Step Into the Past—with the Press of a Brass Button

What is the most used public transportation in Grand Central Terminal—OTHER than trains? Would you guess elevators? Well, that's the right guess and Grand Central Terminal's 10 historic passenger elevators are getting a much-needed upgrade.

They are used all the time—and for all sorts of reasons. Every day, thousands of customers take them to get up, or down, from the upper level to the train platform level, or to the balcony in order to dine or have a drink.

In addition to the seven numbered floor buttons, which are restricted to Metro-North employees, there are several unique letter designations. The origin of the E button is unclear. It could stand for entresol, which is French for esplanade, or for esplanade, or perhaps express, but E signifies the balcony level. The U button indicates the Upper Level or Main Concourse level. The L is for the Lower Level also known as the Dining Concourse, and P for the lower level platform.

Metro-North Railroad employees use them to get to their different offices within Grand Central. Locomotive engineer trainees take the elevator to get to the locomotive simulator. The Rail Traffic Controllers as well as employees of the Fleet and Power departments use elevators to get to and from their workplaces—as well as for making a quick dash to get lunch, and then to bring it back up to their work areas.

Besides Metro-North employees, GCT's elevators have transported some celebrated guests as well. Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy), Arthur Godfrey, and Walter Cronkite were often seen getting in and out of the elevators as they travelled to the former CBS television and radio studios on the third floor.

Not all the elevators carried such precious cargo. Unfortunately, they were also called upon to carry furniture, construction materials, heavy tools, and mechanical equipment, all of which beat up the highly decorative car interiors, put great wear and strain the elevator motors, and affected passenger use by keeping the cars occupied with heavy transport, or out of service entirely due repairs caused by the unending stress.

This major elevator rebuilding project got started last October, thanks to $7.7 million in federal stimulus dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

This project, however, is very different than other elevator rebuilding projects. The mechanics and electronics have to be technologically advanced to efficiently serve the many "calls" these elevators receive every day. And yet, since they are landmarked, the elevator cab interiors and lighting, as well as the exterior doors and the circular metal dial floor indicators, had to be historically correct and painted with colors that matched the original finish.

The main electric motors, individual door motors, cables, and safety apparatus are all new, and the very latest in technology, metallurgy, and design.

In addition, every elevator will have a Programmable Logic Controller or PLC. This electronic brain can outthink an awaiting elevator passenger who presses buttons on two separate elevator banks on either side of the hall, getting both to race to that floor. The PLC will send the nearest elevator—and cancel out the other call reeing up more elevators for more passengers.

And now, all passengers will be welcome, with Braille indications on the floor buttons and an audible enunciator that will "beep" the individual floors for the visually impaired. And all the elevator call buttons will be located lower down on the wall (as well as inside the elevator) than they had been before, making them accessible for those in wheelchairs.

In order to paint the elevators the original colors—both inside and out—it took both old-fashioned detective work as well as the latest in "optical spectrographic technology." After much hunting, certain sections of less-used elevators still had the original paint. These samples were then exposed to a high-tech machine called an optical spectrograph. This device receives the reflected light waves from the painted surface then separates those waves into a wide frequency spectrum, identifying the exact make-up of the color. This had to be done numerous times since the colors are somewhat deeper and darker on trim and decorative reliefs. The results are two shades of grayish-brown: wenge (that's really how you spell it!) and taupe.

The elevator project is scheduled to be completed in summer 2011. Two elevators are complete, as of June, and three are being worked on and will be completed before the end of this summer. Each elevator takes four-to-five months of complex and detailed labor. After all, it takes a lot of time, effort and ingenuity to reinvent the past.