For a brief moment in time, the most exclusive wine sipping parties in New York City took place beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Revelers would enter vaulted chambers of brick, limestone and granite, some more than 50 feet high, with names reflecting French streets like Sichel Bordeaux, Avenue Les Deux Oefs and Avenue Des Chateaux Haunt Brion. Within each would be casks and cases of champagne and rare vintages of wine and liquor stacked floor to ceiling.
A July 12, 1934, article in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette describes how one such soiree, taking place after the immediate end of Prohibition, included a few hundred lucky New Yorkers, a live orchestra, and plenty of choice drinks.
"Visitors crowded the taproom this evening, musicians played Viennese waltzes, champagne corks popped and nobody remembered that above the trolleys and the elevators, the automobiles and the pedestrians still hurried back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge," the piece recalled.
More than 80 years later, these vaulted wine cellars lay empty, shuttered and all-but-forgotten beneath one of the world's most iconic bridges. Every few years, their existence is reminded either from someone seeking confirmation of a rumor or a lucky urban explorer who happens to gain access. A 1978 investigation by New York Magazine found that one of the cellars still bore the faded wall inscription of "Who loveth not wine, women and song, he remaineth a fool his whole life long."
Right place, right time
The cellars themselves (you can see them at Urban Omnibus) were integrated into the massive granite and limestone anchorages of either side of the Brooklyn Bridge a full seven years before it opened to the public in 1883. Their existence was both economical and practical. The site of the bridge's construction meant the displacement of two successful businesses — Rackey's Wine Company on the Brooklyn shore and liquor purveyor Luyties & Co. on the Manhattan shore. (You can see
In an effort to help offset the bridge's enormous $15 million cost (almost $325 million today), engineer John Roebling carved out the enormous cellars and their accompanying vaults for businesses to rent. As NPR's Nicole Jankowski reports, the dark, consistently cool underground vaults proved popular with liquor distributors.
Over the course of the next 40 years, several different liquor vendors would utilize the cellars below the bridge. City records indicate, for example, that in 1901, the "Luyties Brothers paid $5,000 for a vault on the Manhattan side of the bridge," located at 204 Williams St., while in Brooklyn, "A. Smith & Company" forked over $500 a year to rent a wine cellar from 1901 until 1909.
The vaults themselves were also widely praised, with Charles Morris in an 1894 publication comparing them favorably to the famous wine cellars of Europe.
"Years of time and a small fortune in money have been spent in fitting up these vaults for their purpose and they now constitute a magnificent wine cellar perhaps equal to the finest to be found in Europe," he wrote. "...An idea of the extent of these improvised cellars may be gained when we state that their storage capacity is about one million gallons. They are lighted up by one thousand electric lights, while electric power is used in the transference of wine from cask to cask and in connection with hydraulic power for the elevators."
Public access to the cellars became sporadic between the outbreak of WWI, Prohibition and WWII. Eventually, the city took control of the chambers and vaults and began using them to store maintenance supplies.
What lies beneath is unknown
Today, based on the handful of modern photographs available online, access to these chambers is strictly controlled. Because so few people have actually walked the labyrinth of vaults and chambers, no one is exactly sure just how large the cellars are.
"What may be most intriguing is the vaults are still not 100 percent mapped," Michael Maring wrote for Never Enough History. "So no one knows just how far, deep or where the vaults end up."
Could these legendary wine cellars one day be opened up again to the public or even for their original intent? With the current resurgence of craft liquor and wine, surely there's some value in advertising "aged in 19th century cellars beneath the Brooklyn Bridge" on the bottle.
Then again, with potential access now stymied by an above-ground litany of roads and buildings — not to mention the security concerns of the 21st century — the cellars may be destined to remain nothing more than a hidden relic; a bygone reminder of a time when champagne, live music and dance shared court beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.