Down in the Vault: Brooklyn Bridge’s Champagne History and Caviar Dreams
The day I meandered around the Brooklyn Bridge mooring and ended up within the vault interior on the Manhattan side was the day a faux accent got me the hell out of dodge…
Miss, are you lost?
Do you speak in English? You can’t be in here.
Tour. Ya. Lost. Ya.
Lost in a time capsule of awesomeness inside the vaults of the Lower East Side’s side of the Brooklyn Bridge. I was intent on seeing the Cold War Bunker that was discovered in 2006, but that’s not what happened. Instead I was able to see the home of long-gone spirits, and subsequently got the boot before taking enough pics…
Once upon a time – in the year 1876 – the Brooklyn Bridge anchorages/vaults were built. This was seven years before the completion of the bridge because you cannot build such a crossing if it’s not attached to something, ya dig? So the sandhogs dug.
John A. Roebling, the chief engineer of the bridge, and his son, Washington (who would assume his father’s role after an untimely tetanus-related death) decided early on that they would build rentable space to offset the construction debt. And what better tenants to build space for than the two businesses blocking their path of construction? Rackey’s Wine Company and Luyties & Co.
The New York Times reported that the Luyties Brothers rented a vault on the Manhattan side in 1901 for its liquor business and paid $5,000; A. Smith & Company, meanwhile, paid $500 per year until 1909 for storage on the Brooklyn side. Yes, 5 thousand vs. 5 hundred. Gotta love Manhattan.
Another news clipping from 1934 states that the catacombs were used by Rackey’s Wine Establishment (on the Brooklyn side) and Luyties & Co. (Manhattan side) until Prohibition. Thereafter, both the now-defunct Evening World and the Department of Plant and Structures utilized the space for paper storage tool stowage respectively.
So why were these massive spaces so well suited to house spirits?
Storing wine under the bridge made perfect sense. The caverns below the 60,000-ton granite entrances were dark and consistently cool, ideal places to house even the most delicate vintage Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne. And as the vaults became home to wines from across the globe, the dingy walls of the cellars were enhanced to reflect that heritage. The winding maze of caverns was transformed into a painted “labyrinth”, with the names of French streets—-Avenue Les Deux Oefs, Avenue Des Chateux Haut Brion— stenciled overhead. Over time, the cellar walls were festooned with illustrations of provincial Europe; designs of sinewy leaves and purple grapes trailed along the stucco in subdued hues.
Cadman Plaza West, the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage on the BK side, was used for recreational purposes, particularly art installations, but was closed after September 11, 2001 due to safety concerns and has never been re-opened.
Welcome the underground club kids. From a party-goer recalling the illegal raves after 2001:
It was packed, we went in the back with flashlights. There were maybe 500-1000 people in there. It was actually a graffiti show and it was Russian mafia definitely. They said you want to show your art? Show art, but in 12 hours it will be gone along with any remnants that we were here. Everybody had walkie talkies and ear pieces. Once you walked in, you didn’t get to walk back out until the music stopped. Glow sticks everywhere, naked chicks getting painted. I hung some canvases on a wall that looked 2 stories high and it was damp. Everything in there was damp actually. Looking back, no party today could compare to how we got down back then. The thrill of it all. No more.
From a 1978 issue of New York Magazine:
A space between two arches of the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge was known as the “Blue Grotto” because of a statue of the Madonna that someone placed in a niche to bless the booze. It once held the finest supply of champagne and wine in the city. During Prohibition, the liquor was removed and the vault was used to store rolls of newsprint. On the walls of this vault, which is underneath William Street and Park Row, are fading frescoes and the following wise inscription: WHO LOVETH NOT WINE, WOMEN AND SONG, HE REMAINETH A FOOL HIS WHOLE LIFE LONG.
Today the vaults are used for Department of Transportation storage. Maria Smith, a spokesperson for the DOT in 1999 told the Times that ”People call up sometimes and say they’d like to live there.” And in fact, according to Edible Geography, a homeless person was found living in one of the vaults, discovered during a promotional visit for the film The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.
OPEN THEM! These breathtaking caverns are wasting away. Let them breathe! I vote for a public park. How perfect would that be? Horns blaring above, trains rumbling around. Quintessential New York City.
Ah, New York. Still stunning. Still gritty.