The ‘Secret’ Tunnel Beneath the 1909 Police Headquarters at 240 Centre Street

Posted on: October 1st, 2015 at 10:28 am by

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Photo: Ephemeral NY

One of the most beautiful architectural structures in all of New York City – no, not arguably – is the landmarked, Beaux Arts-style behemoth at 240 Centre Street. Long before its conversion to high-end condos in the mid-eighties, the facility functioned as police headquarters.

(At least it’s still standing, even as a condo.)

Below is a snippet from the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s findings on the significance of the structure:

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The former police headquarters building was constructed from 1905-1909, and like much of New York City, it has a deep dark secret. According to popular lore, a tunnel was bored to connect Callahan’s (now called ONieals) with Police HQ, thereby creating easy passage for the Boys in Blue to enjoy a drink during the trying days of Prohibition.

Forgotten-NY touched upon this basement history, and noted that “ONieals (the official spelling deprives it of two apostrophes) was established as Callahan’s around 1880.” The tunnel, while providing undetected access for cop drinking, is now part of the wine cellar. An upstairs brothel held court at one point, and the joint was run as a speakeasy during the dry years. The NYPD headquarters was eventually retired in 1973, leaving the property in vacancy for the next decade. 

More context, from the ONieals website:

Set in a neighborhood that for more than a hundred years was the knife’s edge of wealth, corruption, poverty and crime – Onieals Soho is a distinctive blend of yesterday and today’s modern sophistication. Onieals is located directly opposite the old Police Headquarters that held legendary criminals from 1909 – 1973. The Onieals building operated as a center for pleasurable crimes in such close proximity. Its former occupants include a brothel, a speakeasy, and a gambling parlor. In the early part of the 20th century, the system was so corrupt that a tunnel was built underground to connect the two buildings so that uniformed NYPD officers and officials could step across the street for some cheer undetected. The tunnel, which ended up coming in very handy during Prohibition, is still visible in Onieals and is used today as the wine cellar. In 1987, the headquarters was sold, turned into luxury residential condos and the tunnel was filled. These luxury condos, commissioned as an NYC landmark, housed some well-known names including Steffi Graf, Winona Ryder and Christi Turlington.

Despite ONieals stating that the tunnel was “filled,” who has actually gained access to see it? It was damn near impossible to find anyone, though we did pull up some documentation proving/alluding to its existence:

Here’s a dispatch from the New York Times, dated March 29, 1998, in which a reader asks about the hidden passageway. The author’s response to the question is as follows:

 

Neighborhood folks have told the ”secret tunnel” story for years, and it’s difficult to disprove. But no firsthand accounts of the tunnel can be located, and the physical evidence is ambiguous at best. If it existed, the tunnel was surely sealed off long ago.

The former Police Department Central Headquarters, at 240 Centre Street, certainly looks as if it could contain a secret or two. The five-story Beaux-Arts palace, designed by the firm of Hoppin & Koen, is a dramatic heap of Baroque – and Renaissance-inspired domes, cupolas, colonnades, pilasters and pediments, caked with carved ornament and wedged into the narrow block once occupied by the butcher stalls of Centre Market. Completed in 1909, the building included a gymnasium, a circular radio room and two basement levels, one with more than 30 6-by-10-foot steel mesh cells with snap-up bunks attached to the walls. A hidden passageway would not have been out of place.

The building, abandoned by the Police Department in 1973, was converted to luxury condominiums in 1987. Mike Santiago, the resident manager for 10 years, says that no traces remain of any sort of tunnel entrance in the two basements.

”I’ve been all over the place down there,” he said. A steady stream of older officers visits the building and recalls the old days, he said, but none of them have mentioned the tunnel.

Across Centre Market Place, at the corner of Grand Street, the little walnut-paneled tavern now called Onieal’s Grand Street Restaurant predates the police building by about 30 years, according to the owner, Chris Onieal. Inside Onieal’s basement, three steps lead down to a low, arched passageway, about 14 feet wide, that extends about 30 feet beneath Centre Market Street, toward the police building, before ending abruptly. Mr. Onieal, who says he uses the vault as a wine cellar and storage area, believes that this was one end of the legendary tunnel. On the back of his menus, he has even printed a rather fanciful version of the tunnel legend, with President Teddy Roosevelt sneaking across the street for boozy late-night bull sessions with reporters.

It’s all possible, of course. But we need more evidence

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HISTORIC SHOPS AND RESTAURANTS, ELLEN WILLIAMS

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Ah, Prohibition. So much to say … save it for another day. 

The gallery below includes images of the stunning edifice old and new, interior and exterior. 

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Wouldn’t you love to live there? Even better – if you DO live there – invite us in. We have a tunnel to find.

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