Grand Central's whispering gallery

A hidden secret in a New York icon

Grand Central Terminal (yes, pedants, I know it's Terminal not Station) celebrates its 100th birthday this week. As with most great buildings, my favourite thing about it is one of its secret and quirky little details ...

Grand Central's whispering gallery

It's not the stunning sense of scale or fantastic architectural design, though both those do, of course, leave you breathless. The terminal used to claim its main concourse was the ‘largest room in the world'. Like a lot of things in Manhattan this is probably fanfare rather than fact - but then isn't this what we love about Manhattan?

It's not the map of the constellations on the ceiling, breathtaking though that is. Actually the map is the wrong way round - it was copied from an old version drawn, as maps of the stars always were in those days, from ‘God's point of view', in other words looking down on them from above, not up at them as we do from Earth.

Neither is it the ‘standing on a film set' feeling that any visit to Grand Central gives you. Like most famous New York locations the reason you get that feeling is that plenty of films have been shot there. The heartbreaking finale of Carlito's Way takes place there, as does the wonderful dream scene in The Fisher King where Robin Williams is chasing the woman he loves through the terminal and all the commuters suddenly pair up and start waltzing. Director Terry Gilliam calls the sequence ‘as good as anything I've done'. It should be - it was a nightmare to film. Given the terminal overnight, he arrived at 11pm to find that none of the 1000 extras were able, as requested, to waltz. Hours were spent teaching them. Then the cavernous interior echoed the Strauss waltz beyond recognition. By the time Robin Williams was actually filming his take the representative from Grand Central was tugging at Gilliam's elbow saying ‘you promised you'd be out of here by 5am'. The final few takes contained real commuters who'd arrived on the morning's first trains.

No - great as all these aspects are, my favourite thing about GCT is to be found on its lower level, right outside the legendary Oyster Bar. This is where two arched pedestrian tunnels meet at right angles, forming a beautifully-tiled dome. It looks superb - but what hardly anyone knows is that it also acts as a whispering gallery. If you stand facing one of the four corners that support it, and get a friend to stand facing the diagonally opposite one, you can whisper and be heard by them even though someone standing a couple of feet away won't hear a thing. The sound is carried up and over the dome.

Try it next time you go to New York. It's whispering so good you'll want to shout about it.


Posts: 9
Grand Central's Whispering Gallery
Reply #1 on : Fri March 08, 2013, 19:31:03
I have always wondered if you can do the same in the Oval Office. An ellipse has two foci (Oh all right, focusses), so if a person stands at each it should work.

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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.