The infinite city, cont’d: A doorway to the underworld

Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG has written a fascinating post about an innocuous-looking building in my borough that — to my delight — turns out to be a ventilator and escape hatch leading to NYC’s vast underground subway system:

In the novel Foucault’s Pendulum, two characters discuss a house that is not what it appears to be. People “walk by” this certain house in Paris, we read, “and they don’t know the truth. That the house is a fake. It’s a facade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”

Two days ago, Nicola Twilley and I went on an early evening expedition over to visit the house at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, with its blacked out windows and unresponsive front door.

This “house” is actually “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator” and disguised emergency exit.

[…] Nicola and I walked over to see the house for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the disguised-entrance-to-the-underworld is undoubtedly one of the coolest building programs imaginable, and would make an amazing premise for an intensive design studio; but also because the surface vent structures through which underground currents of air are controlled have always fascinated me.

These vents appear throughout New York City, as it happens — although Joralemon, I believe, is the only fake house — serving as surface articulations of the larger buried networks to which they are connected.

Manaugh links to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article with more information:

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — The tidy, three-story brownstone looks like any other on the cobblestone block in Brooklyn, but it isn’t. It leads directly down to the nation’s largest subway system.

Brooklyn Heights, in fact, is home to many secret emergency stairways leading to track lines that climb from under the East River to stations in Brooklyn, since Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn are where many lines converge before fanning out to the rest of the borough. These emergency exits are sealed, unmarked and rarely, if ever used.

Located in the tunnel just east of the river, the exit disguised as a brownstone leads to a grimy-lit set of metal stairs that ascend past utility boxes and ventilation shafts into a windowless room with a door. If you opened the door, you would find yourself on a stoop, which is just part of the façade.

Even though this exit remains secret to most, its existence is widely known to Heights residents.

The NYPD’s heightened security measures around this exit, including an update in protection from a single bolt in the middle of the door to silent alarms and motion detectors, reflects concerns that a terrorist could use this passageway to sneak into the subway system or try to tamper with the ventilation.

Fantastic; that’s grist for plenty of crime/urban fantasy novels right there. I’ll have to visit sometime soon.

Check out BLDGBLOG for more photos, as well as information on other “secret” connections to NYC’s underground, including edifices at Governor’s Island and the Holland Tunnel.

(via io9. I love the connection that one of the commenters makes: the house-that-isn’t-a-house certainly resembles the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix.)

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