13 fascinating secrets of iconic NYC attractions

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/rhockens

Psst, we have a secret. Or 13 secrets, to be exact, about the most iconic places in NYC. No, these aren’t the coolest secret speakeasies or under-the-radar Brooklyn parties. You already know where these places are—and even consider them touristy—but they can still surprise you, we swear. After all, history is happening in Manhattan, and we want you to be an expert on our beloved city.

1. The Empire State Building has a hidden staircase

An unmarked door on the 102nd-floor observation deck conceals one of the most impractical secrets of this towering landmark. Although visitors can't access it, a set of steps leads to a narrow terrace that was once intended to be a docking station. Airships were supposed to moor at the tip of the mast, and passengers would be able to alight there. (But don't be fooled—though this image illustrates what such an event might have looked like, it's a fake.) A late addition to the design, the mast may have simply been an excuse to make the building the world's tallest. Given the strong winds at 1,250 feet—not to mention the logistics of a landing crew—it's now known that no dirigible could feasibly dock there. A three-minute jerry-rigged connection in September 1931 in 40-mile-an-hour winds was the closest the plan ever came to fruition.

2. The Brooklyn Bridge has unused shopping centers under it

The iconic East River crossing is supported by giant anchorages, which are the massive stone and concrete structures underneath the entrance ramp on either side of the bridge. "John Roebling, the engineer, envisioned that they would double as shopping arcades. He gave the inside [of each] the same Gothic design as the towers, with beautiful 50-foot-high cathedral ceilings," says Julie Golia, the public historian of Brooklyn Historical Society. "But that plan fell through, and for most of history they've been municipal storage." Creative Time staged art exhibits and performances in the edifice on the Brooklyn side of the bridge until 2001, when it was closed for security reasons.

3. The New York Public Library used pipes to send messages

Retrieving a book from NYPL's vast collection is a simple process: Patrons fill out a piece of paper and give it to a clerk outside the main reading room. Until recently, these call slips were sent through a system of pneumatic tubes. "The clerk would put the slip into the tube, sending it to the reading room," says chief librarian Sumie Ota. "There, it was fed into another tube to one of the seven stacks levels, where it got spit out at the other end." The passages are no longer in use, but you can see the now-obsolete big brass pipes in the third-floor catalog room at the clerk's desk. "It's still operable, but a few years ago we moved to a conveyor-belt system," explains Ota.

4. There’s a Civil War memorial hidden in Central Park

One of Central Park’s secrets is hidden in a very popular spot, Bethesda Terrace, an open-air pavilion that overlooks the lake at 72nd Street. Designed by park engineers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the structure was intended to blend into the landscape; its decorations take inspiration from nature, with four balustrades that represent each of the seasons. But one discrete carving doesn't fit the motif: On the back of the westernmost winter-themed piece, you'll find a cross and five stars. Its meaning was a mystery until recently, when Sara Cedar Miller, historian of the Central Park Conservancy, discovered that they represent military stars. The terrace was built during the Civil War, and this particular piece hints at the turmoil beyond the tranquil spot.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/tattoodjay

5. There was a private platform for FDR in Grand Central Terminal

Among the station's warren of underground tunnels is a secret platform, no longer in use, called Track 61. "It was built for one customer: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wanted to hide the fact that polio confined him to a wheelchair," says Dan Brucker, manager of Grand Central's tours. "It has a 50-foot-long platform, at the end of which is an elevator [that is] five and a half feet wide, 24 feet long, and able to haul 8,000 pounds. Roosevelt's private train held a Pierce-Arrow limousine, and upon arriving in New York he was driven straight out of the carriage, along the platform and into the custom-made elevator." From there, the President would be driven into the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Not only are the platform and elevator still there, but so is FDR's armor-clad train car. The area is off-limits to the public, but if you're on the upper level, you can glimpse the abandoned train by looking left when inbound or right when heading away from the platform.


6. There once was an apartment above Radio City Music Hall

When the venerable theater opened in 1932, vaudeville producer Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel—who dreamed up the grand venue—wanted his own equally posh digs within the building. To wit: Rothafel had an exclusive suite constructed on the fifth floor. Although the theatrical impresario never actually moved in, the space was kitted out with extravagant details. Interior designer Donald Deskey added Art Deco elements, including 20-foot-high domed ceilings, cherrywood walls and an intimate dining area. Today the area is called Roxy's Suite, and is reserved for Radio City performers and VIP attendees. (Elton John, Dave Matthews and Paul McCartney have all hung out there.) You can get a peek at the apartment during the venue's regular Stage Door Tour.

7. Macy’s Herald Square actually isn’t the original location

Navigating the nearly one-block-long Herald Square branch of this department store can be overwhelming. But Macy's wasn't always quite so large: The chain opened its much smaller original headquarters on Sixth Avenue and 14th Street in 1858. As demand for goods grew, so did the company's need for space, and in 1902 the store moved to 34th Street. The relocated branch featured four banks of wooden escalators—which were considered super-swanky at the time—that connected the first floor to the fifth. These days, you can still ride a few of those original moving staircases: On the Broadway side of the shop, look for the vintage escalators between the eighth and ninth floors.


8. The Statue of Liberty was built because of $1 donations

The monument also known as Liberty Enlightening the World was dedicated on October 28, 1886, after decades of planning and fund-raising. It was agreed in 1875 that the French people would cover the costs of the massive copper statue, but the U.S. would be responsible for paying for the pedestal and securing a site for the tribute. The American Committee for the Statue of Liberty was formed to raise funds for the pedestal, but it soon ran out of money. Luckily, New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer—yes, that Pulitzer—turned efforts around by printing the names of every person who contributed to the fund in his newspaper. Donations poured in, most of which totaled less than a dollar each. Today you can see an iron statue of Pulitzer at the walkway near the left entrance to the statue, one of five pieces commemorating individuals who helped bring Lady Liberty to our shores.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/boscdanjou

9. Lincoln Center’s Reclining Figure sculpture was designed for the water

One of the most recognizable parts of the performing-arts center's recently renovated complex is Reclining Figure, a giant bronze sculpture created by English artist Henry Moore. The piece is the only sculpture that Moore designed specifically to be placed in water. In order to gauge how his creation would look in the complex's reflecting pool, Moore crafted a smaller version of the sculpture at his studio and placed it in a pool of water. The completed piece is 16 feet high and weighs six tons, and was shipped in pieces from the Hermann Noack Foundry in Germany (where it was initially cast in bronze) to New York City via boat.

10. Greenlight Bookstore opened because of a survey

As brick-and-mortar bookstores in NYC continue to face extinction, this Fort Greene emporium has thrived (and even expanded—sort of—with two satellite kiosks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). Owners Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo opened the shop in response to a community survey, which found that neighborhood residents really wanted a bookstore in the area. Now it's a local gathering spot and even counts literary luminaries such as Jennifer Egan and Jhumpa Lahiri among its regular customers. It's housed in a building that's more than a century old; at different times, the structure served as an insurance agency and the headquarters of a chapter of Black Veterans for Social Justice. Fitting and Stockton-Bagnulo also found an homage to one of the neighborhood's historic residents. "There's a very old painting of Robert Fulton's invention, the steamboat, above one of the doors," explains Stockton-Bagnulo. "[It's] where our monthly comedy series, Steamboat, gets its name."

11. The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center used to be a parking garage

Lincoln Center's movie palace is a high-tech wonder, boasting a plasma screen, projection booths that can show a variety of film types and really nice seats (executive director Rose Kuo tested them several times to ensure maximum comfiness). But the building itself has more humble origins: The state-of-the-art facility was constructed in a former Lincoln Center parking garage. Architect David Rockwell incorporated parts of the original structure into the current space—cables and support beams were left exposed in the lobby ceiling—and even nodded to the car park with a 16-foot-wide "garage door" at the entrance to the amphitheater. "It moves up and down, and folds in the same way that a garage door would," says Kuo. Though visitors aren't allowed near the portal as it opens and closes, you can still see it moving from the facility's entrance. "[The door is] smack in the middle of the Film Center, so people can see it opening from the sidewalk," notes Kuo.

12. The High Line was once surrounded by factories

This celebrated park is beloved for its unique vistas and creative use of industrial relics. But since it opened in 2009, it has also proven to be a real-estate draw, with developers transforming buildings on either side into swanky condos. When the High Line first opened in 1934, many of these structures stored the goods that the elevated railway ferried throughout the city. One such edifice, the Spears Building (located at 525 West 22nd Street), was a factory operated by the Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company and featured loading docks that led directly onto the railroad. Recent renovations to the tracks retained those docks as a structural element, which now help support the 22nd Street Seating Steps (one of the components of the High Line's second section). As for the Spears Building, it has since been converted into luxury apartments, but you can see one of its graffiti-covered walls from the lawn at 23rd Street.

13. The trees at the 9/11 Memorial have a special meaning

Years of planning went into this monument, which opened on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Called "Reflecting Absence," the design by architect Michael Arad features two reflecting pools that sit within the footprint of each of the Twin Towers. The water elements are surrounded by oak trees, and the placement of that plant life is not random. "The first ring of trees around each pool is exactly 212 feet across, from one side to the other, and that's the dimension of the towers," explains Arad. "All of the structural steel columns [of the Twin Towers] were on the perimeter of the building, and where those columns used to be, we have these trees growing." Arad believes that the timbers function as a living memorial to the fallen buildings. "It's a nice way of demarcating the tower footprints without being very literal about it," he says.

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