Grand Central Terminal,
Passenger service: no regular service
Existing abandoned portions: non-revenue platform on sidings
Touring: On Metro North trains leaving Grand Central, look out to the right as the train leaves the station.
construction and operation
The Waldorf-Astoria platform is not really an abandoned station, but it might as well be mentioned here.
Grand Central Terminal was constructed from 1903 to 1913 on the site of an older Grand Central Depot, which was replaced in gradual steps. The original depot that opened in 1872 was at street level, filling the space between Vanderbilt Ave and Depew Place from 42 St to 45 St. A large trainyard also at street level grew to take up much of the next few blocks almost from Madison Ave to Lexington Ave. The tracks narrowed to the width of Park Ave at 49 St and entered the Park Ave tunnel at 56 St.
In a bold and visionary move, the New York Central Railroad spent an enormous sum to relocate the entire terminal and yard below street grade, on two track levels and occupying even more property, making a large rectangle bounded by 42 St, Lexington Ave, 50 St, and a line between Vanderbilt Ave and Madison Ave. The monumental station building was placed at the end of the tracks, centered on Park Ave from 42 St to 44 St. Once the terminal was completed, the rest of the valuable real estate was made available for buildings over the tracks.
The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was built in 1929-1931 on one of the Grand Central lots, a whole block from 49 St to 50 St between Park Ave and Lexington Ave. It replaced four buildings less than twenty years old. The New York Central had an electrical power building along the 50 St side of the entire block. Along the 49 St side were the railroad YMCA at Park Ave, a large railroad powerhouse in mid block, and a building for the Adams Express Company package service on Lexington Ave. The powerhouse supplied steam to the station and some of the other buildings, and the attached electrical building had transformers and storage batteries supplying traction power to the railroad. Both buildings became surplus in 1929 when the railroad began getting steam and electric power from Con Edison. (A second electrical powerhouse had been built underground in 1918 under 43 St near Lexington Ave, deep under what is now an arcade of shops, and it is still partly functional in supplying traction power.)
The heritage of the lot left an interesting backwater area of sidings below the Waldorf and nearby streets and lots, which are still in use to hold trains out of the way. Gratings in the sidewalk of 49 St and other streets allow glimpses of tracks and train roofs just below. The two wide platforms for the powerhouse and Adams Express are still there. The Waldorf-Astoria was allowed a partial basement along the 50 St side but is otherwise directly over the tracks and the two platforms.
The "abandoned platform" that concerns us is the former loading platform for the powerhouse. The platform was of course never used or intended to be used in regular passenger service, and it was not even built for the hotel; it just happens to be in the right place.
A stairway and a freight elevator run from the platform to a street entrance on 49 St. A comparison of plans before and after construction of the Waldorf-Astoria shows that the freight elevator is not original. At some date after 1913, it was built in the location of a former pipe shaft, and this was probably not possible until after the powerhouse closed in 1929. Therefore, it was installed together with construction of the hotel. Although it is within the envelope of the hotel building, it opens only onto the street. There is also another stairway exit, without an elevator, on the 50 St side of the hotel building.
The New York Times of 8 September 1929 carried a story titled "NEW WALDORF GETS OWN RAIL SIDING" that states:
The new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, to be erected in the block bounded by Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets, will have a private railway siding underneath the building, it was learned yesterday. Guests with private rail cars may have them routed directly to the hotel instead of to the Pennsylvania Station or the Grand Central Terminal, and may leave their cars at a special elevator which will take them directly to their suites or to the lobby.
The arrangement is made possible because of the fact that the New York Central tracks pass directly beneath the block, which has been obtained by the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria Corporation from the New York Central Railroad on a sixty-three-year leasehold, the lease being in reality only for the "air rights" on the site.
The platform is mentioned in the W P A New York City Guide (New York: Random House, 1939): "Eighty per cent of the building is over the tracks of the New York Central, and private railroad cars may be shunted to a special entrance."
William D Middleton provided the canonical account of the Waldorf platform in his book Grand Central: the world's greatest railway terminal (San Marino CA: Golden West Books, 1977), as follows:
Its location above the tracks permitted the celebrated hostelry the unique distinction of its own railroad side track in the basement, so to speak. Officially identified as Track 61 in one of Grand Central's storage areas, with a freight elevator providing access to the hotel, the siding was used on occasion for the arrival or departure of distinguished guests traveling by private railroad cars.
General John J Pershing was the first to use it, on a visit to the city in 1938. During the 1944 campaign Franklin D Roosevelt gave a foreign policy address at the Waldorf and then descended into the "basement" to the presidential rail car for the journey home to Hyde Park. On other occasions the siding has been used for such diverse affairs as a 1947 "debut at the Waldorf" for a new 6,000 horsepower diesel locomotive, or for a 1965 "underground party" for pop artist Andy Warhol.
Middleton's account follows the Times story in giving the impression that the elevator is one of the hotel's elevators that runs up to hotel floors. But something seems to have changed while the hotel was being built. For one thing, the siding was not used for private cars for seven years, and then when it was finally used, the elevator did not go directly into the hotel.
The press accounts of General Pershing's visit are clear on where the elevator was. Pershing had had a heart attack in February and had not been expected to attend his son's wedding in New York. The New York Times of 21 April 1938 describes it this way:
Elaborate precautions were taken to save the general from any undue exertion, for he was fatigued from the long journey from Tucson, Ariz. where he made a remarkable recovery. From Grand Central station his special railroad car was shunted to a ramp under the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria that had never been used before.
[He remained in the car while doctors checked him, and then] the General emerged, surrounded by detectives. camera bulbs flashed rapidly and then the general entered a freight elevator. [and] entered the hotel between two lines of private guards.
The article includes a photograph of Pershing, evidently taken to one of those flashing bulbs on the Waldorf platform. From the account, clearly when he left the freight elevator, he then had to walk some short distance into the hotel itself.
An article titled "Discovering the secrets of Grand Central Terminal". from the Journal-News of 9 Sep 2001, describes the freight elevator used by Pershing.
[Metro North spokesman Dan Brucker said that President Roosevelt's] "armor-plated Pierce Arrow car would drive off the train, onto this platform and into the elevator, and it would bring him and his car into the hotel garage.". The 6-foot-wide elevator, built to accommodate a 6,000-pound armored car, is kept in shape by elevator mechanic Darick Jones. Once at street level, Jones yanks the elevator gates open to reveal 49th Street. Driving an automobile with a slim profile, one could still make a sharp, right U-turn into the Waldorf garage. The locked entrance to the secret station is down a stairway concealed behind a brass door marked 101-121 49th St, below a sign that reads "Metro-North Fire Exit".
The Roosevelt story has taken on new dimensions here, with the automobile riding the train and taking the elevator. Recall that Middleton mentions just one use of the elevator. Many re-tellings of the tale now assume that Roosevelt used the platform routinely. For example, take this account in an academic book, Grand Central Terminal: railroads, engineering, and architecture in New York City by Kurt C Schlichting (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001):
When President Franklin Roosevelt stayed at the Waldorf, his train would stop on the upper level of the underground train yard directly under the hotel. This enabled the president's aides to carry the paralyzed Roosevelt through a special door and then by elevator directly to his room, avoiding the public altogether.
Unfortunately I have been unable to confirm even the one use that Middleton refers to. It must be Roosevelt's visit to the city on 21 October 1944 to address the Foreign Policy Association (see the New York Times ). He made a very public arrival with a four hour tour of four boroughs in an open top automobile in the rain, to let the people see him. The secret platform on that trip was outdoors at Bush Terminal: Robert Sherwood, an eye witness, says that's where the train arrived, in his book Roosevelt and Hopkins. Nothing is said about a carfloat, so the private car must have gone through Penn Station and then via Long Island lines.
The Times does not disclose Roosevelt's hotel, but a followup story puts him still in the city the next day, attending a dinner party in his honor at the Astor Hotel. Did he then go to Hyde Park? Roosevelt made no public appearances between the dinner in New York on 22 October and an afternoon press conference in Washington DC on 24 October, but that still doesn't give him much time, and his health was weakening, despite the impression he gave the public. He died in April 1945 of heart disease. It seems most likely to me that he journeyed to Washington on 23 October, ruling out use of the Grand Central platform. There is perhaps still room (but not much) to argue.
There is only scattered documentation of later use of the platform, which is to be expected since it was so often used for privacy.
A "new streamlined 6,000-horsepower Diesel-electric locomotive was placed on exhibition for the first time. on the Waldorf's private siding beneath
the hotel", according to the Times of 23 September 1946. The Alco product could be seen that day and the next. This model was to begin service not on the New York Central but on the Santa Fe.
A small notice in the Times of 26 January 1947 mentions the group of notable New Yorkers who held titles as Vice President of the small Lancaster and Chester Railway, South Carolina. The president of the company explained that they get one free ride a year, and "they are also expected to rally around the president's private car when it is parked under the Waldorf". The car was Loretta, formerly owned by Charles Schwab.
The Boston clothing store Filene's and the New Haven railroad staged a fashion show of beach clothes in Grand Central, said the Times of 11 June 1948. The press and fashion executives were treated to a lunch in the New Haven's diner car Whaler, "which was brought to the Presidential siding under the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for the occasion".
General Douglas Macarthur took up residence in the Waldorf upon his return from Korea in April 1951. The Times of 27 July 1951 reports that he returned from addressing the Massachusetts legislature in Boston by special train. "The General's private car and the observation car, from which MacArthur's five-star flag was flying, were run off onto the "presidential siding" beneath the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Employes of the hotel had rolled out a red carpet across the platform to an elevator. General MacArthur, in uniform, and Mrs MacArthur, in a dark blue ensemble, posed for press photographers with Frederic C Dumaine Jr, president of the New Haven Railroad, and Mrs Dumaine, who had accompanied them. The party then entered the elevator and was taken to the MacArthur suite."
The photograph below was taken on the Waldorf platform, but lacks any notation. The man fifth from the left, dark suit, just to the right of the column appears to be Governor Adlai Stevenson (Illinois), a candidate for President in 1952. He gave a speech at the Waldorf on 28 August 1952, and it is tempting to suppose that the occasion here was his arrival in New York. The shortest man, third to the right of Stevenson, is Senator John O Pastore (Rhode Island).
The Times reported on 11 December 1955 that the Westchester Chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association was to hold a New Year's Eve Donor Dinner Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf. "To facilitate traveling to the fete, Mrs Eli Goldberg, cotillion chairman, has announced that arrangements have been made for a New Haven Railroad train to make stops at Rye, Harrison, New Rochelle and Larchmont to pick up guests from those areas and take them directly to the hotel's railroad siding." In a follow-up on 31 December, the paper noted, "The private railroad siding of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, rarely used except for Presidential visits, will receive tonight a special train" for the cotillion.
In 1961 the siding was used to make a film about the "redcap evangelist" Ralston C Young, a long-time Grand Central railroad porter who held informal noon sessions in a coach in the station. The Times reported on 9 August that the Episcopal Radio and Television Foundation were making the film for showing at their convention in Detroit on 19 September.
The designation "presidential siding" was possibly used simply for publicity value, and the comment in the 1955 story may be based on the name rather than on hard information. It is hard to say.
By 1978, the platform was known as one of the many places in Grand Central Terminal where squatters lived, a problem exacerbated at that time by inflation and a poorly thought-through campaign to cut down on single room occupancy buildings in the city. A Times story by David Bird on 17 March 1980 refers directly to people sleeping on the Waldorf platform, "next to the elevator that once carried President Franklin D Roosevelt in his wheelchair up to the hotel from a special railroad siding".
Much reduced, this is a portion of a diagram of the upper track level of Grand Central Terminal revised to 1952. The area of interest is the triangular area in the upper right. Below it, tracks extend down along platforms to the station concourse across the bottom of the image.
Running along the right side edge is the Lexington Ave subway, with its 51 St station at extreme upper right. Just feet outside the outer wall of the railroad terminal, it is totally separated except by public passageways at the station at 42 St (below the bottom edge of this image).
The railroad enters under Park Avenue, at upper left, which expands from one level of four tracks at 57 St to the multiple tracks seen here, which have just diverged into the two levels as they approach the station. From 50 St, a pair of diagonal tracks called ladders run down and to the right, with tracks running off them to the station platform tracks. The stub tracks in the triangle at 50 St and Lexington Ave are therefore outside the main flow of traffic in and out of the station.
The wide "Waldorf platform" is just under the ST. lettering in 50 St, and the elevator is next to the black spot located on the upper side of 49 St. To the right can be seen the other wide platform, formerly used for Adams Express. The Waldorf platform is between tracks 61 and 63 (there is no 62). For orientation, it is just past station platforms 11-13 and 14-15 (there is also no track 12), but it is separated from them by the ladder track. There are no station platforms at tracks 1 to 10, but they do exist; 1 and 2 are the return from the loop, and 3 to 10 are sidings. The best view from a train to the Waldorf platform would be from the right side of a train departing tracks 38 to 42 by way of the loop and thus passing into track 1 or 2 and up the ladder past the entrance to 61.
A very small portion of the same track diagram is shown closer to original size, top, and the same area is shown from another track diagram dated 1912, for comparison. A rectangle showing the building line at street level is overlaid on both images.
The wide platform between 61 and 63 is the Waldorf platform. The elevator is not on the 1912 diagram, which has instead a rectangle labelled PIPE SHAFT at that location. It seems that with the powerhouse gone, the shaft was reused, for in the 1952 diagram is the same rectangle, unlabelled but with an X in it. Next to it is a stairway marked STAIRS D. and nearby a METER HOUSE just past the elevator.
The other stairway to the street, on the 50 St side, is marked STAIRS E in both diagrams, near the upper left corner of the block (it's a little hard to see in the newer diagram). In 1912, this was near SUB-STATION NO 1 and a LIGHTING SUB-STATION while afterwards the HOTEL WALDORF-ASTORIA fills that space and more besides, causing some of the tracks to be cut back in length.
There is an unlabelled triangular space next to the LIGHTING SUB-STATION in 1912, which had a turntable in it during construction. A photograph (below) shows an additional track leading into that space, and a Bromley real estate atlas (further below) shows a turntable. On the 1952 diagram, the space contains a TRANSFORMER VAULT. and a CIRCUIT BREAKER ROOM just off the image border. At far left is SIGNAL TOWER "A". controlling train movements on the upper level.
To the right of the Waldorf platform is the Adams Express platform, which in 1912 had freight elevators up to the company's building on Lexington Ave. Although this corner of the station is only one track level deep, Adams needed access to the lower track level of the terminal, and one elevator runs down from its platform to a "trucking subway", a passageway shown by the dashed lines that runs to the express platform on the edge of the lower level. The express elevators seem to be gone in the 1952 diagram, but the passageway is still shown by faint dotted lines and is presumably still there today. Stairs D (near the Waldorf elevator) may run down to that level as well.
It took a few years for the Grand Central lots to be all built up. In the meantime, parts of the upper track level were open to the sky. Above, about 1914, are the YMCA, the powerhouse, and Adams Express lined up along the north side of 49 St, and behind them the electrical power building along the length of 50 St. These are substantial looking new buildings and it's hard to believe they will be torn down in just over ten years to make way for the Waldorf-Astoria.
Just a few years earlier in 1908, a vast area was under construction, with train service maintained all the while. The powerhouse is not yet built, but the by comparing the views, it is possible to pick out the electrical power building running across the length of the block. As a landmark, note the peaked-roof section of the Schaeffer Brewery behind the left part of the powerhouse in both photos. (St Bartholomew's church was later built on the brewery site.)
The floor of the excavation is at the lower track level, and as the foundation is finished, part of the upper track level has been built and put into use above it. The portion of the new station along the Lexington Ave side (right) was built first. A series of "bites" then carried the work across the whole station. The march of progress can be seen here, from the old station yard at ground level at far left to completed two-level structure on the right. The tracks converge on Park Ave in the left distance, where a truss footbridge still spans the street-level tracks.
Looking the other way, below, in an incredible view from a vantage point up in the powerhouse, it is easier to see the old street level tracks on the right side, leading to the remaining Vanderbilt Ave side of the old Grand Central Depot even as the left side of the new Terminal goes up. The classical building straight ahead is the new Grand Central Station of the Postal Service. Beyond it out of sight is the old Grand Central Palace, an exhibition hall that had been converted to a temporary terminal, on Lexington Ave (seen at left) from 43 St to 44 St. Some trains are still using the old station too, on the other side of the work zone. The 44 St truss bridge over the old tracks is still there but not much longer. The tracks leading to the future Waldorf platform are at bottom center.