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

2020 World Monuments Watch: 25 Historic and Cultural Landmarks That Are At Risk

Razvan/iStock via Getty Images
Razvan/iStock via Getty Images

Whether it's due to their age, size, or ubiquity in pop culture, certain landmarks can feel invincible. But that's far from the case: Each year, some of the most famous places on Earth are faced with new threats, including war, urban development, and climate change. In an effort to boost awareness of these vulnerable sites, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) has released its biennial roundup of 25 historic and cultural monuments around the world that need protection.

To finalize entries for its 2020 World Monuments Watch, the WMF evaluated more than 250 nominations from various groups and individuals. The final list includes monuments and cultural sites from five continents. Some, like Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, are threatened by weakened conservation laws, while others—like Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris—have been damaged by recent disasters.

The WMF plans to partner with the local communities around each site on the list to develop specific conservation plans to help save these landmarks. In spring of 2020, the program's founding sponsor, American Express, will donate $1 million toward the initiatives of a select group of sites from the list. To see every place included in the 2020 World Monuments Watch, check out the list below.

  1. Koutammakou, the Land of the Batammariba // Benin and Togo

  1. Ontario Place // Canada

  1. Rapa Nui National Park // Chile

  1. Alexan Palace // Egypt

  1. Notre-Dame de Paris // France

  1. Tusheti National Park // Georgia

  1. Gingerbread Neighborhood // Port-au-Prince, Haiti

  1. Historic Water Systems of the Deccan Plateau // India

  1. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium // India

  1. Mam Rashan Shrine // Iraq

  1. Inari-yu Bathhouse // Japan

  1. Iwamatsu District // Japan

  1. Canal Nacional // Mexico

  1. Choijin Lama Temple // Mongolia

  1. Traditional Burmese Teak Farmhouses // Myanmar

  1. Chivas and Chaityas of the Kathmandu Valley // Nepal

  1. Anarkali Bazaar // Pakistan

  1. Sacred Valley of the Incas // Peru

  1. Kindler Chapel, Pabianice Evangelical Cemetery // Poland

  1. Courtyard Houses of Axerquía // Spain

  1. Bennerley Viaduct // United Kingdom

  1. Bears Ears National Monument // USA

  1. Central Aguirre Historic District // USA

  1. San Antonio Woolworth Building // USA

  1. Traditional Houses in the Old Jewish Mahalla of Bukhara // Uzbekistan

A 120-Year-Old Denmark Lighthouse Rides Away From Coastal Erosion on Rollerblades

Carlo Alberto Conti/iStock via Getty Images
Carlo Alberto Conti/iStock via Getty Images

Beachgoers know all too well what happens when you plop down near the ocean during low tide—it creeps slowly closer until one enthusiastic wave soaks all your towels and escapes with your flip-flops. Luckily, you can to relocate your belongings farther inland, or simply check the tide tables before settling down to sunbathe.

For a 120-year-old Danish lighthouse, it’s not that simple. When Northern Denmark’s Rubjerg Knude lighthouse was built in 1899, there was more than 650 feet of land separating it from the coast. According to Condé Nast Traveler, that seemingly safe expanse of sand had eroded to fewer than 20 feet by the 2000s.

To rescue the 1000-ton landmark from imminent destruction, local mason Kjeld Pedersen approached the Danish government with an innovative proposition: Slide the lighthouse to safety on a pair of custom-sized rollerblades. Since a similar plan had succeeded in moving a gun repository in Skagen, a town about 45 miles from Rubjerg Knude, the government gave the green light (and 5 million kroner, or about $743,000) to Pedersen.

Last week, Pedersen and his team mounted Rubjerg Knude on a pair of roller blades attached to a track, and scooted the structure about 263 feet inland. It wasn’t exactly a rip-roaring ride—they moved it 0.001 mph. At that rate, the entire operation took almost 50 hours.

As one can imagine, Pedersen was a bit tired after such an epic undertaking.

“It’s been overwhelming for him,” Visit Denmark’s Nina Grandjean Gleerup told Condé Nast Traveler. “I think he’s told Denmark ‘Don’t use me anymore’ because of all the attention!”

Gleerup also explained that Pedersen’s humble diligence and creativity reflected the spirit of the neighboring fishing towns, Løken and Lønstrup, which are known for quaint coffee shops, galleries, and beautiful natural landscapes.

Starting to think a lighthouse would make the perfect beachfront getaway? While Rubjerg Knude itself isn’t open for overnight visitors, there are plenty of other lighthouses near the sea—book a stay in one here.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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