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Have you ever noticed the Knickerbocker Door?
In Manhattan’s Times Square station, at the southern end of the S train’s Track 1 (which is nearest to the other train lines), is a lonely white door. Most people go right past it without seeing it. But if you look above it, you see a lintel sign, probably terra cotta, that reads Knickerbocker.
In 1906, the subway was still marvelous, although there was only one line, which swept from City Hall, bent west where the S train is now, and then ducked north up Broadway to 96th Street. The Times Square station served the most exciting new entertainment district in the city, and this door was the special entrance for John Jacob Astor’s lavish hotel, the Knickerbocker.
Through this door, wealthy patrons from around the world, including hotel resident Enrico Caruso, could ascend through a basement lobby and bar directly into their quarters in one of the tallest buildings on glittering 42nd Street. Inside, in the hotel bar, Maxfield Parrish made his career by painting his depiction of Old King Cole. A bartender named Martini is said to have invented a cocktail there. Frederick Remington created art for other parts of the 556-room hotel.
That was before Astor drowned on the Titanic, and before the Knickerbocker lost the gleam of trendiness. It was turned first into offices (in 1921), and later, in 1980, into condos. Old King Cole was dismantled and shipped to the St. Regis on 55th Street, where it now baits one of New York’s most awful tourist traps. Now its former home, once tall and proud, squats ignobly amongst steel and glass towers. Its lobby is a Gap.
And then there’s this forgotten portal, an artifact.
I always notice the Knickerbocker door. Only ghosts may pass through it now.
Update, Dec. 2013: The building through the door is being returned to service as a luxury hotel in 2014. I asked a public relations representative for the project whether the door will also be restored to its original purpose. She said there were no plans to do that. It will remain a vestige of a more dignified view of public transit.
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