I had heard about the Secret Room at Cosmopolitan Café, but I hadn’t actually been inside until a few weeks ago, when owner Craig Bero showed me around. I knew the back story—it was walled off, but Craig realized something had to be there, so he broke through a three-foot-thick wall—but I hadn’t realized to what extent it’s filled with local history. Craig is an enthusiastic tour guide, and at some point I knew I had to come back with my camera. (The room is bookable for private parties, and I imagine that Craig will show any curious folks around if you simply ask….)
The hallway leading to the Secret Room is paved with marble from the Marine Midland Bank that used to be across Chambers (as was a brass staircase railing by the bar). “One day I saw Bill Brodsky, who’s a neighborhood guy, going over there, so I asked him what was up.” Brodsky developed the Smyth hotel. “He said, ‘Go ahead, take what you can use.’ I went crawling through the worksite all night, carrying out the marble slab by slab. The next day, the bank was gone.”
Also at the bank was a safe with this plaque on it—the safe was too big to move—and a clock that was the same size (and from the same maker) as where one had been in 16 Hudson, the building on the north side of Bogardus Plaza. “I asked the building if they wanted it, but they passed,” says Craig. Below is a picture of how the building used to look and a photo of it today.
Hanging on one of the Secret Room’s walls is a turn-of-the-19th-century Otis freight elevator panel from 1 Hudson, on the west side of Bogardus Plaza. “It’s solid brass with copper inlay,” says Craig, who found it outside, waiting to be carted off, along with other switches. He later restored it.
Among the other little objects on the shelf is a fragment of a Dutch pipe. “I found it around four years ago, in the hole that workers made during a water main break on Chambers Street,” says Craig, “along with a bottle marked with the words ‘John Cotter Varick Street.’” I asked him if he was curious about the current Chambers dig. “That hole outside? I was in there last night. They’re at 1890 levels now. There’s sure to be some great stuff.”
A small table is topped with a piece of Italian terrazzo that came from the platform of the Franklin stop of the elevated train on W. Broadway. “There’s still some visible in back staircase of the current Franklin Street subway stop,” he says.
“The Cosmopolitan Hotel’s owners gave me carte blanche to explore the vault that’s two floors down. I was literally pickaxing my way.” The hotel was built 1845 (and called the Girard House). Some of Craig’s finds are in the Secret Room, as well as in the Cosmopolitan Café dining room, including hotel marketing posters and the original concierge callbox. Here’s a PDF of a description of the Cosmopolitan Hotel’s offerings, circa 1870 or 1880.
The big metal “Private Bar” sign came from Ben Benson’s steakhouse. When it closed, Craig says that someone contacted him and said he’d love it, because it was originally at a restaurant/pavilion in Battery Park.
“You know the new townhouse over on Reade? For years I had noticed the fading blue green paint on the iron storefront. When the construction crew arrived and began removing it, I wrote a lengthy note to be passed on to the owner, who came to the café and told me I could have the elements they were not incorporating into the new design (i.e., four tons of cast iron). While removing the crumbling paint, I later found a marking: D.D. Badger and Co., an iron works that was at 44 Duane. I took the cast-iron storefront and gave the doors to Marc [Forgione] and Chris [Blumlo] as an opening gift. They’re in the rear of the Marc Forgione dining room.” There were also beams in the Reade townhouse’s dumpster; Craig made one into a table for the Secret Room.
The twisted cedar branches in two corners are from a gazebo in the Lakeville/Salisbury part of Connecticut. The wood was around 80 years old when the gazebo was made 200 years ago, so Craig reckons that the wood is now almost 300 years old. For Craig, they branches are a reference to “the horse stable/carriage house that was probably once there.” They also evoke the time of Helen Jewett’s murder. (I was assigned The Murder of Helen Jewett by Patricia Cline Cohen, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. But I did buy it!) “She was an 18th-century prostitute who was bludgeoned and burned while she lay in her room less than three blocks away on April 10, 1836. The murderer dropped a hatchet and cloak along his escape path—at the corner of Chapel Street/College Place [now W. Broadway] and Chambers Street.”
Visitors to the Secret Room will soon (if it’s not there already) see a work in progress: Craig is building a Lenape canoe there this winter. (He’ll move it off to the side when there’s a party in the room.) “I’ve started bending the cedar. It’s going to be a classic Lenape boat. The last Lenape camps were right here at Bogardus Plaza.” When the canoe is done, he hopes to launch it in the area. Below: Some of his research.
Finally, as a bonus, here’s an old map of the area. “It’s a 1807 plan of the City of New York, with the recent and intended improvements drawn from actual Survey by William Bridges.” Click it to enlarge—it’s a huge file and may take time to load, but you’ll get a kick out of seeing the street names.
Thanks again, Craig! Not just for showing me around, but for saving so much wonderful local history. Indeed, he’s the go-to man around these parts: “Sometimes people just stop me on the street to offer elements I could reuse. Today, I got two columns from an old streetlight lamp post.”