Grand Central Terminal

Only in New York would mere commuters arrive in the most stately of train stations.  Grand Central Terminal has welcomed travelers into the city since 1913.  Although Penn Station has the title for the busiest train station in the country (and even that is far from the busiest in the world),  it has 44 platforms and 67 tracks, the largest in the world.  Grand Central also has a cachet that is richly deserved among train station enthusiasts and visitors to the city.

The current terminal, once property of the New York Central Railroad, was built to replace the former Grand Central Depot and Grand Central Station that once graced the site.  Completed in 1913, it was designed by Warren and Wetmore.  The terminal was New York Central’s answer to the recently completed Penn Station, built by the rival Pennsylvania Railroad.  Grand Central and Penn Station would be in competition until the rivals united as Penn Central in 1968.  The Pennsylvania Railroad had already demolished Penn Station’s overground sections to get money to the struggling company.  Penn Central sought to reduce the costs to the company by repurposing the Grand Central Terminal site as a skyscraper with the station underground.  The station became the center of a preservation battle until the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of New York City’s historic preservation laws.  The terminal would gradually be restored and come under the management of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  A massive project to connect the terminal to the Long Island Railroad and alleviate commuter pressure on Penn Station is currently underway.

Grand Central Terminal contains the most well-known meeting place in the city… the clock over the information booth in the central concourse.  The clock is valued at over one million dollars.  The star of the terminal, however, is the mural painted by Paul Cesar Helleu, which shows the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere.  The perspective, however, is flipped so that it is the view from heaven instead of the one we mere mortals see.  A shopping arcade and market remain popular among the thousands using the station daily.  Of interest to tourists are the Grand Central Oyster Bar on the dining concourse (known for its whispering galleries made of Guastavino tiling).

Grand Central Terminal remains a nerve center of Midtown Manhattan.  Its development helped to make Midtown the preeminent business center of the city.  Additionally, a space as utilitarian as a train station is elevated to a high art form here.  Consider seeing Grand Central as part of a Sights by Sam tour of Midtown Manhattan.

The Whitney Museum

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was born into the wealthy Vanderbilt family–the ones that owned the New York Central Railroad. She married Harry P. Whitney, becoming even richer as the Whitney family owned substantial oil interests. Whitney turned toward art as a hobby and became an impressive sculptor in her own right.

Starting in 1914, Whitney began to amass American art. She felt that American artists needed to be exhibited and promoted. In 1929, she attempted to donate her collection of American modern art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which declined her collection–as did the Museum of Modern Art. Whitney’s artwork would be formed into what is now known as the Whitney Museum of Art in 1931.

The museum has moved from Greenwich Village to Midtown to the Upper East Side (in a Marcel Breuer-designed building now housing an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), to a new, Renzo Piano-designed edifice opened in 2015, which anchors the southern entrance to the High Line Park and contains 200,000 square feet of exhibition space. Many of the galleries have decks outside which provide great views of the surrounding city. The immediate neighborhood provides many opportunities for walking and eating in several restaurants and bars that have proliferated in recent years.

In addition to hosting a permanent collection of American artists such as Charles Demuth and Edward Hopper among more contemporary artists, the museum also has many temporary exhibits and hosts the famous Whitney Biennial every other year (next scheduled for 2017). Between 7:00PM and 9:30PM on Fridays, the museum has a “pay what you wish” policy. The Whitney should be on your itinerary for the modern building alone. A Sights by Sam walking tour of New York should be on the itinerary of any visitor to this great city.

The Empire State Building

Rising 1454 feet tall and the tallest building in the world for nearly forty years between 1931 and 1970, the Empire State Building has featured in the imaginations of tourists, immigrants, and New York natives since it punched through the clouds. It has made numerous appearances in movies, tacky souvenirs, and even New York license plates.

The building was constructed in a record 410 days at the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan. The site was the original home of the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. The firm of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon was tasked with constructing the tower. The tower is allegedly patterned off of the then recently-completed Carew Tower in Cincinnati (which also coincidently is the home of the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge). Over 3,400 workers labored on the structure, which provided needed jobs during the Great Depression. Construction proceeded at such a fast pace and such a precise timetable that workers reported the steel from mills in Bethlehem, PA, was still warm when it arrived. The tower was designed in an Art Deco style and clad in Indiana limestone.

Although the building was the tallest in the world, it was not fully occupied until the 1950s, leading it to be called the “Empty State Building.” The observation deck and its broadcasting antenna (added later) proved to be major sources of income for its owners. A well-circulated story about the building’s mast being used as a mooring mast for airships is unfounded–a U.S. military test showed an airship could be anchored, but no one could enter or exit easily. The tower was a sight of tragedy in 1945 when a lost B-25 bomber crashed into the tower between the 79th and 80th floors. Fourteen people were killed in the incident.

The tower itself has over two million square feet of usable office space. Environmental retrofits over the years have earned the Empire State Building LEED certification. Special occasions have been observed since 1976 with the color of the floodlights of the tower being changed for the occasion. In 2012, LEDs replaced the floodlights, allowing thousands of color combinations.

If you are going up to the tower, it is recommended to buy tickets on their site in advance, lest you be subject to lines that will take away most of a day of sightseeing. If you can splurge for it, go to the 102nd floor observation deck to get an incredible view of the city, although the deck is no longer the tallest in the city–1 World Trade Center’s deck is–for now… Many tourists go to 30 Rockefeller Center nearby to get a less crowded view of the city and see the Empire State Building standing proud among the concrete and steel canyons of Manhattan. Even if you do not go up the tower and despite the massive construction boom, you cannot help but see one of New York’s tallest ambassadors from most vantage points in the city. This building’s towering profile and more can be seen on any Sights by Sam tour.