The Grand Tour

Friday, March 30th, 2007 | All Things, NYC History

Thunder, thunder, thunder, thundercats!

Justin Ferate, an urban storyteller, historian and a former director of continuing education at The Cooper Union, hosts weekly tours of Midtown Manhattan, with a focus on its crowning jewel: Grand Central Terminal. Ferate is one of the city’s most popular and dynamic tour guides; he was selected by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs to create the licensing examination for prospective city tour guides. The test comprises 150 questions on everything from knowledge of landmarks, history, and public points of interest, to lore, literature, ethnic foods, religious sites and city transportation routes.

This afternoon I joined a group of a couple dozen, mostly tourists, across the street from Grand Central at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria. In the airy sculpture court, Ferate held forth entertainingly about Old New York: on Edith Wharton, the Vanderbilts, and the spirited rivalry between the Waldorfs and the Astors. We made our way onto sunny Park Avenue where the stories continued under the gaze of the Hercules, Minerva and Mercury, surrounding the thirteen foot Tiffany glass clock.

Grand Central 42nd Street

Justin Ferate

First off: as the onetime principal origin and terminus for transcontinental railroads, the name of the building is Grand Central Terminal. Grand Central Station is the name of the nearby post office and the East Side IRT stop.

Grand Central Chandeliers

Over the next two and a half hours, Ferate guided and interacted with the group through the building, highlighting several aspects of the Beaux Arts architecture and the 12-year, $160 million LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing restoration of the terminal. Besides expanding the retail space and creating the gourmet food market, the renovation included the cleaning of the Main Concourse’s ceiling mural. In 1998, Grand Central unveiled the original sky ceiling, painted in 1912 by French artist Paul César Helleu.

For decades, the gilded constellations were obscured by what had been thought to be smoke soot generated by the trains sitting in the terminal. Spectroscopic analysis, however, revealed that the coating was actually tar and nicotine residue, generated by the cigars and cigarettes of the half-million commuters passing through the concourse daily — much like the Tiffany-style glass dome at the Carlton Hotel.

Renovators left a single rectangular patch of the ceiling untouched — half on the blue, half on the white — to remind visitors of the grime that once coated the entire ceiling, and of the immense work involved in restoring the mural to its current condition.

Grand Central Ceiling

Ferate’s energy and enthusiasm were infectious. He brought the group through the food court, where he waxed on about the New York classic black and white cookie (claiming that the best in the city is to be had at century-old Glaser’s Bakery on the Upper East Side), and in front of Junior’s glass cases, what makes a true New York cheesecake. (No graham cracker crust. And fruit glaze is for tourists.) We finished our tour at the Guastavino tiles of the whispering gallery.

Check out Ferate’s site for information on more of his entertaining tours around the city. Not just for tourists: in this month alone, you can explore neighborhoods from “Literary Brooklyn Heights” to “Historic! Romantic! Seductive! Staten Island!”

There are 3 Comments ... The Grand Tour

April 16, 2007

Maybe I’ll take that tour guide exam, you should too!

April 16, 2007

Also isn’t the night sky ceiling somehow inverted or backwards?
The black and white cookie link is brilliant, by the way.

April 16, 2007

Yes: it’s reversed. Ferate covered the point on his tour… among many other tidbits too numerous to get into on this blog.

Thank you. “Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie all our problems would be solved.”

Go for it ...