Not everyone knows how to find it.
It is inside the Grand Central Terminal amidst the hustle and bustle of Midtown Manhattan, but it is hidden in plain sight. To reach this hidden gem, you have to locate a separate entrance reached from the outside only. You climb some stairs to a small lobby and then you carpeted stairs to your right going straight up. Where to you might ask?
Well the Campbell Apartment of course.
These days it is a nice place to have a cocktail after work, but it once was the office of business tycoon John C. Campbell. The space itself is about 3,500 square feet, quite big for an office, even with the rich excess of the Roaring Twenties as a benchmark. Campbell rented the space from the Vanderbilt family and transformed it into a piece of old Europe in the middle of New York City. Not a bad location for a railroad man either.
As you reach the top of the stairs, you emerge into another world. Today a bar runs along the right side of the room beneath huge lead windows. Glancing over at it, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Jay Gatsby himself having a drink. The ceiling soars thirty feet above your head and its beams are hand painted with all types of heraldic shields reminiscent of medieval Florence. Above is a musicians balcony enclosed by mahogany railings. At the time that Campbell had his office here, a hand-knotted Persian carpet covered the floor. Today it would have cost a little over four million dollars, versus the 300K Campbell spent.
Straight ahead is a false fireplace where, to this day, Campbell’s steel safe still sits. The fireplace reflects the Campbell family’s coat of arms. A huge desk once sat on this end of the room and apparently, Campbell was so bothered by wrinkling his trousers, he often sat behind the desk in just his boxers. When it was time for business to be conducted, he would retrieve his pants. The office was also equipped with a small kitchen, hidden out of sight.
The furniture, some of which was 19th century Italian, furthered the impression of grandeur that Campbell wanted to project. At some point, he installed both a piano and a pipe organ in the room as well. This allowed Campbell to also host after hours events including inviting his friends to hear private music recitals. It also allowed him an opportunity to show off his one million dollar art collection displayed around the room. Overseeing all the details involved in such lavish entertaining was his butler – Stackhouse.
Campbell did not go to college. Instead, at the age of eighteen, he started working his way up in the family business, Credit Clearing House. By a relatively young age he became a senior executive before taking over as president and chairman. Eventually the business merged with Dun and Bradstreet. By the time he was forty, Campbell was a wealthy man. He became a member of the board for New York Central Railroad. He would continue on to be its chairman, a position he would hold until his death.
Upon Campbell’s death, the room’s furnishings disappeared and it fell into disrepair. At one point radio shows were broadcast from it and later on it was even used as a jail for a time. By the late 1990’s, the room had become a storage area, the glittering days of the 1920’s long forgotten.
Just before the turn of the twenty-first century, it was rediscovered, restored at a very high cost, and converted into an exclusive cocktail bar. Happy hour would see men in sharp suits sipping old fashioneds in dark corners. Starched white shirts and cocktail dresses were the rule for waiters and waitresses. The likes of George Clooney, Liam Neeson, Bill Clinton and others mixed with Manhattan business men in a setting straight out of the past.
These days, ownership has changed and the rules have been relaxed. Even with jeans on, you can get a table if you wait your turn. Who knows, you might still find yourself rubbing elbows with a Vanderbilt or Rockefeller, but regardless, you’ll leave feeling like you did. 🙂
Cover image courtesy of pbase.com. All unmarked photos by the author.