In the not-so-distant past, Grand Central Terminal’s majestic ceiling was grimy and dark, a far cry from the rich green hues that backdrop the constellations. From 1994-1998, the MTA engaged in a $200 million effort to clean the ceiling, leaving only a small dark patch in one corner to remind passers-by of the way it used to look. The ceiling, with its winter constellations –reversed to show it from the sky’s perspective — that light up and sparkle, is bright once again.
Yesterday, the authority again made the ceiling even brighter as they unveiled new light-emitting diodes that will both add a twinkle to the ceiling and reduce the MTA’s energy costs. Fifty-nine of the brightest lights were illuminated yesterday afternoon. “Using new technology to celebrate the traditional grandeur of Grand Central’s celestial ceiling is a testament to our commitment to improving the life of the city even as we continue to cut costs,” Jay Walder, chair and CEO of the authority, said in a statement. “We hope people won’t run into one another as they crane their necks and peer skyward in admiration.”
As part of the announcement about the new light system, Metro-North released the tale of the old ceiling, and for New York City history buffs, it is a fascinating one indeed. When the terminal opened in 1913, the stars were illuminated by 10-watt incandescent bulbs, then considered to be state-of-the-art. “The pride and fascination with which the new-fangled electricity was viewed was evidenced by the bare light bulbs found throughout the Terminal,” says Metro-North.
As the stars burned out, replacing them became difficult. The ceiling is deep — 50 feet from the top of the cornice to the zenith of the arc — and is accessible only through the attic above. Workers had to crawl on all fours to replace the bulbs.
Meanwhile, says the agency, “as the predecessor railroad headed for bankruptcy, there was less and less enthusiasm for this particular maintenance chore and the bulbs burned out, one by one, until the entire winter zodiac sky was dark.”
In 1997, as part of the rejuvenation of the Grand Central ceiling, the MTA installed a massive fiber-optic system that eliminated the need for electricians to change the bulbs. Seven fiber-optic sources sent light traveling through clear plastic tubes to light up the constellations. But, says the authority, “over the years, the tubes got brittle and brown, and did not project light with the same intensity. The stars faded. In the search for a new, environmentally friendly solution, LEDs seemed the obvious choice.”
The new LED system will, says Metro-North, use just four watts of electricity, a 60 percent reduction from the fiber-optics system. The lights will be on from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day and the bulbs are expected to last 50,000 hours — or 2380 days each. Total savings should be around $8000 a year.
The lights too are positioned to lend the ceiling an aura of authenticity in a city to choked with light pollution to view real constellations. “When gazing up, 125 feet above the Tennessee pink marble floor, one cannot see all the lighted stars at once,” says the MTA. As people walk across the Concourse floor and their vantage point changes, different stars appear, giving a twinkling impression.”
For more photos, check out WNYC’s gallery.