Hidden Times Square: An Explorer's Guide - Atlas Obscura

An Explorer's Guide to
Hidden Times Square

There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

A detail from Toby Buonagurio's ceramic reliefs inside the Times Sq-42nd St subway station. Aïda Amer
Subway Art

1. Overlooked Street Scenes

Your adventure begins in the 42nd Street-Times Square subway station. Most passengers sprinting (or slogging) between the N/R/Q/W corridor and the S platform likely blow right past handmade ceramic reliefs by the Bronx-based sculptor Toby Buonagurio, which are set into the tunnel’s frosted-glass walls. Not you! Thirty-five artworks are scattered throughout this hallway, installed in 2005 as part of the transit agency's efforts to beautify the system with permanent, site-specific art. Buonagurio's frenetic street scenes are rendered in clay and adorned with splashes of bright glaze. In one, a woman in cat-eye glasses, red gloves, and a tropical-fruit charm bracelet fans consults a subway map. In another, a kid trades an enormous dollar bill for a mustard-squiggled hot dog. Step out of the stream of commuters and say hello to them.

Times Sq-42nd St Subway Station, New York, NY 10036

Retro Relic

2. A Door to Nowhere

Up until the first incarnation of the Knickerbocker Hotel shuttered in 1920, commuters were able to enter it straight from the platform. They ambled down a corridor lined with settees and Art Nouveau flourishes. Once inside, they might visit the hotel's infamous watering hole, where the city's elite rubbed elbows and tossed back drinks. There, the bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia is rumored to have invented his namesake cocktail and poured one for John D. Rockefeller. You can still find a sign reading “KNICKERBOCKER” on the far end of Track 1 along the S line, linking Times Square and Grand Central. These days, though, the door is firmly sealed. Like the entrances to supply closets and engineering rooms we so often shuffle past on subway platforms, you can look, but you can’t enter.

Times Square-42nd St Subway Station, New York, NY 10036

High above the hustle and bustle, retro elements were restored to their former splendor. Courtesy The Knickerbocker Hotel
Amazing View

3. Knickerbocker Hotel Rooftop

Its clandestine entrance may be sealed up, but since the Beaux Arts hotel reopened in 2015, you only have to go above ground to step back in time. Enter the hotel from the street and ride the elevator to the roof. Seventeen stories up, you'll find the St. Cloud bar, which provides a pigeon-eye-view that reveals marvels easily missed on the ground.

There are minor wonders to behold on the rooftop itself. Copper lions' heads (with appropriately wind-swept manes) stand guard. Carefully restored when the hotel reopened, they've returned to their early-20th-century splendor. Next, look northwest to the tiered pyramid topped with a glass orb and a four-faced clock. The dramatic rooftop marks the former home of Paramount Pictures, and it’s been a stunner for more than 90 years. Though the film company's eponymous theater is long gone, the graceful clock remains. It's not instantly noticeable from the ground, though, where other, louder buildings demand attention. Glimpsing it from the Knickerbocker's high-up vantage point, you can savor a little Old Hollywood glamor in the heart of Times Square.

6 Times Square, New York, NY 10036

Ornate murals on the ceiling of the AMC Empire 25's lobby. Aïda Amer
Past Lives

4. The Lobby of AMC Empire 25

Blockbuster new releases are on offer in this modern multiplex, but you’re dropping by to visit the past via paint and plaster. This space debuted in 1912, as a theatrical venue called the Eltinge; later, in the mid-1950s, it was rechristened as the Empire. Abbott and Costello are said to have joked around here before they hit it big, and the theater regularly hosted burlesque acts and film screenings—it's just that all of this took place a little bit farther east.

In 1998, this entire building was loaded up on hydraulic jacks and nudged roughly 170 feet down the block, so its proscenium, ceiling, and box seats could serve as a lobby for the new movie palace. The short jaunt took up the entire morning and some of the afternoon, but it went off without a hitch. From just inside the door, you can still spy ornate sphinxes on the ceiling, and a dreamy mural of women dancing with gauzy scarves. Ride the escalator for a close-up view.

234 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036

Divine Eats

5. John's Pizza

This sit-down pizza joint is a cathedral of sauce, meat, and crust. It makes sense: The building was once home to the Gospel Tabernacle Church. Since the current owners didn’t completely gut the interior, diners can feast on brick-oven pies beneath chandeliers, an octagonal stained-glass ceiling, and a balcony that once held the Sunday service’s overflow crowd.

260 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036

Not just a grate. Aïda Amer
Overlooked Art

6. Sidewalk Sound Installation

In 1977, the aural artist Max Neuhaus installed a permanent soundscape beneath a sidewalk grate. Officially titled Times Square, it’s colloquially known as “the hum,” and it’s often drowned out by grumbling trains, bleating horns, or the hollers of pedestrians milling around to snap pictures with a quintet of Mickey Mouses. Crouch down close to this patch of the pedestrian plaza, though, and it’s unmistakable. Up from the grate drifts a sound that recalls an ethereal whir, or what you might hear if you handed a xylophone to an alien. The piece fell silent from 1992 to 2002, but otherwise, it’s been humming along pretty much ever since, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Can you hear the hum? Listen to the audio postcard below to discover how Times Square visitors described the curious sound.

Broadway between 45th and 46th streets

This inlaid map of Broadway theaters is hiding in plain sight. Aïda Amer
Creative Cartography

7. An Inlaid Map of the Great White Way

If you find yourself turned around or disoriented, walk half a block north and get your bearings by looking at the ground. There, you’ll find a 28-foot map that plots the locations of 40 professional Broadway theaters in granite and stainless steel, built right into the sidewalk. The map also serves as a cartographic memorial to composers, lyricists, and playwrights including Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, and August Wilson, each of whom have a theater named for them.

Duffy Square, Broadway between 46th and 47th St, New York, NY 10036

Sculptures adorn the sides of a once-famous footwear store. Aïda Amer
Fabulous Facade

8. Showbiz Statues of Israel Miller's Shoe Store

Just east of the sidewalk map, you’ll find a cast of stone actors frozen in pantomime above the facade of a former shoe store. Israel Miller shod New York’s dancers and actors in the 1910s and '20s, and a stone inscription running beneath the cornice heralds the cobbler’s commitment to his bespoke craft: “The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear.” 

The statues debuted in 1929, representing drama, musical comedy, opera, and motion pictures, with the figures modeled on leading ladies of the day (Ethel Barrymore is on the far left, in the role of Ophelia from Hamlet). Miller died that year, but the store marched along for another five decades. The statues were restored in 2012scrubbed of decades of grime, and finally returned to their perch. These days, their dramatic stances are sharp contrasts to the expressionless mannequins in the clothing-store window below. If you want to marvel at the sculptures, the best seat in the house is across the way, on the south side of 46th Street. 

1552 Broadway, New York, NY 10036

To repair old instruments, Jon Baltimore and his technicians often make their own tools. Aïda Amer
Old-School Shop

9. Jon Baltimore Music Company

Keep walking east on 46th Street, and you’ll arrive at a shop that evokes the district’s heyday as a music capital. Jon Baltimore spent his childhood, in the 1970s, helping out in his dad’s repair shop and apprenticing with Robert Giardinelli, a craftsman who restored instruments on 46th Street for four decades. Baltimore eventually opened his own business in Giardinelli’s old shop, and you can drop in to marvel at walls of saxophones, a full organ, or a centuries-old bassoon. On any given visit, you might see Baltimore working away with tools he fashioned by hand, or inviting a guest to blow through a mouthpiece once owned by Louis Armstrong (it’s still stamped with the musician’s name). Don’t miss the photo collage around the doorway—it’s an intimate tribute to the greats who played their way across the city.

Listen to the audio postcard below to hear Jon reflect on his work.

151 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036

Awe-Inspiring Architecture

10. Ceiling of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin

With its high-wattage billboards blotting out the sky, Times Square is an astronomy lover's hell. Painted heavens are easier to come by. A few storefronts east of the music shop, you’ll find the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, whose deep blue, French Gothic nave is speckled with golden stars. During Sunday mass, the church often clouds with incense, earning it the nickname Smoky Mary’s. If you visit during the week, though, you should have no trouble glimpsing the moody expanse.

145 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036

Refuel at Margon. Aïda Amer
Delicious Deal

11. Latin Lunch at Margon

Directly across the street, you’ll find a delectable, no-frills Cuban eatery that’s a far cry from the chains and anonymous delis jostling for your attention nearby. Margon is special, and not just because you get a lot of bang—and palomilla steak—for your buck. Instead of bland, budget-busting fare, you can get a heaping plate of fried king fish, a hefty sandwich, or a generous bowl of sopa de mondongo con patita (tripe soup with pig feet) for a price many nearby restaurants would charge for appetizers. That’s a very good thing for both your belly and your wallet.

Fair warning: Margon is only open until 5 p.m., and is typically closed on Sundays. 

136 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036

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