2012-07-18 / Perspectives

At the End of the Hudson Line, the Whispering Gallery Beckons

By Annie Chesnut

The Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Terminal. The Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Terminal. For as long as I can recall, my personal gateway to the wonders of New York City has been Grand Central Terminal. Through its most shabby and its more elegant stages, the massive station has always struck me as the welcome center New York deserves—not some angry airport or tired bus station.

When I was a kid in White Plains, my dad would take my siblings and me to the Big City—and the first thing we did when we got off the big silver train was head to what we called “the Whispering Hall.”

Each of us would stand in a corner, face to the wall, and whisper nonsensical things to each other across the perfectly acoustic “Guastavino” vaulted tile ceiling.

Years later, after Dad had died and I’d lived a number of other places, I found myself in White Plains again, riding a daily train to Grand Central. The Whispering Gallery, as the railroad calls it, was still there, welcoming my visiting friends and relatives. The Oyster Bar nearby was a welcome follow-up once I was old enough to appreciate raw seafood and cocktails. And, on the day we left for our Montreal honeymoon, my new husband and I stopped there for a visit before boarding the train north.

Photos Courtesy MTA Photos Courtesy MTA So when I saw the MTA press release that contained the phrase “Whispering Gallery,” I panicked for a moment. After all, everywhere you look these days, historic buildings seem to be making way for newer structures that seldom have even a portion of the charm of their predecessors.

But the good news is that the Whispering Gallery is not being removed or replaced: it’s actually being renovated, with all of its acoustics intact.

As the MTA described it, “The popular acoustical anomaly that allows visitors to stand in diagonal corners and whisper to one another as the sound carries across the arc of the ceiling will remain the same after the work. The only change: The entire space will look a lot cleaner and brighter.”

Guastavino was named for and patented by Rafael Guastavino, an 1881 immigrant to New York City from the Catalonia region of Spain. “His domes and vaults are seen in many places around New York City, including the old City Hall Subway Station, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo, and the underside of the 59th Street Bridge, which houses the eponymous restaurant Guastavino,” the MTA explained.

The Guastavino method of arch construction employs “layers of thin, glazed terracotta tiles set in mortar in a herringbone pattern. The tiles are naturally fireproof and as strong as steel or wooden beams but weigh much less. The new tiles will be fabricated in the Guastavino style (the family business closed in 1962) by Boston Valley Terra Cotta of Buffalo.”

Although only 200 tiles in the 2,000-square-foot whispering gallery need to be replaced, “Metro-North ordered 250 tiles to have some in reserve. The former taxi stand on the Vanderbilt Avenue side of the building also has a Guastavino ceiling.”

The work will be done in four stages, with each of four work areas enclosed by a plywood barrier. One diagonal will be left available for whispering.

All of the work, except for removal of the grout, will be done by hand, and machine grout removal will happen after 11 at night. The ceiling in the 7,000-square foot Oyster Bar restaurant and its 2,200-square-foot kitchen is set to be repaired in a future project.

The $450,000 whispering gallery maintenance project is scheduled for completion in November before the holiday season begins.

Then, the MTA said, it’s not unusual for nearly a million people to pass though Grand Central in a given day. I wonder how many of them will stop to whisper to a loved one and make lasting memories like the ones we made with our dad.

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