Completed in 1883, the majestic Brooklyn Bridge looms over the East River, serving as a link between Manhattan and Brooklyn. As an iconic New York City fixture, it’s frequented by tourists all year-round — but the span offers much more than just stunning views. With a history dating back to the late 1880’s, it holds a slew of surprising secrets, which we previously highlighted in a post. Now, we’re taking a deeper dive into one of our favorite “Untapped” secrets from the list: vaults under the Brooklyn Bridge that formerly housed private wine cellars.
Today, the Brooklyn Bridge is crossed by more than 120,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians and 2,600 bicyclists on a daily basis (according to stats from 2016). Yet, few people are aware of the presence of the wine cellars, which are located below the ramps that lead up to the anchorages on both sides of the bridge. While they no longer hold booze, they continue to serve as storage space — and possibly, even a home to some. According to Edible Geography, a homeless person was once found living in one of the vaults, only to be discovered during a promotional visit for the film The Taking of Pelham 123 (but that’s a story for later).
Apparently, the real estate is highly sought after, too. As Maria Smith, a spokesperson for the D.O.T., noted in 1999: “People call up sometimes and say they’d like to live there.”
The Brooklyn Bridge itself was built with a series of passageways and compartments in its anchorages, which were rented out in order to fund the $15 million project (or $325 million, when adjusted for inflation). Given their dim and cavernous interior, the vaults may not have been the ideal location to throw down some plush sofas and a dining room table — however, those conditions were perfect for storing wine, champagne and liqueurs. Near-complete-darkness and a consistently cool temperature of 60 degrees provided the perfect environment for liquid stashes.
The vaults — which reportedly had a shortage capacity of one million gallons — were first constructed in 1876, likely to appease spirits distributors like Luyties & Co. and Rackey’s Wine Company, whose storage facilities were demolished to make room for the bridge. Over the span of four decades, several liquor vendors utilized the vaults, and they were eventually named after French streets (Avenue Les Deux Oefs, Avenue Des Chateux Haut Brion); illustrations of Europe, in addition to designs of grapes and leaves, soon decorated the chamber walls.
As for rent, city records specifically make mention of the Luyties Brothers, who paid $5,000 annually for a vault on the Manhattan side (located at 204 Williams St.). On the other end, the Brooklyn vault was occupied from 1901 to 1909 by A. Smith & Company for $500 per year .
During World War I and in light of the Prohibition, the vaults were closed and re-purposed for non-alcoholic storage. They lay dormant for almost two decades until 1934, when the city turned the keys over its newest tenant following the repeal of the Prohibition act. Upon occupying the space, the new alcohol distributor, Anthony Oechs & Co., immediately threw a party inside. According to a Pittsburgh Post Gazette article, published on July 12, 1934, “musicians played Viennese waltzes, champagne corks popped and nobody remembered that above the trolleys and the elevators, the automobiles and the rushing pedestrians still hurried back and forth.”
Such “exclusive sipping parties” were held in the vaults for a brief period of time. However, the city eventually took over the chambers after World War II. They have since been closed off to the public, and are now used to store maintenance equipment. If you’re lucky enough to venture inside, keep an eye out for fading evidence of the former wine cellars. Apparently scrawled on a crumbling wall is a quotation, dating back to the 1930’s: “Legend of Oechs Cellars: These cellars were built in 1876, about seven years prior to the official opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. From their inception, they housed the choicest wines in New York City.”
For more secrets, join us for our next walking tour of the Brooklyn Bridge:
Learn more on our upcoming tour of the Secrets of the Brooklyn Bridge! (Please note: while this tour will cover the history of the vaults and Cold War shelter, we will not be going inside of the vaults.)