The old Central Depot, which sat across across Ludlow Plaza from Old City Hall from 1896 until its demolition in 1968, was a wonderful, massive gothic structure, covered in ornament and decoration which one doesn’t find much in today’s construction. It certainly isn’t found in its replacement, the City Centre Square building, a long rectangular affair, completed in 1972. Below the glass and brown brick-covered box, the City-Suburban Transit Authority (CSTA) has its Ludlow Plaza Station, the only remnant of the old depot. It’s one of the nicer stops in the subway system, with some of the old architectural details still showing through slight neglect mandated by tight budgets over the decades.
Central Depot was the showpiece of the of the Ostahanoc Valley Northeast Line, a regional railroad that did very well with both passenger and freight transport during this city’s booming industrial age. As such, the railroad’s offices were located on the upper five floors of the massive limestone edifice to transportation. The first two floors were dedicated to the grandly-designed passenger concourse and two levels of tracks were located below, which are now used for CSTA subway and regional light rail. But few know about the levels which lie below even these.
Sub-levels three and four were and still are used for mechanical works, storage and maintenance. Level five, however, is a different story, entirely. L. Mathewson Burlsworth was the founder of the Ostahanoc Line and lead the company until his death in 1912. When he comissioned local architect Francis Locane (who also designed several of Watson University’s original buildings), he decreed that he should have, in addition to his palatial office on the depot’s uppermost floor, a “getaway” space within its lowermost level. So, at great expense, a six-room, well-appointed space was dug out of the earth, far below the city’s streets. Burlsworth had a secret entrance installed, hidden in the tiles near track 4-A. From there, a cast-iron staircase would take guests down to a wood-paneled and carpeted suite, complete with small kitchen and dining room. The magnate would often retreat down there to get away from it all, entertain fellow businessmen, or even the occasional extra-marital “guest.” There were two additional exits, behind more standard unlabeled locked doors at tracks 3-A and 4-B.
After Burlsworth’s death, the office was still used, reportedly, as a perk for certain of the railroad’s executives. But, after the company’s various mergers and sales, at some point, it fell into disuse and was apparently forgotten. It’s not entirely clear at which point someone decided to put the space to a more salacious use. At any rate, in 1966, when plans for the demolition of the building were in full swing, city and CSTA (then City Transportation Company) engineers were taking a survey of the subterranian space and found the passage to Level Five. They were at first surprised that it was still extant. Then, they were even more surprised to find that it was in use as one of the city’s most secretive and exclusive (as well as rather luxurious) brothels.
In the ensuing investigation, it was found to be run by the Lanfesi crime syndicate as a perk for certain of its “executives” and the occasional out-of-town business associate and had been since the mid-1950s. Apparently, someone knew someone who said something back then, one of the Lanfesi lieutenants did some exploring, found that the space was largely ignored (thanks to L. Mathewson Burlsworth’s desire to have secret and unabeled entrances) and voila! Adaptive reuse. Thousands upon thousands of travelers had no idea what they were walking upon for years and years.
Soon after its discovery, the space was stripped of its ornament to the bare walls and used for equipment storage, as well as a possible secondary Civil Defense shelter, given its proximity to Old City Hall. Instead of late 19th century railroad tycoon opulence, there are barrels of decades-old nutritional biscuits and expired distilled water, as well as obsolete subway parts and rebar.
- RJ White