How Clean Is Grand Central Station?

Now that smoking has been banned in most public places, the practice of lighting up in a train station has gone the way of the Marlboro Man.

A small patch on the ceiling of Grand Central Station has never been cleaned, displaying the effects of a century of tobacco smoke.
A small patch on the ceiling of Grand Central Station has never been cleaned, displaying the effects of a century of tobacco smoke.

But relics of the time when cigarettes were seemingly ubiquitous remain, and perhaps none is as interesting and surprising as a little spot on the ceiling of Grand Central Station in New York City. The next time you visit the bustling commuter rail terminal -- officially known as Grand Central Terminal -- make sure you walk over to the northwest corner of the main concourse.

Up on the turquoise ceiling, which features a golden mural of the constellations, you'll see an image of the crab constellation Cancer. If you peek just past the end of the crab's claw, you'll see a spot that has never been cleaned -- despite the fact that the rest of the ceiling was cleaned in 1996. It's no accident. The 9" by 18" (22cm by 45cm) spot has collected more than 100 years of dirt and grime.

Most of that grime is the result of "a combination of tarry nicotine from the millions of cigarettes, cigars and pipes once consumed in the Terminal by generations of travelers and the soot and steel dust that stuck to it," according to Marjorie Anders of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Smoking was only banned in Grand Central Station in 2003. Interestingly, the main purpose in leaving the dirty patch was not to demonstrate the effects of smoking, but to let future restoration artists see the impact of cleaning solutions on the original surface.

Some Grand details:

  • Grand Central Terminal deserves its reputation: More than 750,000 people pass through it every day; at the holidays, the figure jumps to more than a million.

  • Covering 49 acres and encompassing 47 platforms and 67 tracks, Grand Central is the world's largest train station.

  • The station's lost-and-found office returns approximately 60 percent of the more than 50,000 items it collects every year.

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    • A small patch on the ceiling of Grand Central Station has never been cleaned, displaying the effects of a century of tobacco smoke.
      A small patch on the ceiling of Grand Central Station has never been cleaned, displaying the effects of a century of tobacco smoke.