By Christopher Smith
NEW YORK — At the peak of the holiday season, Grand Central Terminal has more than a million visitors a day, store executives say. And most of them walk by completely unaware of the buried mysteries beneath their feet.
The U.S. government, for a while, liked it that way. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his close-knit and tightly lipped staff were among the few who knew the terminal’s secret tunnels and escape routes in and out of the bustling city.
But not even they knew those secrets had a connection to Dalton in the form of a red carpet, said Daniel Brucker, Grand Central Terminal historian.
Brucker spoke to Shaw Industries staff who were visiting New York City Monday during a reveal of Shaw’s new flooring product. The flooring is being featured during the Centennial Holiday Fair this holiday season at Vanderbilt Hall, a 12,000-square-foot vendor hub on the north end of the terminal.
And while Shaw leaders were eager to tout their selling points upstairs — how the flooring could endure the pressure of millions of feet this December — it was below in the terminal’s dirty and mostly abandoned tunnels where their faces lit up the most.
Through a hot, dark corridor of subterranean railroad, Brucker took Shaw staff to an abandoned train car used by Roosevelt in the 1940s and showed them an old photograph circa 1939.
It showed Roosevelt and his VIP staff exiting the train car on a long, red carpet.
“That’s us,” Dani Brock, director of retail marketing, said with a smile. “That’s Shaw.”
The first ‘rolling out of the red carpet’?
After researching where the carpet came from, Brucker said the “only logical producer” was Philadelphia Carpet Co., which Shaw bought in 1967.
“There’s no receipt,” Brucker said. “And the carpet has been rolled up and can’t be found. But Philadelphia was the only company that could make a 960-foot damn long carpet out of velvet at that time.”
The carpet company was also the only one at the time with “rail-side” factories, Brucker said, which meant they could have easily brought the carpet to Grand Central Terminal.
That same carpet, or one like it produced by Philadelphia, was also likely used in 1913 when Grand Central Terminal first opened to the public.
“That carpet could very well be the originator of the phrase, ‘rolling out the red carpet,’” Brucker said. “It had to be the first red carpet of its kind.”
The carpet was likely used every time Roosevelt arrived in New York City, the historian added.
So why was the leader of the free world, who led American through the Great Depression and World War II, coming to town through what Brucker calls a “dark, dank basement”?
Roosevelt was wheelchair-bound from physical illness many believe was polio so transportation had to be delicate, Brucker said. Roosevelt’s public image was important during World War II, Brucker said, and many advisors feared his illness would make him look weak.
“It was a time of tremendous fear,” Brucker said. “So you had the president coming into this secret train station. And they would roll this big rug down in front of him. It was used by FDR, but also by his VIPs.”
When Roosevelt arrived, he would be taken to his silver Phaeton limousine, also on the train, which was driven underground to a custom service elevator that would take the president to the surface of the city in secret. That way the public wouldn’t know about the president’s malady.
Nazis for Thanksgiving
Not too far from the secret basement was a room of rotary converters powering Grand Central Terminal and energizing its rails, now decommissioned, Brucker said.
“Nobody really knew about this at the time,” he said. “But Adolf Hitler knew. He knew about the sub-basement and the converter room because someone who worked down there had been expatriated back to Germany just before the beginning of the war.”
The Nazi government sent a U-boat to the coast of Long Island in late November 1944, dropping off four German saboteurs to find the converter and destroy it, Brucker said.
“These terrorists were planning to throw sand into these converters,” he said. “They would have killed the converters by making it concrete blocks of glass when they threw the sand into the machine.”
That would have crippled train transportation in the Northeast and, several historians believe, stopped at least 80 percent of the country’s stateside military movements during the war.
“Now, the FBI knew there were four Nazi saboteurs in the country,” he added. “But where were they? They made a beeline to Grand Central Terminal to destroy the sub-basement.”
But the spies were tracked down outside of the terminal, Brucker said, and the plot was ended.
“Two of the Nazis were executed,” he said. “But two were commuted and still are alive living in the U.S. now somewhere.”
Trey Thames, vice president of residential marketing for Shaw, said he was “blown away” to know that a carpet from his company’s past was in the backdrop during these major historic events.
“It was amazing, just to see the architecture and the city and the history,” he sad. “It’s been awesome. And know it’s tied in with that red carpet was just great. We didn’t know that until now.”