In 1998, after two years of renovations, the scaffolding came down from Grand Central Terminal’s Main Concourse. After decades of neglect and decline the station was finally being restored, including a thorough scrubbing of the ceiling. Well, nearly thorough.
Along with the sparkle and shine, the restoration crew left behind a grimy reminder of the station’s smoky past. In the northwest corner of the ceiling, crossing the teal-blue background and the arch over the West Balcony, there is a small, dark rectangle that was left untouched. Look up and find the crab, and near its claw you can still see the spot, almost 20 years later.
A sticky patina of water stains, train soot, dirt and grime had smothered the ceiling, but the key ingredient in the brown sludge was tobacco—decades and decades of cigarette smoke wafting up with no means of escape. To clean it all and still preserve the ceiling’s luster was painstaking work, using only mild sudsy water and gentle scrubbing with Q-tips.
The ceiling depicts a string of astrological signs, starting with the crab in the northwest and curving to the southeast. The order of the signs is actually in reverse of the true night sky, likely a mistake made by the original designer. The quirk was cleverly explained back in 1913 by Cornelius Vanderbilt (the original owner and builder of the terminal) as being a depiction of the heavenly bodies not as they would be seen from below, but from above—as if by God himself.
The restored ceiling isn’t from 1913; that one had already fallen into disrepair by the 1940s. It was covered over with panels that recreated the original design (although some Grand Central purists insist the original puts this one to shame). Removing the panels and restoring underneath was considered, but they contain asbestos and removing them would have been nearly impossible in a train station that serves over half a million people a day. Besides the asbestos problem, the architects overseeing the restoration claim the original ceiling was already so damaged it was beyond repair.
So no harm, no foul. What we have now in Grand Central, including the divine ceiling, is a jewel of a station. Gone are the cracks and water damage, the grime and the soot, and gone are the cigarettes.