New York is a state rich with history, vibrant art and thrilling architecture. But to many New Yorkers, the obvious wonders of the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station lose their mystique after passing them daily for years.
New York also hides many of its treasures in plain sight — the architectural and design wonders that our eyes have grown accustomed to not looking at twice. Many long time residents may not even be aware of their history and local legends associated with them.
Here are a few of our favorite off the beaten path spots that are worth renting a Zipcar to check out first hand:
1. Bannerman Island — Hudson Valley
Photo: Salim Virji/Flickr
Situated along the Hudson about an hour outside of New York City, you’ll find the unassuming Bannerman Island, also known as Pollepel. The island was long uninhabited and was thought to be haunted by early Native American tribes who settled the area.
The Bannerman family came from Scotland in the 1860s and settled in Brooklyn, starting a business that bought and sold military surplus equipment and munitions from the Navy Yard. The business quickly grew into “Bannerman’s” and at one point boasted a 300-plus page catalog of military munitions. The family settled on the island in 1900. A large castle, designed by Francis Bannerman himself inspired by classic Scottish castles, was built to store their wares when suitable storage safe space could not be secured in Manhattan for the large volumes of ammunition.
A smaller version of the castle was built, visible from the shore, and became a family residence. It was often decorated with surplus items from the Bannerman inventory. Construction ceased in 1918, following Bannerman’s death. And, in 1920, 200 tons of munitions exploded, severely damaging the structure. Although the castle is now in disarray, it still stands proudly guarding the island. Walking tours of the island are available and the popular canoe tour is the best way to see the wild, forgotten island in its entirety.
2. Mohonk Mountain House — New Paltz, Hudson Valley, New York
Literature fans may know that Stephen King’s primary inspiration for his novel “The Shining” was the Stanley Hotel in Colorado. Primary, but not sole. A 90-minute drive to the New Paltz area of New York reveals another inspiration, the Mohonk Mountain House.
The Victorian castle was built in 1869 by Albert Smiley and is surrounded by thousands of acres of woods, hiking trails and a gorgeous lake. The house has seen many additions over the years, expanding its already sprawling size. Walking down its many long and winding corridors, it’s easy to see the parallels to the haunted hotel described by King in his novel. The author has been a long-time visitor of Mohonk Mountain House, and he still frequents it today.
3. Irish Hunger Memorial — 290 Vesey Street
There are a few spots in New York City that can fool your eye into thinking you’ve left the concrete jungle temporarily for greener pastures. The Irish Hunger Memorial is one of them. From the ground level, passersby can only see the vague monument erected in remembrance of the Irish Potato Famine. However, upon closer examination, surrounding the monument is a plethora of wildlife that is all indigenous to Ireland, the ruins of an Irish cottage and a stunning view of Lady Liberty.
4. The Lost Underground and Old City Hall 6 Train — Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall Station, 6 Train
Photo: Julian Dunn/Flickr
Some of New York City’s most impressive design and building work is actually underground in its vast subway system. The largest system in the world by number of train stations, New York City’s subway system has many train lines and stations are now abandoned, hidden below the bustling streets above. Among the most famous is the Old City Hall station, which is a throwback to another era of New York history with its opulent design.
Tours of the lost underground are available through the Transit Museum twice a month. Although the station is no longer active, the train track is still in use. The number 6 train uses it as a “turnaround” point, ending its route and turning around to switch directions. Artful stowaways on the 6 train can get an up close look at the station as the 6 train turns around to begin its route again.
5. Bennett Park Fort Washington — West 183rd Street and Fort Washington Avenue, Manhattan
Bennett Park Fort Washington in Manhattan is the highest natural landmass in Manhattan and boasts a history dating back to the Revolutionary War. Named for New York Herald creator James Gordon Bennett, Sr., a mass of schist stands 265 feet above sea level and is officially the highest land mass in Manhattan. During the Revolutionary War, General Washington and his troops dug themselves in at Bennett Park and, from their vantage point, were able to see Hessian troops slaughtering the Americans across the Hudson. Today the park hosts reenactments of the Battle of Fort Washington.
6. A piece of Berlin in Manhattan — 520 Madison Avenue, Manhattan
Photo: Trish Mayo/Flickr
On November 9th, 1989, the infamous Berlin Wall came tumbling down as the Cold War thawed. After its destruction, five sections of the wall were purchased at auction by real estate company Tishman Speyer. Weighing 12 tons, a section of the wall now stands at 520 Madison Avenue at 53rd Street. The section on display here can also be seen being painted in the 1987 film “Wings of Desire” by director Wim Wenders. At a time when the US President-elect is talking about building walls, this piece of history seems more relevant than ever.
7. Vanderbilt Mausoleum — 2205 Richmond Road, Staten Island
Designed by noted architect Richard Morris Hunt, the Vanderbilt Mausoleum is a stunning Romanesque Revival-inspired stone building with round arches, detailed carvings and topped with two small domes. Resembling a Romanesque church in France, this mausoleum was built in 1885 for the wealthy Vanderbilt family. It is nestled away on over eight private acres of greenery in Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island behind a massive rounded gate, echoing the mausoleum design— the Vanderbilts donated in total some 300 acres for the creation of the cemetery.
The burial site is over three stories tall and is built into the side of a rock formation of bordering High Rock Park. A smaller tomb called Sloane House was also built by the Vanderbilts. There have been many local legends about the site, but most agree on one point — it’s very haunted! It’s also worth a look to see how the mega-wealthy remember those who have passed, and is also one of the only surviving works designed by Hunt.
8. The Players Social Club — 16 Gramercy Park South, Manhattan
Photo: Robert Clark
The macabre, history and theatre all intersect at The Players on Gramercy Park South. Inside, next to a century-old human skull, is a bronze statue honoring one of New York City’s most famous Shakespearian actors, Edwin Booth. If the last name doesn’t ring a bell, it should. Edwin is one of the three acting Booth brothers, all eclipsed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by brother John Wilkes Booth.
However, Edwin’s career survived and thrived despite the heinous act committed by his brother, and this hidden statue in The Players as well as the historic 1880s social club that houses it are both worth a glance. The Gothic-Revival style mansion was purchased by Edwin Booth for $75,000 in May of 1888, and turned into a club for creators of the arts, and patrons of the arts alike. On opening night, December 31st, 1888, Booth declared the structure and all of its contents — including all the theatrical memorabilia he had amassed — as belonging to the Players.
9. New York’s Marble Cemetery — 41 ½ Second Avenue
Photo: Eden, Janine, and Jim/Flickr
The Marble Cemetery is the oldest non-sectarian burial ground in New York, and also one of the most hidden. Founded in 1831, it was once was known as a resting place for “gentleman.” It now hides behind an ominous iron gate on Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village. Greek-revival marble plaques mark the places of internment for the cemetery’s resident gentleman.
Although the cemetery hasn’t had a burial in over 70 years, it is the final resting place of a former New York City mayor, several founders of New York University and a few other familiar last names, like Varick for example, that should ring a bell to most New Yorkers. Adding to its secrecy, it is only open on the fourth Sunday of every month.
10. The Ear Inn — 326 Spring Street, Manhattan
Photo: The Ear Inn
Located in SoHo on Spring Street in the historic James Brown House is one of the oldest drinking establishments in all of New York City, and according to local legend, it has its own share of spirits — and not the drinking variety. The building was built around 1770 for James Brown, an African-American aide to General Washington, who was also depicted in the famed crossing of the Delaware portrait by Emanuel Leutze.
It has been a speakeasy, housed a brothel in the rooms upstairs, and provided cover for smugglers. It was named The “Ear” Inn after lengthy discussions with the New York City Landmark Commission, who weren’t making it easy to change the building’s outdoor signage. New owners in the 1970s simply covered parts of the “B” in “bar” so it now read simply “ear.” Staff has often spoken of glasses moving on their own, disembodied voices and the occasional apparition.
11. Fred F. French Building — 551 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Photo: Chris Sampson/Flickr
Manhattan’s “set-back” zoning laws of the early 1900s stated that once a building reached a certain height, it had to step inward from the street ensuring that the city’s sidewalks wouldn’t be shrouded in darkness as the skyscrapers eclipsed the sun. The Fred. F. French Building on Fifth is a prime example of set-back design and a glowing throwback to the grand Art Deco design of early 1900 Manhattan skyscrapers. The lobby boasts polished bronze, gilded mythological animals on the walls, and one of the city’s most stunning elevator banks.
12. Freedom Tunnel — 129th Street, Manhattan
Photo: Ryan Raffa/Flickr
The Freedom Tunnel has a dubious past, at best. It was once home to residents that not only wanted to live off the grid, but literally under the grid entirely. Urban legends circulated about mutants and monsters running amok in the abandoned train tunnels, and even inspired the 1984 cult movie classic “C.H.U.D.”
To get to the Freedom Tunnel, take the 1 train to the 125th Street station. Next, walk under the overpass until you reach a bridge. The train tracks should now be above you. Now, walk up the hill until you reach a fence with a gap in it. Enter, and follow the tracks until you reach the tunnel.