There’s something magical about the old cobblestone streets in Lower Manhattan-and I’m not referring to the poise required to cross Crosby Street in heels. What I am describing is the enchantment that accompanies imagining who may have stood at that very same street corner 200 years prior. Its history, is one of the most alluring parts of New York, and it’s by no means something exclusive to the areas south of Houston. In fact, Grand Central Terminal is one of those quintessential New York places: so magically charming that its rich history simply oozes from its façade.
But one of the most interesting stories of Grand Central is not about what is in it, but rather what isn’t.
What few New Yorkers, and even fewer of the 50 million annual visitors to Manhattan know is that the storied terminal station is actually missing a track. “Track 61,” as it is referred to by Metro North conductors and New York history buffs alike, is a secret track located below 50th street, stretching between Lexington and Park Avenues.
The track, repositioned in 1913, runs directly below the nearby Waldorf-Astoria hotel, shown below in 1931, the year of the hotel’s opening.
Appreciating the obvious strategic importance, builders of the Waldorf installed a platform below its foundation to be used for clandestine purposes, predominantly the transport of dignitaries looking to evade the flashing light bulbs of the press photographers awaiting them upstairs. The private train afforded high profile guests discretion, as an elevator would ascend from the basement directly up into the lavish hotel.
The first to use “Track 61” was General John J. Pershing in 1938, however the most remarkable of the private car’s passengers was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used the train not only as a secret and safe means in and out of Manhattan during wartime, but also as an effective guise, concealing the fact that he was paralyzed. FDR would take “61” from his home in Hyde Park up the Hudson Line to beneath the Waldorf, and then directly up to the Presidential Suite without ever being publicly seen. The elevator was even large enough for FDR’s Presidential automobile to fit inside. A truly magical New York story.
Later, the space was used by another, albeit less Presidential New York icon. In 1965 Andy Warhol threw his famous “Underground Party” inside Track 61. While no information or photos exist documenting the actual party, if it was anything like the rest of Warhol’s parties, it was no doubt “ground-breaking.” Furthermore considering the year and the company he kept, it seems reasonable to assume that The Velvet Underground and Nico, (whom he personally managed and that served as the house band at his studio, the Factory) would have played the party. But perhaps I am just allowing my imagination to get lost in an underground New York legend.
Following its permanent vacancy, the tracks became a prime location for squatters as well as a pilgrimage for NY history buffs and seasoned urban explorers, however over the last decade it has become very difficult to access directly. If you’d care to try, “New York City Walk” has done some of the leg-work for you here.
In November, Gothamist was granted access to Track 61. The following photos are from their trip.
You can learn more about Andy Warhol and the Factory from some of his contemporaries as part of our Oval Table Series.