Spaces with Secrets in NYC
It’s no secret that New York is a city jam packed with history. The buildings we pass each day on our way to work, the parks we frequent, even our local coffee shops and diners are layered spaces inhabiting the ghostly imprints of what they once were. It is not possible to put a dent into the exploration of these histories but here are a few examples of old New York sites made new, these spots with rich histories that have been repurposed and given new beginnings.
THE WOOLWORTH BUILDING
The Woolworth building was built in 1913 and held the title for tallest building in the world from its construction until 1930. In 1966 it was recognized as a National Historic Landmark and in 1983 a New York City designated landmark. Though the building has had several changes throughout its history, the Woolworth Company retained ownership for most of the 20th century. In 1998 it was purchased by the Witkoff Group and much of the office space was turned into residences. The top thirty floors, formerly used as office space, were sold to a developer in 2012 and subsequently converted into residences. The remainder of the building remains in use by office and commercial tenants. The ornate lobby, known as the arcade, boasts cathedral-like architecture, replete with marble from Greece, glass mosaics, gothic style bronze fittings and grotesques.
What you won’t find on Wikipedia though is that underneath the Woolworth Building is a private event space and exclusive cool kids hangout, The Wooly. Visit the website and you will find a bedazzling collection of vintage invitations and photographs along with the cryptic hours, “Not Open Since 2009”. The inside of the Wooly you’ll be greeted with a dimly lit bar, gold framed paintings of animals, velvet chairs, ornate wallpaper and of course, a disco ball.
For those of us not on the guest list The Wooly Public is an adjacent restaurant and bar open to, you guessed it, the public. Whether you're craving fish tacos, beyond burgers or something a bit more whimsical (pulled duck tater tots anyone?) make sure you accompany it with a Pinko de la Sky, a boozy concoction of tequila and grapefruit. The atmosphere, living up to its history and name, does not disappoint.
In 1904 the world's largest and strongest bank vault in the world was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie. The vault was constructed by the Mosler Safe Company in upstate Hudson, New York. Once complete it was so enormous and so heavy that it had to be sailed down the Hudson River a ways and then transported atop purpose built railway tracks from Battery Park over to 115 Broadway where it rests today. The vault has an entrance at two ends and each door weighs 35 tons. Would hate to slam a finger in that door.
Today the vault houses Trinity Place, a contemporary bar and eatery. Pass the first vault door and you are greeted by a 40 foot mahogany bar situated between the original five inch steel walls which have been left exposed for diners viewing pleasure. Sounds like a very “safe” place (wa wa waaaa) to enjoy your steak tartar and Plum Charlie.
In 1883 Temple Court, one of Manhattan’s first skyscrapers was completed. Although in that year the term skyscraper was not even part of the lexicon. In 1868 Eugene Kelly bought the lot and began construction in 1981 of what he was planning to call the Kelly Building. It was still an exciting and new idea to house a number of offices specializing in different trades inside one building and this was the plan Kelly had. An office building. Somewhere along the lines he changed the name to Temple Court and up it went a towering 9-10 story edifice. Back then you could see as far as Central Park from the top of it.
The centerpiece of this Gothic treasure is the skylight inside the atrium. Who doesn’t love a skylight? Well, the safety department for one. In the 1940’s this atrium had to be sealed up due to safety concerns. The tenants moved out and the building began to deteriorate. It was declared a city landmark and remained empty for decades.
After Hillel Spinner took over the building it was occasionally opened for photographers, TV shoots and once even a wedding proposal (she said yes!)
Then Harpers Bazaar did a 2010 photoshoot and the building was featured in a Scouting NYC blog that went viral, crashing Huffington Post’s site. That was the turnaround.
GB Lodging bought the building and converted it into a luxury hotel, The Beekman. The renovation was done by Gerner Kronick + Valcarcel, Architects and designer Martin Brudnizki and they paid homage to the buildings roots, even tracking down the original tilemaker to re-create some details.
The hotels two turret penthouses boast private entrances, each with a separate rooftop terrace and go for around $4,700 a night. For the rest of us 99%ers, a peek into the lavish lobby or a drink in the bar room will have to suffice.
THE HIGH LINE
I know! Been there done that. We all love the high line for an afternoon stroll. It seems like something is always going on there, art installations, fancy popsicles, video exhibitions. It’s also just a lovely walk to see the city, the Hudson, the nearby residents who don’t close their curtains.
The site was once where 10th Ave trains came to deliver food but it seems this system was not ideal as so many pedestrians were squashed it became known as “Death Avenue”. I think we can all agree “The High Line” is a more welcome name. The first solution, implemented in 1920 was to set up horsemen around the premise to warn and hold off pedestrians, these gents were called the West Side Cowboys. I’m sure they were doing a top notch job but in 1924 the Transit Commission ordered the removal of street-level crossings and decided to try and elevated rain line. In 1933 they ran the first train across the tracks, it even went through buildings to make its food deliveries. How cool is that? Then trucking got popular and the train use dwindled.
Fast forward to 1999 and the high line was just a nuisance, Mayor Giuliani even signed a demolition order. Oh no! What Giuliani and others were not witness to was the plethora of vegetation that had started to bloom on the unused tracks creating a hidden utopia above the city. Inspired by the beauty of this hidden landscape, Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy, to advocate for its preservation and reuse as a public space. They held an ideas competition accepting submissions on what should be done with the space. The ideas they received were bonkers, inspiring, whimsical and exciting. They included a roller coaster and a mile long lap pool. Finally, it was determined the space would be transformed into a public park. Three years after breaking ground the first section opened to the public. Now we have a mile and a half park with gardens, artwork and public programs and of course, fancy popsicle stands.
MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN GANGSTER and THEATRE 80 ST. MARKS
In 1964 Lorcan Otway’s father purchased a property at 80 St. Mark’s Place from gangster and former owner Walter Scheib. The space underneath what is now the museum had served for years a speakeasy during prohibition. When Otway began to survey the new digs he came upon two safes and, not wanting to be on the wrong side of Scheib and his gangster pals, let them know. Scheib unlocked the safes and recovered two million in gold certificates inside. This wasn’t the only buried treasure Otway came upon during renovations and if you visit the museum it displays relics found on the premise.
One lucky project manager even unearthed what she believed were human remains, though they were turned over to the authorities rather than put on display.
The neighborhood was frequented by the likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and John Gotti and we must assume they enjoyed a pint or two on the grounds where the museum now sits. Like all good speakeasies, this one had a secret entrance accessed through a butcher shop around the corner. A series of underground tunnels led customers to the bar.
To this day Lorgan Otway has taken over the theatre and museum his father purchased and both are certainly worth a visit. The absinthe selection at the bar and tour of the basement tunnels are a delightful afternoon combo.