse holds the current converter grid, while the other half is dedicated to preserving the old machines, for the sake of history.
Upon re-emerging on the ground level of the terminal, we picked up some hard hats and headed outside, crossed a couple of streets and entered into an unassuming little side door at the Waldorf Astoria. It was about 90°F (32°C) outside. Our guide told us, when we returned it would feel like 70°F (21°C)! Down a couple of long stair cases, and we arrived at what was FDR’s secret platform below the Waldorf on Track 61. The area was quite disheveled, more like a construction site than anything that would reveal its rich history. Tracks ending, bare earth, partially finished wooden paths, bare cement and steel foundation works. You can hear commuter trains passing on nearby operational tracks just beyond a retainer wall. The heat was oppressive. Sitting in this environment, quiet and unassuming, is an old rail car with the markings “MNCX 002”.
There seems to be some conjecture as to whether or not this car actually belonged to FDR, but I’m perfectly happy to believe it did. I whipped out the tripod and took several long exposures (20-30 sec). On this one, I used a pocket sized flashlight to add a little more light to the ID markings. We emerged from below the Waldorf, and, as predicted, the 90° heat at street level felt like a cool, breezy 70°F (21°C).
Through it’s many renovations over the last century, a sense of history has been maintained at Grand Central Terminal. While it is a fully functioning rail terminal and subway station with all of the modern amenities, many items of historical significance have been preserved. In the Biltmore Room (aka. The Kissing Room), located near Track 42, you will find one of the original schedule chalk boards. Instead of simply tearing it down and destroying it, when they upgraded to flip panels and later LCD displays, it was encased in glass and left to stand as a testament to time.
This dedication to history and attention to detail goes beyond what one might expect. During a renovation in the mid-90’s, they restored a service elevator (the one that took us to the M42 level). The paint had chipped away over time and use. They restored the paint to its original colors, even though only employees would ever be expected to see it, and only a few of them.
You could probably spend a couple of weeks just shooting the sights associated with GCT alone. Be sure to bring your wide angle lenses to capture the grand scale of this icon of New York City. Inside the terminal I shot 800 ISO almost exclusively. You’ll need at least that if you want to hand hold, and some pretty hearty image stabilization, or use some sort of camera support, like a monopod or tripod.
Shooting with a tripod in Grand Central is absolutely no problem; just call ahead to get the clearance you need to do so. Be prepared to answer a few questions about who you are and your purposes in photographing the place. Upon arrival you will be issued a “Special Pass”—a sticker to be worn identifying you as having special clearance to use the tripod and/or other large/professional camera gear and the station’s security detail will be notified of your presence and clearance. You’ll find the staff is friendly and very helpful. But one word of advice: It’s Grand Central Terminal, don’t call it a “station”.
You can see more of Sean’s photos from Grand Central Terminal here.
Sean Leahy is a vagabond musician and photographer who employs both as reason and means for traveling the world.
All photos: ©Sean Leahy.