Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Campbell Apartment Lounge

The Campbell Apartment
Grand Central Terminal
Entrance at 15 Vanderbilt Ave. (between 42nd and 43rd Sts.)
212-953-0409; Open daily from 3:00 pm.
Proper attire is required (no baseball caps, t-shirts, athletic shoes).
Live jazz on most Saturday evenings.

John Williams Campbell, one of the investors in the 1913 Grand Central Terminal, was able to lease the “corner office” at 42nd and Vanderbilt Ave. as payback for his serving on the board of the New York Central Railroad. He built his office and private salon in a space the size of a chapel (25 by 60 feet with 25-ft. tall ceilings). The room had a butler, a pipe organ gallery, an enormous leaded glass window, a library and one of the world’s largest Persian rugs (it was said to have cost $300,000, or roughly $3.5 million in today’s money).

After Mr. Campbell’s death in 1957, however, the space fell into peculiar times, even including a short stint as a jail. Not until 1999 was it restored and renovated into a lush saloon of dark wood, dim lamps and Jazz Age cocktails now known as The Campbell Apartment.

Now, people enter the exclusive lounge and are wowed, but the place was a run-down wreck in 1999. The leaded glass windows had been boarded up, massive duct work was hanging from what had been an elegant ceiling, and there were workers’ cubicles all over the place. The painters who restored the spectacular beamed ceiling were put to work on their backs, as if they were painting the Sistine Chapel. The colors and patterns of the original room were replicated to create an elegant space inside the city-within-a-city that is Grand Central Terminal. The completed project soon attracted a significant destination crowd who wanted to take a train back in time.

By 2006, Mark Grossich, who restored the space in 1999 and owns the bar, decided the place was getting a bit tired and threadbare (he called it his seven year itch). He hired Nina Campbell (no relation to John Williams Campbell!), an interior designer based in London, to spruce it up. She replaced the blue color scheme with a red one, taking her cues from the red of the Campbell tartan, which now hangs as drapery near the entry. In a dramatic decorating moment on March 4, 2007, in less than 12 hours all the new carpeting and upholstery were installed to avoid closing for even one night. A platoon of workers labored morning to afternoon to refashion the Campbell Apartment into something still agreeably old but almost entirely new. The 1999 restoration of the Campbell Apartment cost more than $1.5 million, and the recent make-over more than $350,000 – a significant investment for a lounge that seats only 60 customers.

There is no evidence that John Williams Campbell wrote letters or kept any diaries. To Allyn Freeman, who is writing a book about the Campbell Apartment, personal facts about him are almost as scarce as those about Shakespeare. But what few facts are known are choice. Mr. Campbell, who resembled Warren G. Harding physically, favored Savile Row tailoring but disliked wearing socks, even with shoes, said Mr. Freeman, who has spoken about him with Elsie Fater, his niece. He disliked wrinkled trousers, so he hung his in a humidor, while he worked untrousered at his desk.

Mr. Campbell was born in 1880, the son of John Campbell, the treasurer of Credit Clearing House, a credit-reference firm specializing in the garment industry. The family lived in the affluent Brooklyn neighborhood then known as The Hill, now called Fort Greene.

There is no record of the younger Mr. Campbell attending college. He started work at 18 at his father’s firm, where he became a senior executive at 25 and later president. This credit-reporting business later became Dun & Bradstreet. In 1920, he was appointed to the board of New York Central Railroad, where he crossed paths with William K. Vanderbilt Jr., the railroad scion whose office was in Grand Central Terminal. By this time, Mr. Campbell was prosperous enough to have workmen come from Tiffany & Company to his Park Avenue home to polish the silver.

Sometime in 1923, he commissioned Augustus N. Allen to build an office in his leased space in Grand Central Terminal. Mr. Allen was an architect known for designing Long Island estates and grand offices. Mr. Campbell filled his new office with Italian furniture, a pipe organ, a piano and a a large stone fireplace. There was a bathroom and even a small kitchen, but the most striking feature was a Persian rug that covered nearly the entire floor, which is the length of a subway car. Since Mr. Campbell entertained business clients there, he had a butler (named Stackhouse) on staff.

After Mr. Campbell’s death in the late 1950s, it is unclear what happened to the rug and other furnishings. The space became a signalman’s office and later a storage space where transit police stowed firearms and other equipment. It also served as a small jail, in the area of the present-day bar. By the 1990s the room was outfitted with dropped ceilings and flourescent lighting.

As for the name Campbell Apartment, that is a misnomer. People wrongly assume that such a baronial space was an apartment. While there was a couch in the office, there was no bed. Mr. Campbell and his wife lived just a few blocks away at 270 Park Avenue, not far from the Waldorf-Astoria, so there was never a need to sleep in the office overnight.

The Campbell Apartment is frequently rented out for private events, so be sure to call 212-953-0409 before stopping by.

The walls are faux-finished to resemble travertine.