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Modern Michaelangelos Restore New York’s Famed Constellation Ceiling

December 7, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ High in the heavens, nose to nose with Pegasus, the grand old station seems grander than ever.

Here amongst the stars, in the dusty constellations, five select workers are painstakingly restoring New York’s famed Grand Central ceiling _ one rag at a time.

As half a million commuters daily scurry below, these modern Michaelangelos tackle their task with a reverence that would make the Italian master proud. On rickety aluminum platforms, 116 feet above the main concourse, they delicately swab the nighttime sky. Gently they reveal a 50-year-old masterpiece.

``Beautiful,″ whispers conservator John Canning, pausing beneath the Milky Way to examine a just-completed section of Aquarius.

``It has the feel of a cathedral,″ Canning says, stroking the 23-carat gold leaf outline of the Water Carrier. ``Our very own Sistine ceiling. We even used some of the same cleaning chemicals.″

There the comparisons end. The $4.2 million restoration of Grand Central Terminal’s beaux-arts ceiling is more like a giant cleaning job than the renovation of a Renaissance masterpiece. In fact, it involves little actual painting _ just some touch-ups to the ornate plaster cornices and occasionally to the gold on some of the brightest stars.

For the most part, the restoration, conducted by Canning’s Connecticut-based company, entails wiping away five decades of New York City grime, much of it matted into a downy black fuzz that clings to paint and plaster like a stubborn vine.

The chief cleaning agent is water _ 1,500 gallons for the entire project. The main artistic tools are rags _ 6,500 of them.

The result is breathtaking. With a few rhythmic strokes a stunning turquoise sky emerges. Stars, long dimmed, sparkle again. Pegasus’ eye shines clear.

``For a New Yorker, this is sweet,″ says painter Tom Piragnoli, as he works his magic on the wings of a plaster eagle that soars above a railroad wheel on an eastern cornice.

``To work in the heavens every day,″ Piragnoli exclaims. ``To tell my kids I touched the stars in Grand Central’s ceiling.″

Others have touched the stars before him. Some couldn’t resist leaving their mark. Names surreptitiously carved into the ceiling during its 1945 replacement are being found for the first time _ Edwin C. Hafker, J.V. Brophy and others. Their ghosts offer inspiration and awe.

In all, the mural covers about 25,000 square feet, including eight signs of the zodiac and 2,500 clearly defined stars, 60 of which will have their electric fittings changed to fiber optics for a brighter glow. Thousands of tiny gold dabs represent lesser stars and the Milky Way.

Cleaning takes place along a 26,400-pound truss, a kind of arched aluminum bridge on rollers that stretches across the width of the ceiling. It will be manually cranked forward for each phase of the restoration, which is expected to take at least until next spring.

The truss, draped with safety nets and illuminated by powerful spotlights, is reached by a series of wobbly aluminum ladders that lead to a scaffolding complex as intricate as the artwork itself.

The workers joke that they have to be gymnasts as well as restorers and that Michaelangelo would have finished his ceiling in half the time if he’d had such an ingenious platform.

It’s hard to believe the ceiling actually developed as a ``magnificent mistake,″ architecturally and astrologically, in the words of John Belle, whose firm is overseeing the entire architectural restoration of Grand Central Terminal.

The original plans called for a 21-story office tower to rise above the station. By 1912, a year before the terminal opened, that idea was scrapped in favor of a vaulted ceiling.

The ceiling mural, developed by the Hewlett-Basing Studio, is based on astrological charts from the 17th and 18th centuries. It depicts the heavens in reverse _ from the point of view of God looking down, rather than people looking up _ and has taken some pointed artistic liberties. Orion, for example, is placed farther north and is left-handed.

The original mural was water-based and painted cerulean blue. Badly damaged by leaking water and general decay, it was replaced with a sturdier oil-based version in 1945 and is now turquoise.

Despite the 1945 work, plans for an office skyscraper surfaced again in the late 1960s, forcing a decade-long battle that ended with a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the terminal’s landmark status. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in a rare public gesture, was among those lending their names to the preservationist battle.

From the terminal’s dramatic opening at midnight Feb. 2, 1913, when throngs milled outside awaiting first glimpse of the mural, Grand Central’s ceiling has been witness to New York history. Amelia Earhart unveiled ``The Bremen,″ the first plane to fly westward across the Atlantic, under the east balcony in 1927. Harry Truman campaigned here on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s. Thousands viewed astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 orbit around Earth on a giant screen in the Main Concourse; they flocked in again for a somber memorial to assassinated President Kennedy in 1963, when all signs in the terminal were draped in black.

Today, as wintry sunlight slips through the ornate steel-framed windows, it’s hard to stand on the truss and gaze down at the expanse of marble, stone and humanity without feeling prodded by the past.

``You can’t help thinking about everything this means and all that has happened here,″ says restorer Michael DeLuco, pausing for a moment on his perch. ``You think about history. Most of all, you think about the people who did all the original work.″

Then he dips a white rag into cleaning solution and leans across the scaffolding to dab the mane of Pegasus and swab another star.

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