The Hidden World of New York Rooftops

May 22, 2019 Updated: May 22, 2019

The rooftops of New York shelter hidden worlds, teeming with activity and concealed from earthbound passersby. Yes, come summer, there are the ever-popular rooftop bars, from the lively poolside scene at JIMMY at the James to the romantic, lush garden at Gallow Green, at The McKittrick Hotel. But then there’s the unexpected—and a lot of it.

After a hot spell in the sauna at Brooklyn Banya, for example, visitors can head to the rooftop to sunbathe or, in winter, roll in the snow. In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a commercial rooftop vineyard, Rooftop Reds, offers hammocks and wine tastings. And uptown, Rutherford Observatory at Columbia University opens its doors to the public every other Friday for free stargazing.

There is all of this and much more in Leslie Adatto’s new book, “111 Rooftops in New York That You Must Not Miss” (Emons, $19.90). Full of lore and tips, the book is an excellent guide to those ready to explore New York on a higher level. 

Following are excerpts from Adatto’s book:

Bookmarks

A sky-high toast to literature

Bookmarks rooftop
Bookmarks the rooftop bar on top of The Library Hotel in Midtown East.
(Clay Williams for 111 Places. (Clay Williams for 111 Places. http://claywilliamsphoto.com)

This “silver building,” just 25 feet wide and 100 feet long, was built in 1912, one year before the neighboring Grand Central Terminal was completed. Before functioning as a book-lovers hotel, 299 Madison has served many purposes in its 100-plus years of existence. One notable regular was Theodore Roosevelt, the rough riding, beloved 26th president of the United States, and a New York City native. ‘’Teddy’’ (after whom the teddy bear was named) kept an office in this building after he left office and worked as a contributing editor to The Outlook, a news and editorial magazine.

In 1912, a well-designed building often had an outdoor roof terrace for entertaining or simply fresh air, and this fashionable neo-Gothic style building is no exception. Although Bookmarks is a multi-room rooftop bar and lounge, the small outdoor area that seats around 50 people is much more reminiscent of a wealthy New Yorker’s private terrace than a bar. Try the cleverly named cocktails, such as the Tequila Mockingbird (Sauza Blue tequila, agave nectar, fresh lime juice, minced ginger), the F. Scotch Fitzergald (brown buttered Glenmorangie 10 Year scotch, Campari, Carpano Antica), or the Pullitzer (Dorothy Parker gin, St. Germain, Fernet Branca, agave nectar).

Get to Bookmarks early in the summertime, as the outdoor space is the first area to fill up. Otherwise, there are two glassed-in solariums aptly named The Poetry Lounge and The Writer’s Den. Inside is a mahogany-hued lounge filled with books and deep cushioned chairs where the busiest place in the bar during colder months is next to the glowing fireplace.

In this Midtown location next to countless corporate offices, Grand Central Terminal, Bryant Park, and the main branch of the New York Public Library, Bookmarks is a timeless neighborhood gem that welcomes a primarily local clientele of all ages.

Address: Library Hotel, 299 Madison Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10017, +1 (212)204-5498, www.hospitalityholdings.com/#/establishments/bookmarks

Getting there: Subway to Grand Central – 42nd Street (Line 4, 5, 6, 7, S), or bus M 1, M 2, M 3, M 4 to Madison Avenue / East 40th Street

Hours: Sun–Thu 4 p.m.–midnight, Fri–Sat 4 p.m.–1 a.m.

Tip: Library Way, along East 41st Street, starting at Park Avenue and ending at the grand, lion-flanked entrance of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, features famous literary quotes about reading, writing, and literature emblazoned on 96 bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalk (www.grandcentralpartnership.nyc/ our-neighborhood/library-way).

Brooklyn Banya Rooftop

Roll around in the snow—in your bathing suit

brooklyn banya rooftop
The rooftop at Brooklyn Banya, a Russian bathhouse in Kensington.
(Clay Williams for 111 Places. http://claywilliamsphoto.com)

Let’s make this perfectly clear: Brooklyn Banya is not a spa. It’s not modern, refined, or even peaceful during its busiest hours. It is, rather, a Russian bathhouse—social, casual, family friendly, and unpretentious. Besides the indoor pool and hot tub, there are three hot rooms with varying levels of humidity: the 200-degree Russian dry sauna heated by tons of river rocks, the wet and dry Turkish-style sauna where guests can pour buckets of cold water over their heads to cool down, and the more modern steam room with air so thick it’s like sitting in a cloud.

A café sells pickle plates and borscht, as well as wine and beer. Bathers of legal age can bring their own vodka to complete the Russian experience.

Year round, Brooklyn Banya encourages people to enjoy their clean and unfussy facilities to sweat out toxins and reinvigorate their immune systems, as Russian people from all strata of society have been doing for centuries. Some say a few hours at Brooklyn Banya having a good shvitz (sweat) is equivalent to a 21-day detox diet.

Above this old-world, holistic health destination is an easily accessible rooftop. There are lounge chairs, potted plants, and a dish of kibble for the Banya’s resident cat who has free rein throughout the 10,000-square-foot baths. During summer, guests sun themselves, nap between saunas, and gossip with friends. However, the most popular time on the rooftop is just after a brisk snowfall. In one of the most unique uses of a New York City rooftop, overheated bathers dash up the stairs to roll around in the fresh snow.

The first Russian bathhouse in the world to be owned by a single woman, Brooklyn Banya’s mission since 1996 has been to welcome all who want to experience an old and enjoyable way to stay healthy and vigorous. And what could be more fun than rolling around on a rooftop in fresh snow—in your swimsuit?

Address: 602 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11218, +1 (718)853-1300, www.brooklynbanya.com

Getting there: Subway to Beverley Road (Line Q), or bus B 68 to Coney Island Avenue / Slocum Place

Hours: Mon–Fri 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sat–Sun 8 a.m.–11 p.m.

Tip: A short walk from the Banya is Kensington Stables. Go on a 3.5-mile horseback ride along the bridle path in Prospect Park, or sign up for regular lessons (51 Caton Place, Brooklyn, NY 11218, www.kensingtonstables.com).

Castell Rooftop Lounge

Cava towers and martinis with a Spanish twist

Castell Rooftop
The daily Cava Pour at Castell Rooftop in Midtown Manhattan. (Clay Williams for 111 Places. http://claywilliamsphoto.com)

Spain has some wild traditions. The world’s largest tomato fight occurs each August in Valencia. Every June near Burgos, grown men dressed as the devil leap over babies at the festival of El Colacho. In Pamplona each summer, thousands of intoxicated people run alongside sober, angry bulls at the San Fermín festival. Not to be outdone, in Catalonia, there is the centuries-old spectacle of castell, building complex human towers up to 10 stories. When a castell is built and deconstructed without a single person falling, it is considered a success, and it is this Spanish tradition after which Castell, a refined New York City rooftop martini lounge, is named.

To honor this tradition, every afternoon at around 4:30, the bar sets up a castell of champagne glasses, and pours cava, Spanish sparkling wine, into the top glass. When the castell is constructed properly, the cava cascades into the tower of glasses without spilling a drop. Once the ritual is complete, the cava is complimentary, and the festive atmosphere comes alive.

During summer, the spacious terrace has black-cushioned banquettes and dramatic chairs that form semi-private nooks. The greenery along the terrace edge and in planters livens up the sophisticated black décor. A standing marble bar is available for when Castell is busiest, usually after weekday working hours.

Terrace views are dramatic in both directions. Looking south, it’s like a painting of old New York City with at least seven cedar water towers in plain view. The northern view, dominated by the New York Times building, reveals a 52-story Renzo Piano skyscraper that reaches as high as the Chrysler Building.

Castell is also a great winter bar. The indoor fireplace is lit each evening. Wood, leather, and marble details adjacent to large windows create a feeling of space and light. As a finishing touch, tasteful art and art books are placed near the glowing hearth.

Address: AC Hotel, 260 West 40th Street, 21st Floor, New York, NY 10018, +1 (929)396-3135, www.castellnyc.com, info@castellnyc.com

Getting there: Subway to Times Square – 42nd Street (Line 1, 2, 3, N, Q, R, W), to 42nd Street – Port Authority Bus Terminal (Line A, C, E), or bus M 20 to 8th Avenue / West 39th Street

Hours: Sun–Thu 4–11 p.m., Fri–Sat 4 p.m.–midnight

Tip: Take the time to listen carefully for sound artist Max Neuhaus’ 1977 subtle installation called “Times Square.” He created a machine that amplifies the noise from inside a subway tunnel and projects it up through the metal grate at the north end of the triangular pedestrian island on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets (www.diaart.org/visit/visit/max-neuhaus-times-square).

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