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Grand Central Terminal’s Whispering Gallery

Sep 8th, 2017 | By | Category: Movie Locations

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New York is a magical place.  I always describe it as such.  It is not just the abject filming locations, gorgeous architecture, and surplus of history that make the city so majestic, but the little, notable things that seem to be tucked around every corner.  Take for instance the Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Terminal.  On the lower level of the landmark train station is a small alcove framed by four pillared archways.  Commuters and tourists rush through it everyday, hurriedly passing underneath the tiled bows, taking no note of its symmetrical beauty or its acoustic secret.  Linger a few minutes in the 2,000-square-foot chamber, though, and you will undoubtedly see friends enter together, wander to opposite corners, turn to face the pillars, and then either immediately proclaim “How cool!” or start giggling.  Their exuberance is due to the fact that the curvature of the Gallery’s ceiling provides a seamless path for low-level sound to travel up one side and down the other, arriving in the ear of a listener 50 feet away.

I first read about the phenomenon shortly before my inaugural visit to New York in 2004.  The guidebooks I purchased in preparation for the trip didn’t specify exactly where in Grand Central the Whispering Gallery was located, though, and I somehow got the impression that it was part of the Main Concourse.  So, on our first sojourn to the station, the Grim Cheaper and I excitedly headed to opposite corners of the grand room, turned and faced the walls, and, like a couple of idiots, proceeded to whisper to each other.  Neither of us heard a peep, outside of the hustle and bustle of commuters, and walked away from the experience thoroughly confused, I am sure drawing quite a few laughs from Manhattanites in the know.  Thinking the Whispering Gallery was a hoax, we never re-visited the search on any of our subsequent trips to the Big Apple.  I did not even think about the site until years later, in fact, when I happened to mention our failure to fellow stalker Owen, of the When Write Is Wrong blog, during our first meet-up, which took place in NYC in 2009.  Owen was quite familiar with the Whispering Gallery, knew of its exact location, and assured us it was real.  While he wanted to show it to us that day, unfortunately we ran out of time.  But he vowed that on our next visit, he would take us there.  Though it took 7 years for that visit to materialize, Owen made good on his promise.

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As he showed us, the Whispering Gallery is located on Grand Central’s lower level, in the Dining Concourse, just outside of the iconic Oyster Bar.

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The rotunda, which is actually a convergence of three commuter corridors, was constructed, along with the rest of Grand Central Terminal, in 1913.  The vaulted space was designed by Rafael Guastavino and his son, Rafael Guastavino, Jr., of the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company.  The duo, who also created domed masterpieces at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the City Hall subway station, and the Bronx Zoo Elephant House (just to name a few), utilized their signature technique to create the Gallery.  As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority website explains it, “Guastavino’s method of arch construction uses 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.”

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The result is a dazzling display of gilded masonry.

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And yes, a scientific curiosity.  Thanks to the laws of physics and the Gallery’s parabolic-curved ceiling, two friends can stand at opposite corners of the room, face the wall, whisper to each other, and those whispers will magically be heard.  The GC and I tested it out, with Owen acting as our guide, and I am happy to report that the phenomenon is absolutely real – and so incredibly cool.

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There are differing beliefs as to whether or not the Guastavinos intended the effect.  The New York Times quotes architect Frank J. Prial, Jr., who worked on the 1990s restoration of the terminal, as describing the acoustical occurrence as “a happy coincidence.”  Apparently, during the restoration project, Prial’s firm, Beyer Blinder Belle, did not come across any evidence that the sound effect was deliberate.  But author Lisa Montanarelli states in her book New York City Curiosities that the Guastavinos “designed the whispering gallery based on architectural principals that have been used for centuries worldwide – from the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing to the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, India.”  Regardless if the phenomenon was accidental or intended, the Whispering Gallery is a fabulous “secret” site, one that I cannot more highly recommend visiting and testing out for yourself.

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The Whispering Gallery is also a filming location!  In the 2011 remake of the movie Arthur, Naomi (Greta Gerwig) shows the unique spot to Arthur (Russell Brand) during their first date and he proceeds to officially ask her out – via whisper, of course – while there.

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My friend Katie, who runs Matthew Lillard Online, let me know that Cereal (Lillard), Dade (Jonny Lee Miller), Kate (Angelina Jolie) and the gang skated through the Whispering Gallery at the end of 1995’s Hackers.  Thanks, Katie!

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The Gallery is also said to have been featured in the 1996 romcom Breathing Room, but unfortunately I could not find a copy of it anywhere with which to make screen captures for this post.

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The Oyster Bar, also designed by the Guastavinos, has been featured in a couple of productions, as well.  Though we did not venture inside the historic eatery during our Whispering Gallery stalk, I figured it still bears mentioning here.  The restaurant popped up a couple of times in the 2016 thriller The Girl on the Train.

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That same year, Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) dined there with Dr. Hunter Aloysius ‘Hap’ Percy (Jason Isaacs) in the Season 1 episode of The OA titled “New Colossus.”

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Though a scene in the Season 1 episode of Mad Men titled “Red in the Face” was set at a supposed New York City oyster bar, the specific oyster bar wasn’t mentioned.  Countless websites state that filming of the segment took place at Grand Central, but that information is erroneous.  The AMC series was shot almost in its entirety in Los Angeles and the “Red in the Face” scene was lensed at Musso and Frank Grill in Hollywood, as detailed in this post.  Being that Musso’s (as the eatery is commonly called) looks nothing like Grand Central’s Oyster Bar (as you can see below), I am unsure of how the confusion came to be.

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Another “secret” spot in Grand Central that we checked out while in New York last April was a section of dirty ceiling in the Main Concourse.  When the room’s massive rooftop mural was cleaned in the mid-90s (a job that took 6 months to complete at a cost of $1 million!), the John Canning Company, the group that performed the restoration, left one small 9×18-inch patch tainted.  That patch can be found near the crab’s claw in the hall’s northwest corner.  While most websites (and even Grand Central tour guides) claim that the dirt was caused by nicotine tar from the hundreds upon hundreds of commuters who puffed in the Concourse before cigarettes were banned, JCC disputes this fact, stating that the grime, which boasted a 2-inch thickness in some spots, was actually created by air pollutants, including car and truck exhaust and soot emissions from area industrial plants.  JCC left the small patch of dirt intact for future study.  According to the company’s website, such patches “provide the complete environmental history of the building’s interior.”

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Though the dirty ceiling patch was referenced in Arthur, it wasn’t shown.  A close-up view of it can be seen below, though.

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For more stalking fun, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Los Angeles magazine and Discover Los Angeles.

Big THANK YOU to my friend/fellow stalker Owen, from the When Write Is Wrong blog, for showing me this location!  Smile

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Until next time, Happy Stalking!  Smile

Stalk It: Grand Central Terminal is located at 89 East 42nd Street in the Midtown East area of New York.  The Whispering Gallery, from Arthur, can be found just outside of the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, which is on the Lower Level in the Dining Concourse.  The dirty ceiling patch is located near the crab’s claw in the northwest corner of the Main Concourse.

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5 comments

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  1. Her mom says:

    You should have had a picture taken of you and the GC!!

  2. Owen says:

    I stood in the corner of my room, faced the wall and whispered “You’re welcome.” You heard me, right?

  3. Kim says:

    Oh I want to try this! Grand Central is so pretty.


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  1. […] York has no shortage of “secret” places.  I blogged about one – Grand Central’s Whispering Gallery – on Friday.  Another that the Grim Cheaper and I are fond of is Paley Park, located in NYC’s […]

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