In the novel Foucault’s Pendulum, two characters discuss a house that is not what it appears to be. People “walk by” this house in Paris, we read, but “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 its unresponsive front door.
This “house” is actually “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator.” It is also a disguised emergency exit for the New York City subway.
According to a blog called the Willowtown Association, “the ventilator was a private brownstone dating from 1847. The substation was built in 1908 in conjunction with the start of subway service to Brooklyn. As reported in the BKLYN magazine article, the building’s ‘cavernous interior once housed a battery of electrical devices that converted alternating current to the 600-volt direct current needed to power the IRT.'”
It is New York’s more interesting version of 23/24 Leinster Gardens in London. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote last year, “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.”
You’ll notice on Google Maps that the 4/5 subway line passes directly beneath the house, which brings to mind an old post here on BLDGBLOG in which we looked at the possibility that repurposed subway cars could be used someday as extra, rentable basement space—that is, “temporary basements in the form of repurposed subway cars,” with the effect that “each private residence thus becomes something like a subway station, with direct access, behind a locked door, to the subterranean infrastructure of the city far below.”
Then, for a substantial fee—as much as $15,000 a month—you can rent a radically redesigned subway car, complete with closets, shelves, and in-floor storage cubes. The whole thing is parked beneath your house and braked in place; it has electricity and climate control, perhaps even WiFi. You can store summer clothes, golf equipment, tool boxes, children’s toys, and winter ski gear.
When you no longer need it, or can’t pay your bills, you simply take everything out of it and the subway car is returned to the local depot.
A veritable labyrinth of moving rooms soon takes shape beneath the city.
Perhaps Joralemon Street is where this unlikely business model could be first tried out…
In any case, 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.
The Battery Tunnel has a particularly noticeable vent, pictured above, and the Holland Tunnel also vents out near my place of work.
As historian David Gissen writes in his excellent book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments, New York’s ventilation control structures are “strange buildings” that have “collapsed” the difference between architecture and civil engineering:
The Holland Tunnel spanned an enormous 8,500 feet. At each end, engineers designed ten-story ventilation towers that would push air through tunnels above the cars, drawing the vehicle exhaust upward, where it would be blown back through the tops of the towers and over industrial areas of the city. The exhaust towers provided a strange new building type in the city—a looming blank tower that oscillated between a work of engineering and architecture.
As further described in this PDF, for instance, Holland Tunnel has a total of four ventilation structures: “The four ventilation buildings (two in New Jersey and two in New York) house a total of 84 fans, of which 42 are blower units, and 42 are exhaust units. They are capable, at full speed, of completely changing the tunnel air every 90 seconds.”
Several years ago a friend of ours remarked that she didn’t like staying in hotels near Columbus Circle here in New York because that’s the neighborhood, she said, where all the subways vent to—a statement that appears to be nothing more than an urban legend, but that nonetheless sparked off a long-term interest for me in finding where the underground weather systems of New York City are vented to the outside. Imagine an entire city district dedicated to nothing but ventilating the underworld!
This is a topic I will no doubt return to at some point soon—but, for now, if you want to see a disguised entrance to the 4/5 line, walk down Joralemon Street toward the river and keep your eyes peeled soon after the street turns to cobblestones.
(The house on Joralemon Street first discovered via Curbed).