Places that Matter

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Ceiling of Grand Central Terminal's Main Concourse

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Zodiac on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal's Main Concourse, 2011
Zodiac on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal's Main Concourse, 2011
Grand Central Terminal's Main Concourse, 2011
Main Concourse. Elis Shin, 2012
Main Concourse. Elis Shin, 2012
Main Concourse. Elis Shin, 2012
42nd Street Facade. Elis Shin, 2012
Detail, 42nd Street Facade. Elis Shin, 2012
Beautifully restored but astronomically incorrect zodiac tableau
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Place Matters Profile

There are myriad thing to taste, touch, hear and smell in Grand Central Terminal, but for a truly awesome (and free) experience, all you have to do is head to the Main Concourse, stand still and look up at the zodiac mural on the ceiling, one of New York City’s most beloved pieces of public art. French pastelist and etcher Paul César Helleu created the vast tableau in 1912. The signs of the zodiac from October to March, including Aquarius (the Water Carrier), Pisces (the Fish), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins) and Cancer (the Crab), are depicted along with some of the more familiar constellations like Orion (the Hunter), Pegasus (the Winged Horse), Musca (the Fly) and Triangulum (the Triangle). The signs are outlined in gold leaf and modeled with tiny, stippled gold leaf stars. Helleu included nearly 2,500 stars, but to amplify the effect of perspective, he added 10-watt light bulbs to the centers of the sixty major stars marking the signs and constellations. The turquoise background simulates the blue-green skies commonly seen over Greece and Southern Italy from October to March, and two broad bands of gold arching from east to west are the Ecliptic (the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun) and the Equator (the imaginary dividing line between the earth’s northern and southern hemispheres.) The Milky Way, composed of countless tiny stars, stretches from the southwest to the northeast corners of the ceiling.

Helleu and collaborating artist Charles Basing spent several months finding the perfect shade of blue for the sky, and it took fast but precise work by fifty assistants to evenly cover the 275-foot long and 125-foot high barrel vault with the cerulean blue oil paint. Helleu also consulted with Columbia University’s Dr. Harold Jacoby, professor of astronomy, whose research on medieval astronomical manuscripts informed the final figures and composition.

In 1913, a commuter and amateur astronomer from New Rochelle noticed that the celestial figures were all painted backwards. Somewhat angry about having been nearly misled, he noted that Aquarius should be in Pegasus’ position, and that Cancer is where Orion should be. Dr. Jacoby claimed that Basing accidentally placed the model diagram upside down when he laid it at his foot as a painting reference. Jacoby suggested that the artist should have held the diagram over his head while painting rather than transferring an image on the floor to the ceiling. The New York Times reported that Basing was unfazed by the finger pointing, and Grand Central Terminal simply “held that it was a pretty good ceiling for all that.” It has also been suggested that the mix-up originated with Jacoby's model, as medieval manuscripts conventionally showed the heavens as seen from the outside.

By 1924 the ceiling had sustained severe water damage, leading the New York Times to chide, "comets have grown spontaneously in long streaks of water stain. Another astronomical innovation which has made its appearance is the mildewed way." That year artist Robert Winthrop Chandler submitted new and radically different ceiling designs to the New York Central, but the project was considered too costly. Portions of the original paint were replaced in 1930s to correct falling plaster, and over the following decades, tar and nicotine from tobacco smoke encrusted the ceiling with grime. Finally, in 1998 the Terminal completed a restoration of the painting that returned the mural to its original luster. In 2010, LED lights replaced the frazzled fiber optic illumination system. The LEDs burn about sixty percent less energy than the fiber optics, and each fixture is covered with a custom glass diffuser that regulates the light to the intensity of the real star it represents.