The Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Mount Rushmore – you’ll likely recognize them all. They’re all over the travel brochures, and perhaps you’ve even caught a glimpse of them in real life. But there’s much more to these sites than meets the eye. This list will expose the secret spaces, hidden places and little-known quirks that lurk behind some of America’s most legendary landmarks. So, next time you lay eyes on these famous locations, remember to take a second look.
20. Abandoned apartments inside New York’s public libraries
Burrowed behind the bookshelves of many public libraries in the Big Apple are a series of secret apartments that once housed the library wardens. You see, in a time before central heating, these institutions needed around-the-clock assistance to keep the coals burning, books warming and the decaying force of damp away.
Today, these neglected quarters still sit out of sight behind the libraries’ walls. Peeling panels and rotting plaster that clings onto old rotary telephones paint a picture of what life was like in the apartments. And as of 2016 Atlas Obscura reported that 13 dwellings still hid among the shadows of the city’s libraries.
19. The Frick Collection’s basement bowling alley
Sitting in the cellar of one of NYC’s most celebrated art collections is a showpiece of the strangest kind. You see, buried floors beneath the Frick’s art-adorned walls, there is – unbeknown to most – a beautifully ornate bowling alley.
Two-holed balls are spun down smooth pine alleys and retrieved using only the hand of gravity in a loop-the-loop contraption. The ornate bowling alley was completed in 1916, but fire concerns saw it later close down. And despite being renovated 81 years later, the hall sits largely forgotten and seductively frozen in time.
18. Secret basketball court in the U.S. Supreme Court Building
Apparently, there’s a court that’s above even the highest one in the land. Yes, one story up from the Supreme Court’s fourth-floor library, there’s a place to play basketball. Off-duty cops, clerks and attorneys have been lining up for games here ever since the storage space was first transformed in the 1940s.
And while members of the public may not be able to shoot any hoops at the concealed court, the venue has attracted some big shots throughout its history. Both Justices William H. Rehnquist and Byron White have been known to dunk baskets at the curious sports arena, for example.
17. Art Deco tunnel tucked under The New Yorker hotel
While all camera lenses fall on The New Yorker’s high-up scarlet sign, what lies below the famous Big Apple landmark remains largely forgotten. Sitting deep beneath the hotel is a subterranean passage that few people know about. Once upon a time, this tunnel transferred guests coming from Pennsylvania Station to the hotel lobby.
The burrow was sealed up when the old Pennsylvania Station was bulldozed in 1963. But the tunnel still sits there today. Among the passageway’s piles of surplus hotel fittings and outdated furnishings are beautiful mosaics of technicolor tiles – little fragments of both a hotel’s history and a forgotten Art Deco fashion.
16. Roxy’s hidden apartment at Radio City Music Hall
Another Art Deco masterpiece with an undisclosed secret of its own is Radio City Music Hall. High up in the eaves of this elaborate theater lies a luxurious, gold leaf-lined living space that’s full of slick custom-crafted furniture. The keys were handed to the venue’s impresario Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel in 1932. And A-listers are still entertained up in the roof of Radio City Music Hall today.
Mick Jagger, Mariah Carey and John Legend have been among those to pay a visit to Radio City Hall’s secret penthouse in recent years. It’s hard to believe that a venue as big as this can hide such a well-kept secret in its very roof. But it’s true: while the stars themselves may be familiar, few regular folk know of the theater’s hidden attic apartment.
15. The Lincoln Memorial’s unknown undercroft
Even more surprising, perhaps, is the secret underground maze that sprawls beneath the Lincoln Memorial. Before they could get to work on the marble monument back in 1914, engineers first had to burrow 40 feet into the ground. They then installed a 43,800-square-foot cellar beneath the statue. But the hidden basement hoards far more than just structural pillars and concrete foundations.
In 1975 workers began exploring the foundational cavity and found an eerie grotto where rodents scurried between stalactite-suspended columns. And carved into these stones were a series of mysterious sketches that were engraved by the original construction workers. According to Atlas Obscura, there are plans to open the so-called undercroft to the public by 2022 – allowing the memorial’s visitors to tour around this forgotten fossil of early 20th-century history.
14. Times Square’s ghost tower
At New York’s frenzied Times Square, many eyes are on the exterior of the soaring One Times Square skyscraper. But what many tourists don’t know is that despite being one of the world’s most popular sites, One Times Square is surprisingly empty inside.
However, as the tower’s digital billboards are in such a prime location, its owners – Jamestown L.P. and Sherwood Equities – don’t need tenants to bring in the dough. So, the building lies empty beyond the third floor, while further up the tower there is apparently only one resident, Jeff Straus, who runs the New Year’s Eve festivities.
13. Exclusive tennis courts at the Grand Central Terminal
While most people can be seen chasing down their commuter trains at the Grand Central Terminal, others there are busy sprinting after something else. Hidden high up on the top floors of the heaving terminal is a complex that includes “one regulation-sized indoor hardcourt, [a] junior court, two practice lanes and a fully equipped fitness room.” That’s according to Vanderbilt Tennis Club’s official website – the luxury sports club that is behind the station’s concealed tennis courts.
The courts are arguably the best-kept secret of one of America’s busiest terminals, with tennis lovers having batted many balls there since 1966. But despite the huge number of visitors the station attracts, few Americans actually know about these private courts.
12. The Waldorf Astoria’s abandoned train station
It seems that the New Yorker isn’t the only Big Apple hotel that’s hiding a subterranean secret. You see, lurking beneath the luxurious Waldorf Astoria New York is a tucked-away terminal known as “Track 61.” And according to the Daily Mail, it is still allegedly used today to sweep politicians and prolific celebs out of the city in secrecy.
Joined to the hotel by a secret elevator, the station was apparently used during WWII to shuttle Franklin D. Roosevelt between his city suite and home in Hyde Park. Roosevelt and George W. Bush are the only verified VIP passengers, in fact. But the strangely unidentified door that still connects the Waldorf to the station is perhaps evidence that heads of state and big celebrity names still climb aboard the escape train today.
11. The Statue of Liberty’s secret entrance
Forget the crown; people used to ascend all the way up to the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Thanks to the entry room inside Lady Liberty’s light, until 1916 tourists could enjoy sweeping vistas across the city from inside the torch itself. And though the room still sits in the recesses of the statue, its closure to the public keeps it a mystery from the many visitors who ascend the huge monument.
When the pier that once joined Jersey City to Black Tom Island was blown up by German agents during World War I, a storm of debris circulated the city and burrowed itself inside the statue’s light. This turned the former tourist pathway into a treacherous route, and so the torch’s inner access area has been shut ever since – making it arguably Lady Liberty’s best-kept secret.
10. A hidden entry hatch on the Washington Monument
According to Atlas Obscura, 800,000 sightseers descend upon the Washington Monument each year. But few catch a glimpse of this little-known quirk. You may have wondered how staff go about repairing and caring for the world’s highest stone monument – a towering 555 feet tall, to be precise. Well, tucked away on the very tip of the structure is a secret trap door that allows workers to do just that.
This perfectly hidden hatch gives staff from the National Park Service scaffold-free entry onto the obelisk and stops repairs from ruining the tourist snaps. Cut into the monument just below its peak, the doorway allows workmen to hoop cables over its head and traverse down the monument to tend to breakages. Study the statue’s eastern face for a look at the discrete doorway. You may need your binoculars, though, for the white-washed hatch blends in perfectly with the monument’s marble.
9. The Washington Monument’s mysterious mini-me
But a camouflaged entrance isn’t the only quirk that the memorial conceals. Bizarrely, hiding in a manhole not far from the famous column is a 12-foot-high copy. Deposited in the 1880s, the doppelganger was boxed into a brick encasing and stashed underground.
And Drew Smith, a manager at the National Geodetic Survey, has explained the significance of the miniature Washington Monument to Atlas Obscura. Apparently, it is one of the many Geodetic Control Points that are used by surveyors as “starting points for any map or measurement.” To the rest of us, though, it’s a little-known quirk just waiting to be explored.
8. Disney’s covert club
Behind all the magic and childhood wonder of its parks, Disneyland has a secret adult world that’s waiting to be explored by the elite. One ordinary door in New Orleans Square in California unlocks Club 33. This is an invite-only dining lounge and jazz club where the affluent can enjoy the only alcohol that is available in the park.
Yet while seeing the club’s intimate decor and the vintage artifacts straight out of Walt Disney’s study may be tempting, membership does not come cheap. After a joining fee of up to $25,000, according to Insider, members have to pay between $12,000 and $30,000 per year if they wish to remain on the guest list. It’s certainly not for us average Cinderellas, though the club does happen to contain her glass slipper.
7. The Empire State Building’s forgotten viewing floor
Fans of Taylor Swift might already know about this one, given that the singer promoted her track “Welcome To New York” while posing on the platform. But for everyone else, the observation balcony that stands on the 103rd story – just one level up from the floor viewing deck – is the Empire State Building’s untold secret.
Owing to the only knee-high barrier on the 103rd floor, elevators don’t actually carry members of the public there. So, if you do head up the tower for panoramas of the city, you’ll have to make do with whatever you can see over the high railings of the 86th story. Alternatively, you can enjoy views from behind the screens of the 102nd floor.
6. A hidden world under the Hoover Dam
Most flock to Lake Mead National Recreation Area for its jet skiing, kayaking and astounding views of the Hoover Dam. However, other visitors are more concerned with what’s going on underneath the water. Between scarlet scuba flags, thrill-seekers can dive down to the depths of Lake Mead and discover a sunken maze of tunnels and train lines that lie half-buried at the attraction.
The decomposing remains of this ambitious construction project lie dormant under the water. Beneath the curvatures of crumbling tunnels, tracks that once transported building materials bisect the lake bed. This fantastically preserved underwater world is a well-kept secret of the diving community, who are able to see the famous landmark in an entirely different light.
5. Secret celebrity lounge inside Pixar Studios
Sitting within the walls of the celebrated Pixar Studios is a secret hangout spot for its biggest celebrity visitors. The so-called Lucky 7 Lounge’s impressive signature wall features squiggles from songwriter Randy Newman, Buzz Lightyear’s mouthpiece Tim Allen and Roy Disney.
Steve Jobs also apparently liked to socialize in the secret lounge. And if a host of elite visitors didn’t make it exclusive enough, the way that the stealthy hideout was discovered makes the venue even more seductive. Apparently, Pixar animator Andrew Gordon unearthed the space after stumbling upon a portal big enough for a grown man to worm his way through at the tail end of his office.
4. The Grand Canyon’s hidden hotel
You may want to take a picture of the Grand Canyon, but have you ever considered sleeping inside it? Well, unlike the exclusive lounges and secret celebrity party spots that we’ve already explored, the Grand Canyon is one famous landmark with a hidden hideout that doesn’t require you to be an A-lister.
And while many know about the landmark’s popular tours and rafting excursions, few people realize that you can actually catch some Zs inside its infamous caves. Courtesy of Grand Canyon Cavern, guests can enjoy a fully fledged hotel suite complete with lounge and bathroom – allowing you to hunker down in the burrows of America’s beloved canyon in comfort.
3. Mount Rushmore’s mysterious chamber
The granite-cut presidential portraits of Mount Rushmore are glanced upon by many, but few know about the secret vault that is carved out of the rock behind Abraham Lincoln’s head. After it dawned on the memorial’s sculptor Gutzon Borglum that his ambitious ode to America may be too complex, he committed only to the four portraits. And the artist left the remaining historical highlights for a chamber that would be chiseled into the granite beyond.
Though it is too dangerous for tourists to access, the secret stash still stands just behind the frontal lobe of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, hidden within this forgotten hall of fame is a hoard of American charters – including duplicates of both the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. And these are all fittingly stored behind the Great Emancipator himself.
2. A cryptic cave at the Niagara Falls
It turns out that Mount Rushmore isn’t the only celebrated landmark with a secret grotto. Carved into the cliff face of the Niagara Gorge is the mysterious “Cave of the Evil Spirit.” This legendary lair is supposedly named after the wicked spirits that were once locked within its limestone walls.
The legend behind this oft-overlooked cave begins in 1763 when a truckload of British troops are believed to have called in on the site. A Seneca tribe supposedly killed 80 of them in a surprise attack, and the soldiers’ spirits were said to have raided the den. Apparently, you can still hear their souls inside the hollowed hideout today. If you’re skittish, it may be best to stick to the majestic falls that otherwise drown out this dark history.
1. Wine cellars buried beneath the Brooklyn Bridge
One of the more curious secret spaces explored in this list are the wine cellars that sit among the shadows under the Brooklyn Bridge. In order to redeem some of the city’s debts, the bridge was devised with a series of secret chambers set into the recesses of its foundations on both the Manhattan and Brooklyn riverbanks.
Once leased out to local traders, the hidden spaces were created to help with the $15 million incurred from building the bridge itself – and they did. Buried beneath 60,000-ton granite gateways, the round-the-clock chill of the concealed vaults seems to have attracted wine vendors everywhere. And while wine bottles no longer adorn the anchorage, the caverns still remain. They also contain an engraving that reads, “These cellars were built in 1876… From their inception, they housed the choicest wines in New York City.”