The Undiscovered Bedrooms of Manhattan

A friend of mine once told me about the "typical dream of a New Yorker," as he described it, wherein a homeowner pushes aside some coats and sweaters in the upstairs closet... only to reveal a door, and, behind that, another room, and, beyond that, perhaps even a whole new wing secretly attached to the back of the house...
Always fantasizing about having more space in Manhattan.

And so I was thinking today that you could go around Manhattan with a microphone, asking people who have had that dream to describe it, recording all this, live, for the radio – or you ask people who have never had that dream simply to ad lib about what it might be like to discover another room, and you ask them to think about what kind of room they would most like to discover, tucked away inside a closet somewhere in their apartment.
What additions to space do the people of New York secretly long for?
Of course, you'd probably need to record about 5000 people to get a dozen or so good stories – but then you'd edit it all down and listen to the unbelievable variations: people who find secret attics, or secret basements, secret closets inside closets, or even secret children's bedrooms, secret bathrooms, hidden roof gardens, even a brand new 4-car garage plus screened-in porch out back. One guy finds a sauna, and a cheese cave, and then a bicycle-repair shop...
What does it all mean?
And if you once dreamed about finding a secret UPS loading dock attached to your back door... would Freud approve?
So you get all these stories together and you make a radio piece out of it. A month or two later, it's broadcast during rush hour, on a Friday night, as you want to give people something to think about over the weekend.
But soon commuters are pulling over to the side of the road and staring, shocked, at the radio – because you've given no introduction, and no one out there has any idea what this is.
Some guy found a boathouse attached to his apartment in Manhattan...?, one driver thinks.
And the stories keep coming.
There's a skyscraper with a whole hidden floor...? someone thinks, momentarily amazed – before driving into the car in front of her.
A woman on the Upper East Side found what?
Or: All along he had a basketball court behind the bedroom wall?
The NJ turnpike gets backed up for miles and the Brooklyn Bridge is at a stand-still.
It's mass hysteria.
Where are all these secret rooms...? People want to know. And why don't I have one...? Manhattanites are knocking on walls, taking measurements. drafting letters to the rent control board.
But then the credits roll, and the radio station cuts to commercial, and everyone realizes that those were all just stories. Dreams.
There are no secret rooms – they think.
So they pull back onto the highways – and you go down in radio history.
Within two weeks you've signed a six-figure deal with Henry Holt to turn it into a book, and Paul Auster volunteers to write the forward.
You call it: The Undiscovered Bedrooms of Manhattan.
It gets accidentally shelved with Erotica.
People cry as they read it.
A sequel is planned, interviewing residents of London and Beijing.

(With thanks to Robert Krulwich, who puts up with emails from me full of ideas like this...).

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Blogger Brendan Crain said...

Ira Glass would love this.

I love this.

May 17, 2007 12:19 AM  
Blogger Moon River said...

This is so epic and poetic!!!!
this mythological dreamy 'air' of thing is so lavishing-
i do hope the book being published is not fictional

May 17, 2007 3:28 AM  
Blogger Baron Otto Von Subertan said...

My father has the unusual habit of stumbling on lost and hidden spaces during his structural engineering. He's found wine cellars and kitchens under London, and recently tunnelled through his own floor to open up a large underground cylinder on which his and other nearby houses had been built.

-Jim Rossignol

May 17, 2007 3:46 AM  
Blogger Y.E. Vulva said...

mid way thru' reading this, I started thinking of Perec's "Die Maschine" radio piece... all those tales piled atop one another and then algorithmically sifted and sorted... and then I remebered "Life: A User's Manual" a knight's tale through the history of housed lives...


are the rooms actually dreaming us?

and have any architects if ever wired potential clients to an ECG machine (or some other such flash-beep-whirring device) and used the readouts to design a building - thus creating the literal dream home?

May 17, 2007 5:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have crazy real-estate dreams like this all the time... extra floors, connections into closed off and forgotten apartments, etc etc etc. I had no idea this was so common!

I live in a small house in Toronto, with more space than I need, but the dreams keep coming...

May 17, 2007 8:03 AM  
Blogger Egregorian said...

I love secret passages, and it was dreaming of these and designing these that got me to try and go to architecture school. 15 years later am doing it. I have proposed seriously to three different clients secret passages/doors, two of them almost went for it.
Once lived in an apartment that was built in the 20's. It had a secret floor compartment. You could see the cut in the wood floor, feel that the rear of the closet floor was separate, but not open it... Until one day I noticed a ring up on the shelf above... I went to take the ring, and attached to it was a small cable. This went down through the wall, and released a latch! The floor popped open, revealing a cubby between the joist. In it was a love letter, and a deck of old cards!

May 17, 2007 8:50 AM  
Blogger Josh Glenn said...

JG Ballard has a short story about this in one of his early collections, Geoff. In an overpopulated city of the future, where everyone lives in a closet-sized space, a guy knocks a hole in his room's wall and finds a forgotten room -- he's supremely happy, but slowly the room fills up with... his friend, his friend's girlfriend, his friend's girlfriend's mother, etc. I believe it's in the 1962 collection "Billenium."

May 17, 2007 9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

make this a radio program right now, it woudl be like war of the worlds but for our housing market obsessed times. it would show people the general emptiness of their dreams for making that ideal home. and hopefully stop all those god awful finding the right home TV shows

although i've had the hosue getting bigger dream, it reminded more of another ballard story of some astronauts who find a space station that has doors that lead into gradaully bigger chambers until they realise the universe they knew was just a room in this infinitaly large space station.

ballard has a story for every situation, like jesus.


May 17, 2007 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Danielewski's book House of Leaves has that kind of space warped architecture. At first the house grows a hallway between the 2 bedrooms on the top floor - it just mysteriously appears after a vacation, built of an ashy black material. The owners think some prankster came in and remodeled - or uncovered a passage already there but walled over - until they measure the exterior roof of the house and the space inside from one bedroom, through the hall, and into the other bedroom. The interior space is impossibly longer than the exterior by a good few feet.

Next the living room grows a long dark hall - extending out into the backyard, although there's no alteration to the outer wall of the house at all. It's the same ashy black construction. And it opens up into a maze of halls, stairways...

I remember Allen Ginsberg describing a spatial dream - not necessarily of a hidden room, but just being in a maze like interior with shifting halls and little doors that open into grand palatial rooms. He felt these were Bardo dreams, pre-glimpses of death's waiting rooms...

May 17, 2007 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lived in a Manhattan apartment building from the 1860s that had a hidden separate stairway. The maid's room, which had been converted into a breakfast nook, originally had its own separate staircase that had been completely drywalled over. Spatially, I knew something was there, but never confirmed it until I visited the man in the other apartment on our floor, an old Scottish actor who'd probably lived there 40 years. His kitchen opened onto the stairway, which led down the basement (and I guess, to the backyard). Wouldn't have added much to the apartment, but could have made our breakfast alcove into a full-fledged dining room if the stairway were converted (unless we commandeered the whole vertical space for ourselves.

Also had a ventilation shaft that had been bricked over on the roof, so it was just a darkened void in the building maybe 3ft by 3ft square...a window opened onto a couple of 2x4s that acted as a little bridge over the 3-story drop. We put our weed in there.

May 17, 2007 11:34 AM  
Blogger Damian said...

I worked in a hotel that was a 16th C millhouse. There were lots of odd boxed off areas as it seems that whoever converted it found it cheaper or easier to hide the mill workings rather than remove them. What was a surprise was when we discovered a hidden floor between the top two floors. We smashed a hole in the wall to have a look but it was just a huge empty space - nothing was done with it.

One house I lived in had a bricked off toilet - complete with sink and loo etc you could see through a dirty old window. The landlord explained the original bathroom got really bad damp and so he just gave up on it and sacrificed some of the kitchin to make a new one. I was glad in a way - the wallpaper in the old loo was horrible!

May 17, 2007 12:37 PM  
Blogger timquinn said...

I was reading a favorite old blog the other day, and found a whole column of links to posts I had never read before, pictures of things I had no idea existed, reviews of books by favorite authors I had never heard of, long discussions of matters I had never considered. Lord, I thought, this is a gold mine of new ideas.

I went back the next day, but the whole blog was gone. 404. Cannot find server. Today, I can't even remember the name of the thing. So sad . . .

May 17, 2007 1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This scenario was a recurring punchline on Futurama—the only way that the human Fry and the robot Bender could function as roommates was that Bender's coffin-sized room at the Robot Arms was attached to a loft-sized space with floor-to-ceiling windows. Bender couldn't figure out why Fry wanted to live in the closet.

May 17, 2007 1:56 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

I've had dreams like this, though not recently. Always of places I used to live though, never about the house or apartment I was currently occupying.

At my last place in Koreatown, Toronto, I'd tell people this door here leads to the den. It was, of course, just a closet.

May 18, 2007 12:22 AM  
Blogger ranjit said...

I've had that dream many times. Dream-cartoonist Jesse Reklaw drew a picture of it.

May 18, 2007 12:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

mmm...Secret cheese cave...

May 18, 2007 8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a Manhattanite, but I often dreamt of finding secret bedrooms that were spacious and fully furnished. That was back in college when I was stuck with a messy roommate, so I guess that was the impetus for dreaming about finding secret rooms.

May 18, 2007 11:44 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Bullock OwYoung said...

Oh I love this too! Anytime my family would rent a cabin or a house for vacation I'd run around looking everywhere for anything out of the ordinary. In my grandparent's old house, I was hiding in the closet with my cousin (from her little brother who was searching frantically for us, haha) and felt cold air coming up beneath the carpet. We opened the door and found a huge 'door' on the closet floor and opened it -- it was access to beneath the house. We loved it and thought we were so smart for finding it. Ah memories..
I'd love to have a secret room installed in my house.

May 18, 2007 11:47 AM  
Blogger Eli Sarver said...

A co-worker back in Pittsburgh has a Victorian from the mid-1800s that was converted back-and-forth over the years. One day he was working in the closet and pulled up the carpet to find a pocket door on the floor. He pull up the door to find servant's stairs. The closet also gave access (along the back wall) to a 8x8 turret room on the one corner of the house.

May 18, 2007 12:11 PM  
Blogger M* said...

funny enough.. that is one of my most frequent dream plots and i live in vienna/austria. then again..that's where freud wrote his theories...

thanks.. for that wonderful post.

May 18, 2007 1:04 PM  
Blogger giles said...

A great fantasy. It reminds me of the Witch and the Wardrobe. But believe it or not i may have stumbled on an even better one:

Anybody know if people are still fishing in Manhattan basements in buildings constructed over still flowing streams? Recall a story about that in the NYT some 30-35 years ago.

Such is the magic of the New York Times a story like that remains alive in mind so many years later.

— Posted by MARK KLEIN, M.D.

...over at the Empire Zone...

Somebody should look that up. Maybe something about it in Sante's Low Life.

May 18, 2007 1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Empire Zone have answered , and the answer seems to be know. They've dug the original letter out of the archives, but you need to be a NYT subscriber to read it.

May 18, 2007 1:50 PM  
Blogger Schizohedron said...

I had a dream in which I found a hidden room in my grandparents' Bronx apartment. In it, I found a bed, years' worth of diaries, full bookshelves, and enough written and circumstantial evidence to determine that (a) I had a twin who had lived in this room and (b) he was dead. In the dream, I gathered as much of my brother's writing as I could, as evidence, and then called my parents to confront them about it. As often happens in dreams, there was no resolution.

May 18, 2007 2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds suspiciously like "Being John Malkovich."

May 18, 2007 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charlie Kaufman meets Orson Welles?

May 18, 2007 5:16 PM  
Blogger giles said...

Awesome! Thanks Josh. Somehow I missed the update.

May 18, 2007 6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So strange. Just this morning I dreamed of an extra room in my small apartment that held a washer and dryer. I was so happy. Glad to know I am not alone in dreaming of more space.

May 18, 2007 9:24 PM  
Blogger ranjit said...

Now I'm having thoughts of hiding the door to my bedroom behind a false bookcase. I'll just tell people I have a little studio apartment.

May 18, 2007 11:44 PM  
Blogger Immortal Ping said...

good job, I just love all your writings about places that never were, or better said, about the What If Architecture

May 19, 2007 12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read the J.G. Ballard Story "Billennium". A secret room in an overcrowded city and soon the whole neighborhood moves in...

May 19, 2007 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And He Built a Crooked House

May 19, 2007 3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On another scale "How The Dead Live", Will Self, has whole hidden London neighborhoods populated by souls in limbo

And I often daydream about whole hidden countries adjacent to Benalux

May 20, 2007 7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Secret is near to private, which not every people could enjoy it. Then the conclusion is today's people need privacy in their life, something hysteria to desire of stress management. We, architects, should able to see everything behind the unseen.

May 20, 2007 9:02 AM  
Blogger John McCrory said...

Yes. It is a recurring dream in Manhattan. There was a door I had not noticed before and behind it some stairs that led up to a spare bedroom and a room set up as an office, and also there was a bathroom and kitchenette of its own -- but most important of all, a giant, walk-in closet where all my shirts, pants, and jackets could hang free and independent of one another, not the usual way they packed in like hipsters in a narrow bar on Avenue A on a summer Friday night and I needed a bouncer's strength to get one out. Sometimes there was a trapdoor to a roofdeck, too. In the dreams I often asked myself why I'd forgotten about this hiding place, and wondered if I could keep it a secret from my girlfriend-roommate.

But, last year I moved away from Manhattan to a large old house in a small New England city, and I stopped having this dream.

May 21, 2007 12:25 AM  
Blogger David said...

What's the source of that image? It reminds me of the old Sherman Fairchild Manhattan aerial surveys.

May 21, 2007 10:05 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

E.R., it's from the Wikipedia entry on Manhattan... Keeping it simple. ;)

May 21, 2007 2:43 PM  
Blogger cemenTIMental said...

Yes, I too first thought of "House of Leaves" when i read this post.

Great idea anyway, you should make it actually happen! Could be interesting as a film, people could be telling you the dream and showing the rooms in their house where they found the doors etc, but using motion tracking and CGI the actual doorways and rooms as described could be realistically added to the footage and entered.

May 22, 2007 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an idea I once had for a museum of doors. You gather replicas of famous (and ordinary) doors from fiction and reality all over the world in one building and shape them into rooms with two, three or four doors per room.

Each room somehow links the doors that lead to it in theme or design. Ghiberti's Doors of Paradise lead to a cathedral room; Science Fiction rooms are conntected by doors copied from the Enterprise; a forest room ends in a Wardrobe door.

Some rooms would be tiny, others large. Some would be hidden, others obvious.


May 26, 2007 1:24 PM  
Blogger No said...

one time when i was over a professor's apartment in mid-town Manhattan, i was standing in the kitchen and she related the story to me where when she first moved in she thought there was something funny about a wall and took a hammer to it only to reveal what was now the kitchen i was standing in.

May 28, 2007 7:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only had a dream like this once. When I was a kid, I dreamt that I found an old library, disused for decades, behind a secret door in my grandparent's house. I always figured, though, that it was inspired by a Babar story I'd read where the main characters found a hidden library on the palace grounds.

Odd, though, that I remember that dream so clearly when I can't remember what I dreamed last night. And that's the only Babar story I remember.

June 26, 2007 3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have dreams like this all the time. The strangest I can remember was where I was living in an upper floor flat in Northern Ireland (uh, a duplex, I guess - that part was for real, at least) and went up into the attic in the hall one day, only to discover that it contained an impossibly huge, aircraft hangar-sized, vast and empty bowling alley. I was about 15 at the time and reading Freud without context or guidance. So this really f***ed me up for a while.

August 14, 2007 4:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lived in Brooklyn for fifteen years and repeatedly dreamed of discovering another room in my little railroad flat.

One day I worked for hours to pry open a painted-up window, and found that there actually was a nice sized closet boxed in there when the neighboring building was slapped up against mine. Unfortunately, I had already given up indoor marijuana growing so the space continued to go unused.

August 23, 2007 2:31 PM  
Blogger Luckey said...

I grew up in a house built in 1906 on the north shore of Long Island. Last year my parents sold the house to my dismay and I of course went home to help them out with the move. A couple of days before the signing I decided to have one more poke around the old attic.

The attic was pretty basic and we never used it. It didn’t have any lights, was segmented by old roofs that were built over another and didn’t really have a floor – think I was the only one to ever even check the place out when we first moved in there. Anyway, attached a bunch of extension cords to my childhood desk lamp (I’m 27) and off I was. Looked around, thinking nothing’s there... “I’ve seen that”, Yep” I’m thinking…

Just as I was about to give up, I decided to go into an unexplored dark corner. The extension cords pulled tight, but I could see there was a hole in the wall. I peered into it and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness a large room appeared. This new room was about 2/3 the size of the space we new was there. Immediately I was seven years old again, running around the house yelling at my mom for more extension cords. Got back up, dove in and spotted a round wooden box in the corner. I don’t know what I thought it was, and honestly I think I may have even blacked out at this point – I was so excited – but it ended up being an old coal barrel from the town Northport Coal Company. Would’ve been great if it was a treasure chest, but the feeling on being an excited young child with hopes of treasure for 5 minutes was plenty of fun. The wooden barrel sites proudly in my apartment in Brooklyn.

September 25, 2007 9:13 PM  
Blogger merkley??? said...

i have had variations of this dream my whole life. i blog about it every time.

fantastic post.

January 06, 2008 6:49 PM  
Blogger Traci said...

I have dreamt this dream for at least 15 years, though I have yet to find the extra room in my apartment in Brooklyn in my waking life.

Your post is brilliant. Let us know when the book comes out :)

May 06, 2008 2:10 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Hey Traci - Thanks! The book should be out by April 2009. I'm just finishing up the manuscript this week, in fact.

But I'll definitely let everyone know when the book is available!

May 06, 2008 2:14 PM  
Blogger Leontine said...

I link to this essay constantly. It's fantastic. xox Leontine

February 02, 2009 11:54 AM  
Anonymous jason.gillette said...

Does anybody remember reading about the Murder Mansion during Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition (i believe). Hidden stairwells, trap doors, closets/gas chambers... etc?

April 07, 2009 2:22 AM  

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