9 Notable Buildings With Secret Floors

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Secret floors have long captured the imagination; conspiracy theorists love to imagine that government buildings keep their darkest secrets within sealed-off stories. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours,” the ninth floor of a department store is where the mannequins mysteriously come to life. Meanwhile, the hidden 7th-and-a-half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in New York was a portal for John Cusack into the actual brain of John Malkovich in the movie Being John Malkovich.

While these mysteries may have come from a writer’s imagination, there are notable buildings that have whole secret floors right under your nose—if you know where to look.

1. THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, NEW YORK

One of the world’s most iconic and recognizable skyscrapers, the Empire State Building is also one of Manhattan’s premiere tourist destinations. The gleaming Art Deco elevators speed thousands of visitors to the observation deck on the 86th floor every day, and there’s also an observation pod on the 102nd floor. But just above, hidden out of sight, is the secret 103rd floor. Off-limits to the public, there is no glass protecting visitors from the elements, just a narrow walkway surrounding the top of the building. Original plans are thought to have allowed airships to dock to the top of the Empire State Building, with passengers disembarking on the 103rd floor, and the 102nd being their official port of entry into the United States. The plan never came to fruition, however, and the hidden 103rd floor remains sealed off high above New York City.

2. THE FIFTH FLOOR OF THE YANGGAKDO HOTEL, PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA

For Calvin Sun, of the adventurous travel blog Monsoon Diaries, a hotel in the world’s most isolated nation held a particularly odd secret. The hotel Yanggakdo’s elevator has no 5th floor. Getting out of the elevator on the 6th and walking down, his group reached something peculiar: an entire concreted hidden floor, filled with locked doors and no people. The floor was covered with what looked to be government-issued propaganda posters, with messages like “Let’s prepare thoroughly in order to defeat the invaders” and “Our General is the best.” Other intrepid adventurers have reported bunkers, steel doors, official-looking men with computers, and others listening to headphones. Some have speculated that there is another floor hidden within the 5th, but its purpose remains unknown.

3. THE GREENBRIER RESORT, WEST VIRGINIA

The Greenbrier is a luxury hotel and resort located amid the mountains of West Virginia. The local waters have been attracting guests since 1778, and the glittering guest list of the hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, has included 26 presidents. But hidden under the glamorous rooms and sprawling grounds is a massive underground complex, codenamed Project Greek Island. During the Cold War, it was built to hold the entire United States Congress in safety—just in case Washington was attacked by a Soviet nuclear strike.

The 112,000-square-foot bunker was big enough to hold both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and came complete with six months’ worth of food, 25-ton blast doors, decontamination chambers, water purification equipment, and its own hospital. The government’s construction of Project Greek Island was covered up by the building of a new west wing added to the existing hotel. To avoid detection, the huge amounts of land unearthed in the creation of the project were used in a new golf course, while the army of workers posed as employees of a fake audiovisual company called the Forsythe Associates, who “maintained” the hotel's 1000 television sets.

Project Greek Island fortunately remained unused, and was never officially acknowledged until a story in the Washington Post in 1992 exposed the secret. Today tours of this remarkable relic of the Cold War are given at the hotel, which still operates as a luxury resort.

4. OUR LORD IN THE ATTIC, AMSTERDAM

Luke Spencer

There’s an old house in Amsterdam that looks much like the other Queen Anne-style homes along the canals that give this old part of the city its distinctive character. This particular house, however, holds a remarkable secret hidden away in the attic: a miniature, fully functioning church. Complete with marble altar, pews enough for 150 worshippers, and elaborate gilt decoration, the church was hidden due to the persecution of Dutch Catholics in the 17th century. Access to the clandestine church is gained by a false wall in the living room that leads to a narrow spiral staircase. Today the church is a museum, but still regularly holds services hidden away in the attic, as they have done for nearly 400 years.

5. THE NEW YORKER HOTEL, MANHATTAN

Luke Spencer

When the New Yorker Hotel opened on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in 1930, it was one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world. It came complete with its own in-house radio station, printing press, 50-chair barber salon, and a dining room that featured a retractable ice rink and skating show to entertain the guests. With 2500 rooms, it was promoted as a “vertical village.”

Underneath the lobby was a giant power plant, occupying a hidden floor around 80 feet below the sidewalk. The DC generating plant was so huge, it was powerful enough to provide electricity for a city of around 35,000 people. The plant was also so sophisticated that one of the hotel’s most famous long-term residents, the inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived there for the last decade of his life, is reported to have wandered down under the lobby to tinker with the plant and talk with the engineers. Remarkably, the plant is still down there, the switches for the old skating rink, coffee shop lights, and ballroom silent and unused. (Much of the plant was modernized in the 1960s, however, and switched over to the alternating current Tesla championed.)

6. WALT DISNEY WORLD, FLORIDA 

Observant visitors to the Magic Kingdom, upon disembarking from the monorail and heading toward Main Street, USA, may notice that they are walking on a slight incline. Indeed Cinderella’s Castle, which lies ahead, appears to be on a hill. In reality, the thousands of daily guests are unknowingly climbing over a vast hidden complex of secret floors, rooms, walkways, and tunnels. Disney World itself is built on top of an intricate hidden infrastructure that Cast Members consider the first floor. (The entire Magic Kingdom itself is technically the second and third floor.)

The story goes that Walt Disney was walking through the original Disneyland in California, and saw a Cast Member dressed as a cowboy walking from Frontierland through to Tomorrowland. Thinking that this would ruin the fantasy illusion for the visiting children, Disney World was designed on top of a hidden 9-acre system that would house walkways for Cast Members, trash collectors, kitchens, and break rooms. Today, tours are available for adults to see behind the curtain of the Magic Kingdom.

7. JOHN HANCOCK CENTER’S 44TH FLOOR, CHICAGO

The John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks. When it was completed in 1969, it was one of the tallest buildings in the world, second only to the Empire State Building in New York. But what many people don’t realize is that it is actually possible to live inside one of America’s most famous skyscrapers. The residential floors run from the 45th to the 92nd floor, but it is the 44th floor that holds all the secrets. Off-limits to all but the residents, the 44th floor is home to a vast 5200-square-foot supermarket. There is also a library, concierge service, a high-ceilinged sky lounge, and the highest swimming pool in the United States. During elections it even has its own polling station.

8. PLYMOUTH CHURCH OF THE PILGRIMS, BROOKLYN

Luke Spencer

Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights is a church steeped in history. One of the oldest Congregationalist Churches in New York, it was once presided over by the inspirational orator, minister, and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Described then as “the most famous man in America,” his fiery anti-slavery rhetoric was so renowned that Plymouth was the only church in New York visited by Abraham Lincoln. Beecher would hold mock slave auctions on the site, where parishioners would raise money to free slaves.

But the extraordinary events on the church floor covered a remarkable secret below it: a hidden floor, with the entrance through a door behind the organ. Dry, dusty chambers, brick archways, and tunnels are all that remain of one of the principal stops on the Underground Railroad. This hidden floor provided a sanctuary for so many escaping slaves that it became known in hushed voices as the Grand Central Depot. At great risk to themselves, the brave parishioners of Plymouth Church, led by Beecher, vowed to help as many slaves as possible. “I will both shelter them,” Beecher said, “conceal them or speed their flight.” The church is still vibrantly active today, and tours are available to visit what was once one of the most secret places in America.

Luke Spencer

9. THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE AND HERB GARRET, LONDON

Luke Spencer

Hidden in the roof of St. Thomas’ Church in London is something as chilling as it is fascinating. Climbing the circular staircase of the old church to the garret (or attic) leads to one of the oldest known operating theaters still in existence. Once part of the ancient St. Thomas’ Hospital, visitors today can crowd into the tiny theater and stand on steep wooden terraces overlooking the operating table. Here 19th-century medical students would watch the pre-eminent surgeons of the day practice their craft; one notable surgeon was said to be able to amputate and cauterize a limb in under a minute.

In the attic above the theater is the old herb apothecary and garden where herbs were stored and cured. Still well-stocked today, the Herb Garret resembles a Victorian cabinet of peculiar curiosities, featuring wormwood, poppies for opium, and a “bath of sheep heads for Woman suffering from unknown illness.” After St. Thomas relocated, the church garret was sealed up and forgotten for decades, until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today operating as a museum, tours are available for those who want to experience the lancets, blades, and bone saws of over a hundred years ago. 

Luke Spencer

Hong Kong's Peculiar Architecture Can Be Explained by Feng Shui

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Most people are familiar with feng shui—the ancient Chinese art of arranging one's environment to maximize good energy—as it applies to interior design. But you don't need to walk into a building to see feng shui at work in Hong Kong: It's baked into the skyline.

This video from Vox examines how feng shui has shaped the design of Hong Kong's skyscrapers. Some of the most extreme examples are dragon gates: large holes cut out of the center of buildings. The idea is that dragons, which are said to live in the mountains behind the city, will be able to fly through the openings and into the water. If their passage is blocked, bad luck will befall any buildings in their way.

Some superstitious design features are a little more subtle. In the lobby of the HSBC building, the escalators are positioned at a strange angle to fend off the bad energy flowing into the space. When Hong Kong Disneyland hired a feng shui consultant (a real and lucrative job), they were told to shift the entrance 12 degrees to keep chi from flowing out.

But not every architect in Hong Kong takes feng shui into account. The Bank of China Tower is infamous for its sharp angles, which feng shui experts claim damages the positive energy around it. Anything bad that happens to the surrounding businesses is immediately blamed on the tower, and the neighboring HSBC building even installed cranes that are meant to combat any bad luck it radiates.

You can watch the full story below.

[h/t Vox]

8 Historical Buildings That Have Been Relocated

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Some buildings are designed to last forever—we’re looking at you, Great Pyramid of Giza. Those that aren’t can sometimes be saved through drastic engineering measures and a transatlantic relocation. Here’s a look at eight buildings around the world that have been lifted off their foundations (either in one piece or thousands) and rebuilt in a safer space, ensuring that their legacy lives on.

1. THE TEMPLE OF DENDUR // NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Shinya Suzuki, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Commissioned by the first Roman emperor Caesar Augustus and completed in 10 BCE, the Temple of Dendur—originally in Egypt—was at risk of being flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the subsequent formation of Lake Nasser in the 1960s.

UNESCO established the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia in 1960, and countries worked quickly to save as many artifacts as possible before the lake submerged 2000 square miles of ancient lands. Egypt gave the Temple of Dendur to the United States in 1965 for its participation in the rescue effort, and President Lyndon Johnson awarded it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The small stone temple was dismantled in Egypt, and the 642 pieces were shipped to the U.S. on the SS Concordia Star. Upon arrival in New York, flatbed trucks carried the pieces from the dock to the museum on Fifth Avenue. When the blocks were unpacked, "not all were numbered and some were found to be numbered incorrectly. Section drawings exist—but they are in French," The New York Times reported [PDF]. Still, a team of stonecutters, carvers, masons, and museum curators were able to reassemble the temple in the custom-built Sackler Wing.

2. LONDON BRIDGE // LAKE HAVASU CITY, ARIZONA

London Bridge, Lake Havasu, Arizona
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In the mid-20th century, London Bridge was quite literally falling down: The weight of modern cars was pushing the Georgian-era bridge into the River Thames. To make room for a new bridge, the granite structure was put up for auction in 1968.

The winning bidder was Robert McCulloch, the mastermind behind the resort community of Lake Havasu City, Arizona. He believed the bridge’s reinstallation in the planned development would attract tourists—and he was willing to pay $2.46 million for the British landmark. The bridge was disassembled, each piece of stone masonry was numbered, and the whole thing was sent off on a ship that traversed the Panama Canal on its way to California. From the Port of Long Beach, the bridge’s pieces were trucked to Arizona, where they were rebuilt according to the original plans.

3. COOK’S COTTAGE // MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

Cook's Cottage, Melbourne, Australia
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The great British explorer and naval captain James Cook has a long list of achievements, like being the first European mariner to cross the Antarctic circle and circumnavigating New Zealand, Tonga, and Easter Island. The Yorkshire-born navigator spent time between his adventures at home, reportedly in a small cottage in Great Ayton built by his family. When that house went up for sale in 1933, industrialist Sir Russell Grimwade purchased it for £800 and donated it to the state of Victoria, Australia, in recognition of Cook’s exploration of the continent and to celebrate the centennial of Melbourne.

After the house was taken apart and packed into nearly 300 crates and barrels, it was shipped to Australia aboard the Port Dunedin, along with some of the ivy that once grew up its walls. It was rebuilt in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens, where it stands today. Since then, scholars have determined that there’s no concrete evidence that Cook ever stayed in the house, though members of his family certainly did.

4. BELLE TOUT LIGHTHOUSE // BEACHY HEAD, UK

Belle Tout Lighthouse, Beachy Head, UK
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The original Belle Tout Lighthouse in Beachy Head, England, was deliberately set back 100 feet from the edge of the cliff when it was built in 1832. If the light disappeared from view, approaching ships at sea would know they were in the danger zone. But through the turn of the 20th century, cliff erosion made the lighthouse less effective, and it was decommissioned in 1902. New owners bought it for a private home (and it also served as target practice by Canadian troops stationed on the coast during World War II). The edge of the cliff crept closer and closer.

In 1999, the owners of the lighthouse had to move it back 56 feet. Engineers dug beneath the 900-ton structure to lift it—in one piece—onto four concrete beams, then slid it back on the beams to its current position. It is now a bed-and-breakfast. If erosion continues at the same pace, the lighthouse will have to be moved again in about 30 years.

5. HAMILTON GRANGE // NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Hamilton Grange, New York City
Mike, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Alexander Hamilton reportedly owned only one house in his life, and that was Hamilton Grange in New York City. Located in what was then Manhattan’s uptown countryside (which is now Harlem), the large, airy house sat on 32 acres of land with views of both the Hudson and Harlem rivers. Hamilton’s widow Elizabeth sold the home in 1833, and the city grew up around it.

The house was relocated for the first time in 1889, when the owner, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, moved it 250 feet north to be closer to the church—and to prevent it from being demolished by the construction of 143rd Street, which would have run right through it. The National Park Service (NPS) acquired the Grange in 1962 and, in 2008, decided to move it again. Having deteriorated quite a bit over the decades in that location, the house was in desperate need of a renovation. But since new buildings had sprouted up around it, a full renovation at that site would have been impossible. The NPS settled on moving it a few blocks away to St. Nicholas Park—once part of the original plot of land owned by Hamilton—where it would no longer be crammed between other structures and could be fully restored. The 200-ton house was jacked up, attached by the foundation to steel beams for support, then carefully raised 38 feet up in the air on hydraulic lifts to bypass a porch on another building [PDF]. The Grange was then rolled onto a massive system of dollies on the street that essentially drove the house to its new site.

6. NEWARK LIBERTY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT BUILDING 51 // NEWARK, NEW JERSEY

Newark Liberty International Airport Building 51, New Jersey
Peter Brandt, Library of Congress // No known restrictions on images made by the U.S. government

Newark Liberty International Airport might be one of the worst-ranked airports in the U.S., but that wasn’t always the case. Built in 1935, Building 51 was one of the most luxurious, state-of-the-art passenger terminals in the world—in fact, Amelia Earhart participated in its dedication ceremony. (She kept one of her own planes at the airport, as did Charles Lindbergh.)

But when new terminals were opened from the 1950s through the ’80s, Building 51 was converted into office space. It eventually faced demolition as part of a runway expansion project. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the airport, received permission from the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office to relocate the Art Deco structure. First, the building was sliced into three pieces with concrete-cutting machinery. Then each section was individually hoisted by hydraulic lifts and placed on dollies supported by 1407 truck tires to be rolled about three-quarters of a mile to its new location. It has since been renamed Building One and today holds administrative offices, though some of the building is open to the public, including the Art Deco lobby and an exhibition on the history of the structure.

7. THE ABU SIMBEL TEMPLES // ABU SIMBEL, EGYPT

Abu Simbel temples and the Nile River, Egypt
Dennis Jarvis, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Like the Temple of Dendur, the Abu Simbel temples were put at risk by the Aswan High Dam. Built into the sandstone cliffs along the Nile under the rule of Ramses II in the 13th century B.C.E., there are two temples—a main one with four 66-foot-tall statues of the king surrounding its entrance, and a smaller one dedicated to the goddess Hathor. To avoid having the temples submerged beneath Lake Nasser’s rising waters, preservationists disassembled and moved them to higher ground. Engineers dug down from the top of the cliffs, dismantled the structures by carving them into 20-ton blocks, and moved them piece by piece to the new site, a 200-foot-high artificial hill built atop their original location. Like the Temple of Dendur, this undertaking was part of UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia.

8. ST. BERNARD DE CLAIRVAUX CHURCH // MIAMI, FLORIDA

In the 1920s, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst sent teams across Europe to buy artwork to stock his new castle in San Simeon, California. One of his acquisitions was a 12th-century Spanish cloister, which he had workers dismantle, pack into 11,000 crates, and send on a ship across the ocean to New York.

There, the crates were impounded: Customs agents feared the hay used to pad the crates might be contaminated with hoof-and-mouth disease, and the whole shipment was left in one of Hearst’s warehouses. Eventually the hay was burned, and the pieces of the cloister were declared safe for transportation—but by this time, the stock market had crashed and Hearst had lost all his money. The pieces of the cloister were placed on the auction block in 1952, one year after Hearst’s death, and acquired by two Florida men who rebuilt it in Miami as a tourist attraction. The cloister failed to lure visitors, however, and the owners ended up donating it to a local parish.

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