2013 marks the centennial anniversary of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. We’ll be writing plenty about the storied train station in the coming weeks and months, but I thought we’d kick off the celebration with one of our favorite weird facts about the place. Behind a nondescript, locked and ignored brass door set into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on 49th Street is an elevator to a secret Grand Central train platform that was used by President Franklin Roosevelt when he visited the city and did not want to deal with reporters and photographers. That door is about as close as you or me or most of the rest of the public is ever going to get to the secret station, dubbed simply Track 61 by Grand Central authorities, but behind that door and below the street is a wealth of fascinating history that includes not just Roosevelt’s secret train, but also a lavish underground party thrown by Andy Warhol.
The story of the secret platform begins in July of 1903, when the city of New York began working to move it’s network of street-level and elevated train tracks below ground. The project took a decade and was capped off in 1913 by the opening of Grand Central Terminal. In 1929, construction began on the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which recognized it’s choice location, and the hotel had a private platform installed astride one of the tracks that passed through its basement. At the time, the buildings above and around the tracks winding through Grand Central were built on huge steel pylons and were deeded not for the ground on which they appeared to sit, but rather for the air above which they were supported by the columns. This exclusive Waldorf-Astoria platform, while not officially part of the Terminal, became known as Track 61 and was used by visiting dignitaries and VIPs who wanted to get in and out of the city — and the hotel — without dealing with hoi polloi.
In the latter portion of the 1930s, the White House was struggling to conceal President Franklin Roosevelt’s polio from the American public. Among the efforts they put in place was demanding that the owners of New York’s Grand Central Terminal construct a secret train station below the regular tracks, which would allow President Roosevelt to arrive in New York and get to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel without being seen. Oh, and the White House figured it was only fair for the United States government to kick in exactly $0.00 for the project. A different time, back then, though, and so Grand Central agreed to the project. Track 61 was turned into the President’s private station, and despite it’s integration into Grand Central’s overall scheme, the track still appeared on no official registers.
It was large enough to handle a massive armored train that carried not just the President and his retinue, but also his 1932 armor-plated Pierce-Arrow limousine, which would exit the train and be whisked to ground level by an elevator that opened, as we see from the old door, a few feet away from the entrance to the Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom. The train station remained an active and maintained route until FDR’s death in 1945. During the 1950s and 60s, the rise in popularity of air travel as a means to more around resulted in the decline in use of Track 61, until by the mid 1960s it had been almost entirely abandoned. With disuse came a relaxed attitude about protecting the secret. The station had already been used for a photo op in 1946, when the New York Central Railroad secured permission to use Track 61 to unveil a new locomotive at an event they called “Debut at the Waldorf.” Then in 1965, when pretty much everyone had forgotten about the place, New York artist and professional provocateur Andy Warhol used the old station to house his creatively named “Underground Party.”
After that, and as the city’s fortunes declined sharply in the 1970s, Track 61 sort of faded from any sort of record and was left to become the domain of decay and occasional squatters and thrill seekers. Today, the old armored train is still sitting in the station, and the old limo is still in the train. While the FDR Museum has put in multiple requests to have the train moved to their facilities, Grand Central and the city of New York claim it is financially and technically far too difficult. Maybe someone is getting a little payback for having to foot the bill in the first place. As for why the station has not been opened to the public as a historic site, no one less than the chairman of Metro-North Railroad discovered for himself that abandoned doesn’t always mean abandoned when he, according to an article on CNet.com, attempted to enter the old station a few years ago and was stopped by a security detail that barred him entry. “This is my railroad,” was reportedly his response to the obstruction, to which security replied, “Not today.” Because it turns out the old tunnel is still considered a potential emergency exit for the U.S. President when he is in New York City,and during Presidential visits a new train is still stationed at Track 61, waiting to spirit the President away should the need arise.
Still, it would be nice if they could open the station on those days when, you know, the President isn’t hanging around town. If you want a feel for where the station is, when you stand in front of the door marked 101-121 E. 49th Street, you are standing exactly above the track. Behind the door is a staircase that leads to the elevator and Track 61 platform. If you want to get a vantage point from below ground, stand on Track 24 with your back facing the concourse and look northward. The secret platform would lie dead ahead of you. Merry Frolics is not yet VIP enough to secure a tour of the platform, so if you want a better look at it I suggest taking a gander at the galleries on Gothamist and CNet or watching the video of Matt Lauer’s visit to the station.