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

7 Innovative Architectural Ideas With World-Changing Potential

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iStock.com/traumschoen

Our ancient relatives, Homo heidelbergensis, were constructing shelters at least 400,000 years ago, and architectural innovation has been a defining feature of societies since then, changing to suit the needs and desires of the builders and occupants as they evolved. From energy-efficient designs to community-based spaces, these seven designs could help shape the future.

1. Silver Architecture

Senior man smiling and speaking with caregiver
iStock.com/Dean Mitchell

As the population ages, society is faced with a challenge: How to help people who require special care. The current way that many buildings are designed—and even the way hospitals are set up—makes it difficult for older people to get around and be independent. This is a big problem, because older people are a huge part of the population. As of 2015, there were nearly 50 million people in the United States over the age of 65. By 2030, the Census projects that 20 percent of Americans will be older than 65. “By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million ... under the age of 18," Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, stated in a 2018 press release.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a quarter of people aged 65 or older fall every year. In fact, falling is the leading cause of injuries classified as critical or fatal, which is one of the reasons people who would otherwise live independently are forced into care-based facilities.

Silver architecture aims to change this with building designs that are sustainable, modern, and most importantly—accommodating. Specialized design keeps age-related impairments from becoming debilitating disabilities. The best silver architecture integrates space planning, clear directional layouts, stress-reducing lighting, acoustical innovations to reduce ambient noise, comfortable and accessible furniture, safe flooring, colors that aid psychological well-being, and interactive, health focused interior design (such as plants and artwork) that stimulate and engage residents.

In a 2014 opinion piece for The New York Times, geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson wrote that "These and other strategies are already in use in many long-term care facilities and in specialized areas of hospitals, such as geriatric emergency departments or acute care of the elderly units. But they aren’t nearly as prevalent as they should be." She proposed "prizes for excellence in silver design, just as there are awards for green buildings," adding, "silver architecture and design aren’t about indulging a special interest group. They’re about maximizing quality of life and independence for a life stage most of us will reach. Green architecture is good for the environment; silver architecture is good for humans. The best new buildings will be both."

2. Wounded Warrior Homes

According to the United States Army, 92 percent of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan survive, compared to a rate of 75 percent in Vietnam.

Navigating even a typical accessible home can be a challenge for soldiers who return from war zones after suffering debilitating injuries. The architects behind The Wounded Warrior Home Project took on some of those challenges in two homes built at Virginia's Fort Belvoir, and unveiled in 2011. The residences, designed by and with input from veterans (as well as their loved ones), have a universal focus on accommodation to cater to the diverse needs of injured soldiers. Wide doors and adjustable stovetops are just some of the ways the homes are adapted for physical disabilities. To help with trauma recovery, the houses are designed with large windows and dedicated therapy rooms to help alleviate symptoms.

The homes are geared toward helping soldiers return to duty. "The thing I see now, as I talk to the wounded warriors on this project, they want to know, 'When can I get back to my unit?'" David Haygood, a Vietnam War vet and a partner in one of the design firms behind the homes, told NPR in 2012. Fort Belvoir's then-battalion operations officer, Major John Votovich, told NPR, "We have more of a wounded population today that probably wouldn't have survived in earlier generations. They're still productive members of the military. And they will continue to be so."

3. Dementia Village

According to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, and that number is projected to increase: WHO projects that by 2030, 82 million people will have dementia (and 152 million by 2050). There are 10 million new cases each year, making it "one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people worldwide." But dementia doesn't just affect the people who suffer from it; as WHO notes, it's also overwhelming for the families and loved ones of people with dementia: "There is often a lack of awareness and understanding of dementia, resulting in stigmatization and barriers to diagnosis and care. The impact of dementia on careers, family, and societies can be physical, psychological, social, and economic."

The small community of Hogewey, 10 miles outside of Amsterdam, aims to raise the quality of life for those suffering from dementia and ease the burden for their families. All the residents at Hogeway—also known as Dementia Village—have severe dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and they go about their lives within the confines of this thoughtfully designed town. Nurses and other caretakers act as fellow townsfolk, there to keep the patients healthy and safe. As of 2014, monthly rent was never more than $3600 and often lower because of its sliding scale.

Traditional clinical settings foster isolation and reinforce medicalization of these memory-related illnesses. Hogewey’s approach to dementia de-stigmatizes the condition and creates an environment that people can live in where they require less medication and less medical intervention. According to Yvonne van Amerongen—who had the idea for Hogewey after her father suddenly passed away—"We have Dutch design, Dutch cultures, Dutch lifestyles, but the concept is to value the person, the individual ... to support them to live their life as usual, and you can do that anywhere."

4. Zootopia

Zoos serve important research and conservation purposes, but unfortunately, sometimes their design leaves a lot to be desired: The cages and concrete enclosures don't even come close to mimicking the resident animals' natural habitats, which raises several ethical concerns.

Enter Zootopia. (It's not just a Disney film; the name was first trademarked by Denmark's Givskud Zoo in 2010.) Slated to open in 2020, this zoo’s design is a reimagining of the caged zoo and a departure from safari parks. Instead of caging in the animals, it's the visitors who will be in enclosed areas. These viewing locations will be disguised to minimize human interaction with the animals. Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the architectural firm behind the plans, says one of their main goals is to hide humans from the animals to provide as natural of an environment as possible for the zoo’s residents. For the animals, everything from their feeding stations to their shelters have been designed to look and feel as natural as possible.

"It is our dream—with Givskud—to create the best possible and freest possible environment for the animals’ lives and relationships with each other and visitors," BIG said in a press release. "We are pleased to embark on an exciting journey of discovery with the Givskud staff and population of animals—and hope that we could both enhance the quality of life for the animals as well as the keepers and guests."

5. Eco-Friendly Concrete

Worker levels a floor cement mortar
iStock.com/Anatoliy Sizov

Concrete is the most common material used by humankind, and from 1992 to 2012, the demand for cement (the key ingredient in concrete) more than tripled worldwide. As the demand and use of concrete rises, so does its environmental impact: In 2018, the International Energy Agency said that "The cement sector is the third-largest industrial energy consumer in the world, responsible for 7 percent of industrial energy use, and the second industrial emitter of carbon dioxide, with about 7 percent of global emissions."

Which is perhaps why many are turning their attention to developing better concrete. Rutgers University materials science and engineering professor Richard E. Riman developed a technology to make concrete that stores CO2. Riman then founded Solidia Technologies Inc. in 2008; according to Phys.org, "Solidia Concrete products ... combined with Solidia Cement, can reduce the carbon footprint of cement and concrete by up to 70 percent and can save as much as 528.3 billion gallons a year."

In 2014, Peter Trimble, then a student at the University of Edinburgh, developed what he calls "biostone," which combines sand, bacteria, and urine; he built a machine to create a seat with the material. In 2013, the Structural Technology Group of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech developed "biological concrete" that grows vertical gardens. According to ArchDaily, "The system’s advantages are numerous. The plants capture CO2 from the air and release oxygen. The layer also acts as insulation as a thermal mass. It helps regulate temperatures within the building by absorbing heat and preventing it from entering the building in hot weather or escaping the building in cold weather."

6. Reclaiming Vacant Lots for Gardens

By 2050, two-thirds of the world's population is expected to live in urban areas. Urbanization has its positives—according to National Geographic, people are concentrated in a small space in cities, which makes schools and stores more easily accessed than in rural areas, and also "allows the government and others to provide services such as water, electricity, and transportation to a larger number of people." But it also has its negatives, including crime and pollution, and some studies have indicated that living in a city can affect a person's mental health.

Turning vacant lots into gardens in urban areas brings much needed greenery to cities. Studies have shown that greenery is good for cardiovascular health, boosting concentration, and lower stress levels. A 2018 study found that the greening of vacant land significantly decreased self-reported feelings of depression. Urban gardens can also be a source of locally-sourced, fresh foods.

To see the potential of the urban garden, look no further than Cuba. When Havana's residents found themselves isolated and facing food scarcity following the collapse of the Soviet Union and embargoes against them, they began growing gardens of all sizes on balconies, in windowsills, and on roofs. To assist, the government launched new agriculture initiatives that included organic farming and urban gardening development. Instead of vacant lots going to waste, they became the sites of community agriculture.

7. Turning Shipping Containers Into Urban Farms

Blue shipping container
iStock.com/Jorn-Pilon-Photography

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, as much as "70 percent of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go towards irrigation uses." Critics say many irrigation techniques are incredibly wasteful. But there might be a way to farm that uses much less water: Creating gardens in shipping containers.

Founded in 2013, Local Roots Farms creates what it calls "the world’s most productive indoor modular farming solutions," and their model has been hailed as "the farm of the future." Co-founder Daniel Kuenzi told Smithsonian in 2014 that each farm is capable of growing "the equivalent yield of five acres of conventional outdoor farming each year." Each uses hydroponics to cut water use by 80 percent or more, and the controlled environment also means the vegetables produced are pest- and pesticide-free. In addition, because the farms are inside, weather and climate aren't an issue; food can be grown year-round. "Whether it’s snowing, raining or 100 degrees outside, the 'weather' inside is just right for growing healthy plants," Kuenzi said. The contained farms can bring fresh, local food to "urban food deserts."

In addition, the farms are built in readily-available shipping containers (there are 700,000 unused containers languishing in the United States at any given time). "Shipping containers are durable, easy to modify, stackable and can be shipped anywhere," Kuenzi told Smithsonian. "Additionally, there is an abundant surplus of unused shipping containers in the United States that can be recycled and refurbished at low cost. This allows us the flexibility to have a farm on the ground and growing for our customers within weeks, rather than the months or even years required for traditional greenhouse construction."

Shanghai Is Now Home to the World’s Longest 3D-Printed Bridge

World's largest 3D-printed bridge in Shanghai, China.
World's largest 3D-printed bridge in Shanghai, China.
Tsinghua University

Small items like toys and shoes aren't the only things 3D printers can make. As a team of architects from China's Tsinghua University School of Architecture recently demonstrated, the machines can be used to print sturdy bridges large enough to span waterways.

As dezeen reports, at 86 feet in length, the new pedestrian bridge on a canal in Shanghai's Baoshan District is the longest 3D-printed bridge on Earth. Designed by the university's Zoina Land Joint Research Center for Digital Architecture (JCDA) and constructed by Shanghai Wisdom Bay Investment Management Company, it consists of 176 concrete units. The parts were printed from two robotic-arm 3D-printing systems over 19 days.

The 3D-printing technology cut down on costs as well as construction time. According to Tsinghua University, the project cost just two-thirds of what it would have using conventional materials and engineering methods.

Even though their approach was futuristic, the architecture team paid homage to a much older bridge in a different part of the country. The new bridge's arched structure is inspired by that of the 1400-year-old Anji Bridge in Zhaoxian, the oldest standing bridge in China (and the world's oldest open-spandrel arch bridge).

The bridge in Shanghai may be the longest 3D-printed bridge in the world, but it isn't the first. Last year, a 3D-printed steel bridge was unveiled in Amsterdam.

[h/t dezeen]

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