Want To See Stars? Look Up At Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal’s ceiling holds some special celestial secrets, including a "mistake." Learn more about the magical art depicting the winter sky.

During the heyday of railroad travel, which lasted until after World War II, many great metropolitan stations were highly varied architectural showpieces. And in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal astronomy is well represented. Since its 1913 opening, the main concourse has had a stylized star map on its lofty ceiling. The band of sky that is depicted is, in fact, our current winter sky, with the constellation figures copied from Johann Bayer’s renowned 1603 star atlas.

Included are Orion, Taurus, and Gemini. And interestingly, a no-longer-recognized star pattern, the Northern Fly, is one of the constellations depicted on the ceiling at Grand Central.

A Celestial Mistake?

The brightest stars have light bulbs at the center of the star symbols, creating a most interesting effect, especially at night. No attempt was apparently made to produce an accurate star map; indeed, the stars are actually arranged in reverse order, as would be on a celestial globe.

Also, the positions of the constellations relative to each other are only approximate. Yet, despite all of this, Orion, the Hunter is shown correctly, clobbering Taurus, the Bull directly, instead of interposing his shield, as in conventional renderings.

As for those who snipe about this “wrong way” sky, astronomy author George Lovi (1939-1993) wrote: “Leave it alone. Its flaws are part of its fascination, as with the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

And anybody who has seen comedian Billy Crystal’s marvelous one-man Broadway show, “700 Sundays,” will recall his reminiscence of his Dad pointing out this starry ceiling to him when he was a young boy.

If you’re ever in New York City, and are in the vicinity of Grand Central Terminal, be sure to look up!

Learn more about the night sky…

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Joe Rao is an expert astronomer.
Joe Rao

Joe Rao is an esteemed astronomer who writes for Space.com, Sky & Telescope, and Natural History Magazine. Mr. Rao is a regular contributor to the Farmers' Almanac and serves as an associate lecturer for the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

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