Grand Central: 100 years, thousands of tours

Grand Central terminal is packed with rush hour commuters, Dec. 21, 2005, in New York.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

(CBS News) NEW YORK - When Grand Central Terminal in New York opened 100 years ago this week, the newspaper headline read: "City Folks Crowd New Grand Central ... Ask Countless Questions."

A century later, they're still coming: The crowds, and the questions.

It is an architectural marvel, frozen in time, spanning 69 acres with 125-foot windows and Italian marble floors. It's been called a temple to transportation.

"The entire population of the entire State of Alaska walked through here every day," said Dany Brucker, who has been giving rather animated tours of Grand Central for over 25 years.

"It is a palace that celebrates the everyday person who walks through here. It was built for them," he said.

When told most people don't think of a train station as a palace, Brucker quickly corrected him: "Well, first of all it's a terminal. Never say station: It's a terminal because trains terminate here."

Danny Brucker
Danny Brucker CBS News

Grand Central was built after a 1902 train crash killed 15 people and sparked the cry to move trains under the busy streets of New York City. That required a technological advance: Electricity.

"Which is why when we look behind us, [there is] nothing but bare naked light bulbs in every single chandelier and light fixture. Because it was to shout out that this terminal, this train station, was all electric," Brucker said.

By the 1960s, the terminal fell into disrepair. Deteriorating and dirty, the owner wanted to replace it. There was also a call to knock it down and build an office building. The terminal was destined to meet the same fate as the iconic Pennsylvania Station across town, but a famous American came to its rescue.

"I think we all realize how important it is to save these great and wonderful buildings," Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis once said.

"Grand Central Terminal was lost nearly by a hairbreadth. It wasn't until Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis joined that fight and that fight took years, years to make its way to the Supreme Court and the supreme court said yes, a building like this should be saved," Brucker said.

That 1978 ruling cemented historical landmark laws across the country.

On his tour, he highlights the building's secrets. For example, what is currently a tennis court on the fourth floor used to be the CBS News studios for nearly three decades.

In the main concourse, there's the centerpiece.

"This four faced clock, every face of that clock is made out of a precious piece of solid opal, a solid jewel. Its valued at between $10 and 20 million," Bruckner said.

It's part of a century-old time capsule that, for commuters, can transport imaginations, twice a day.