clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

5 NYC buildings that have served covert purposes

Who truly knows what happens in New York’s most iconic structures?

New Yorkers have long joked that the Brutalist skyscraper at 33 Thomas Street—also known as the Long Lines Building, and used by AT&T—looks like it should be some kind of supervillain lair, thanks to its windowless exterior and generally hulking presence on the skyline.

And in a way, it kind of is: The Intercept recently reported that the building may be a center of operations for the National Security Agency, which has turned it into “a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes, and internet data.”

While there’s no concrete evidence linking the building to the NSA, the Intercept says that “architectural plans, public records, and interviews with former AT&T employees” point to the building as one of the agency’s “core locations” for surveillance.

And while the news was surprising (and unsettling), it’s not the first time that a New York City building has served some other sort of clandestine purpose; some of the most iconic ones, in fact, have been targeted by enemy combatants, or housed secret propaganda machines during wartime. Five of these locations are below—and while some are well-known (who doesn’t know about M42 at this point?), others may surprise you.

60 Hudson Street

Not too far from the Long Lines building sits 60 Hudson Street, an Art Deco gem designed by Ralph Walker in the early 20th century. And like the Long Lines building, this structure serves a technological function—though one that’s a bit less nefarious than, say, a hub for the NSA. It was once the HQ for Western Union, but when that company moved out, various telecommunications firms moved in. Now, the building is one of several “carrier hotels” that holds a multitude of components—cables, network operators, and the like—that keep the Internet up and running.

Plymouth Church

One of the pastors of this Brooklyn Heights church was anti-slavery activist Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe), so it’s not surprising that its congregation aligned itself with the abolition movement. But according to the church’s records, the modest building also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Tunnels beneath the church were allegedly used to hide and transfer those escaping slavery; they can still be seen on tours of the church to this day.

Grand Central Terminal

Deep beneath the Beaux Arts train terminal lies M42, a power station whose existence only became public knowledge in the past few decades. Why all the secrecy? During World War II, a plot to destroy the sub-station was put into place by Nazi spies, but it was ultimately thwarted. But M42 has been under heavy guard before and after that incident (even being protected by armed guards), for the simple fact that it’s one of the main hubs for powering the entire train station, as well as some nearby buildings. If M42 went down, so too would the train station.

Rockefeller Center

Grand Central isn’t the only NYC tourist destination that became a hub of activity during World War II. A covert ops organization called British Security Coordination operated out of Rockefeller Center, opening in 1940, and “BSC became a huge secret agency of nationwide news manipulation and black propaganda,” according to the Guardian. The organization had three floors within Rockefeller Center. Per the Guardian: “The aim was to change the minds of an entire population: to make the people of America think that joining the war in Europe was a "good thing" and thereby free Roosevelt to act without fear of censure from Congress or at the polls in an election.”

New York Public Library

Living in a library may sound like a dream to a certain type of bookish person—and for a while, it was a reality for those lucky few who lived in apartments connected to branches of the New York Public Library. They were located in branches funded by Andrew Carnegie, and the apartments initially were occupied with caretakers tasked with keeping coal fires lit (and thus, keeping the buildings heated). Now, according to Atlas Obscura, only 13 of these apartments remain, and many are in a state of disrepair.