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Grand Sky

February 2, 2013

As darkness falls this evening, the zodiac arcs high across the southern sky, with Orion, the hunter, just below this famous band of stars.

Under dark skies, it’s a grand view. But from places like New York City, it’s much less grand — overpowered by the glow of city lights. Fortunately for New Yorkers, though, they can see that panorama anytime they want — on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal.

The railroad station opened to the public 100 years ago today. It was one of the wonders of its time — an $80 million model of efficiency and technology. It was also a grand work of art, from its ornate exterior to its astronomical ceiling.

The ceiling was conceived by architect Whitney Warren and French artist Paul Helleu. The design was based on illustrations from a medieval atlas — which caused a bit of consternation: Like the pictures in the atlas, the stars on the ceiling are backwards.

The ceiling includes the outlines of six constellations of the zodiac, plus Orion — the same swath of sky that’s visible this evening. They were painted in gold leaf on a background of cerulean blue. Small light bulbs illuminated the 60 brightest stars — replaced today by LEDs.

The ceiling had to be replaced in the 1930s. And it was fully restored with the rest of the terminal in the 1990s. Workers removed a layer of cigarette smoke that had darkened the sky. The clean up allowed the zodiac to shine brightly above New Yorkers — but only from inside Grand Central Terminal.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012

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