May 30, 2017

Photo Essay: Subterranean Treasures of The New Yorker Hotel

Circa 1938 (Photo: Flickr user Don O'BrienCC BY 4.0)

"If anyone would know this, it's you," a reader of mine once wrote to me. "Is it true that there are abandoned tunnels underneath the New Yorker Hotel?"

In fact, I didn't know. But I've learned to trust most rumors about tunnels.

So, I filed this tidbit away in the back of my mind along with so many others, hoping to stumble upon something to confirm or deny the existence of some secret underground below Midtown Manhattan.

And then, years later, the Universe revealed the answer to me—an answer that clearly others knew much better than I did. There were, indeed, tunnels under the New Yorker.

And, in fact, you can still get into one of them—if you know the right people.

To be honest, I'd passed by the New Yorker dozens, if not hundreds, of times—either on foot or in a cab—but I think I only noticed its Tick Tock Diner, festooned with glowing neon. I didn't know that it had been built on the site of a bank or that it, in fact, still housed a bank.

I never noticed the bronze Art Deco friezes along the doorways of the main hotel guest and visitor entrances...

...or how spectacularly they reflected the streetlights...

...or how devastatingly they'd been painted over in blue at the employee entrance.

Moreover, I'd never actually walked through any of those doors...

...much less paused to take a photograph...

...or admire the design that was so unique to 1929.

So, more than six years after having left New York for LA—and almost exactly 20 years since moving to the City the day after I graduated college—I found myself finally ready to explore.

And I was ready to go underground.

My guide was a veteran engineer of the hotel whose tenure there also made him somewhat of an (official or self-appointed, I don't know) historian and archivist of the joint.

In his office, I found original terra cotta floor tiles and hotel-branded trinkets of all varieties, from hotel soap to matchbooks and other doo-dads.

Before we got to the tunnels, my guide first brought me down to the hotel's bank vault—soon to be a private party space—which is all that remains from the branch of the Manufacturers Trust Company (eventually absorbed into Chase Bank) that was part of the original hotel when it opened. (That is, except for the bronze doorway outside at street level, next to the Tick Tock Diner.)

The New Yorker Hotel had actually been built upon the site of a demolished Manufacturers Trust Company building—a demolition that was permitted only if the hotel included a bank branch in its blueprints.

At the time that the 43-story hotel was built, it was nicknamed a "Vertical Village"—but to me, what's really interesting is what lies underneath it.

Hotel guests used to be able to take a private elevator directly from street level into their own tunnel that would lead them straight to Penn Station—that is, the old, grandiose Penn Station, not the atrocity that was built in its place in the 1960s.

Along the walls down there, you'll find a number of Mayan-inspired terra-cotta tiles, similar to those that line the stairs between the basement level and the lobby of the hotel.

Despite its grandeur—including a pink-painted, barrel-vaulted ceiling—this pedestrian tunnel has become nothing more than a storage unit for discarded rolls of carpet.

And when you get to the good part, under 34th Street—the part that might actually take you somewhere—it's unfortunately been sealed off.

But that's not the extent of the depths of the New Yorker Hotel.

This Art Deco tower—all 1.2 million square feet of it, making it one of the largest hotels at the time—was really built to be a kind of self-contained city.

And that means that many of its utilities go pretty far underground... far, in fact, that my ears were popping, my stomach was churning, and head was throbbing like some case of reverse altitude sickness (or the bends).

I found myself exploring boiler rooms, engine rooms, and electrical rooms that were 30 feet, 60 feet, up to 78 feet below street level, surely surrounded by bedrock and other tunnels filled with subway trains and their passengers.

Amazingly, a lot of the machinery down there is original, and still chugging along despite being nearly a century old.

The levers and switches are akin to what you'd find in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.

They used to power pretty much everything in the entire hotel.

They're all a part of a bona fide (though now somewhat abandoned) power plant—a milestone in electrical engineering—that could sustain an entire city of 25,000 (not just a "Vertical Village" hotel).

And much of it was thanks to the main source of power in the plant: a locomotive engine.

Electricity also put The New Yorker at the forefront of both radio and television broadcasting, with many shows hitting the airwaves live from The Terrace Room, a combo concert hall, dancehall, and ice skating pavilion. Guests could even watch television in their own rooms—something that, in 1948, was a pretty big deal.

It therefore seems appropriate that electrical engineer and pioneer of the alternating current Nikola Tesla called the New Yorker Hotel home for 10 years, until he died there (under possibly mysterious circumstances) in 1943.

Tesla wasn't the New Yorker's only celebrity resident, though. The hotel also hosted numerous sports teams (including the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World Series, sequestered there to make sure they got enough sleep and didn't drink too much before their big games), GIs on their way to fight in the European Theater during World War II, and Hillary Clinton, who delivered her concession speech in its Grand Ballroom on Election Night 2016.

Long after its Jazz Age heyday, the New Yorker shut down as a hotel in 1972. Proposals suggested adaptively reusing the tower as a hospital—and while that plan ultimately fell through, the New Yorker did convert into the world mission center of the Unification Church (a.k.a. "the Moonies"), which still owns the property. (The hotel business, however, is currently operated by Wyndham.)

Much of the Art Deco decor has been removed from the hotel's interior (probably by Unification Church members who attempted to bring the hotel up to code in the 1970s, after years of blight).

All that's left of the Terrace Room now is a black box soundstage, still used for productions, but stripped of all of its former ornamentation (and ice rink).

Although a 2006 renovation attempted to restore its Art Deco glory over the course of three years, you've got to know where to look to find what's original.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Lunch at the Waldorf Astoria New York, Upon Its Closing
Photo Essay: The Woolworth Building, the Cathedral of Commerce
Underneath the City (Hall)
I've Outdone Myself Again

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