History

Why the Campbell Apartment Deserves to be Saved

Large glass window of the Campbell Apartment bar in New York
The iconic glass window at the Campbell Apartment, tucked away in a corner of New York City's Grand Central Station. Photo via Arvind Grover/Flickr.

There’s nowhere quite like it, even in New York City.

Walking into The Campbell Apartment stirs up a lot of emotions. First, it’s the awe of being transported back into an era of design decadence. Next comes a kind of wariness; the room is elaborate and personal, and you wonder if you’ve just entered somewhere private by mistake. And finally, when the drinks arrive with their customary flair, it’s comfort.

“Everyday I walk in and I’m amazed by the space itself and the history behind it. We love telling the story. We get a lot of commuters going to New York and Connecticut, but we also get a lot of tourists who are interested in the bar itself,” says Jonathan Pogash, who helped create the current bar program at The Campbell Apartment 11 years ago. During that time, Pogash worked behind the bar to gain a sense of how the establishment runs and to become acquainted with one of New York’s most iconic and historic bars.

Just like many of its patrons in New York’s Grand Central Station, The Campbell Apartment went from an office to a bar. This decadent room was the 3,500-square-foot private office of financier John W. Campbell, who served on the board of the New York Central Railroad. Campbell was reportedly eccentric and had an indisputable taste for the finer things in life. He imported elaborate Italian furniture, Persian rugs and one-of-a-kind pieces that turned his office space into a gallery of sorts. Every single inch of The Campbell Apartment is notable, from its intricate wall sconces to the larger than life full-wall window behind the bar.

Interior of the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station This dimly lit, decadent room was originally the 3,500-square-foot private office of financier John W. Campbell, who served on the board of the New York Central Railroad. Photo via Jared Goralnick/Flickr.

“My favorite design aspect is the old bank vault that was in the corner of the room. It was the original vault for John Campbell,” says Pogash. “The ceiling is absolutely magnificent. They uncovered it when Mark Grossich renovated the place from top to bottom.” Mark Grossich’s company Hospitality Holdings spent $2.5 million renovating the space, paying special attention to its original attributes.

This renaissance of Old New York translates to the menu, whose theme is “cocktails from another era.”

“The cocktails are pre-Prohibition, but they also play on the speakeasy theme and what people were drinking during Prohibition,” explains Pogash, who spent countless hours reading vintage cocktail books and drumming up historic recipes.

The crowd favorite is also Pogash’s favorite: The Kentucky Ginger. “It’s very simple, like a Kentucky mule — which is bourbon and ginger beer — but we use ginger liqueur and we add rosemary for a special note.”

New York City is currently awash with speakeasies, but The Campbell Apartment deserves respect for being far, far ahead of its time. In the late 1990s, Dale DeGroff ushered in the concept of the upscale, classic cocktail bar; The Campbell Apartment quickly followed suit. This was the place to be for cocktail connoisseurs, and the bartenders had to have the skills to deliver.

Visiting The Campbell Apartment is the closest thing to time travel the New York bar scene has — right down to its strictly respectable dress code.

“The Campbell Apartment is representative of the great historic buildings of New York,” says Pogash. “Nowadays, a lot of iconic bars and restaurants are being replaced. This is a true icon of the city – not only for the neighborhood.”

The Campbell Apartment stirs up a lot of emotions in its devoted patrons, but lately a new one has taken over: sadness. Historic as it may be, the bar has a very modern New York problem: the lease was up and someone offered to pay an astronomical rent increase.

Late last year, the MTA began shopping The Campbell Apartment around. Grossich had reportedly been paying $350,000 a year for his lease. In his new offer, he proposed paying $800,000 per year for a 10-year lease. Unbeknownst to Grossich, the Gerber Group had bid $1.1 million per year for the space. Grossich originally offered to match and raise any higher proposals, but he wasn’t allowed to counter. Grossich stands to lose The Campbell Apartment as of August.

There have been waves of public outcry from New York City residents: historians, designers, media — and commuters, whose greatest fear is the persistent rumor that The Campbell Apartment might turn into a nightclub in the already heaving Grand Central Station.

“It’s a shame. The Campbell Apartment does what bars are meant to do — it brings people together from all walks of life in a space that’s amazing to look at, surroundings that are mesmerizing and cocktails that are delicious. The Campbell Apartment is hospitality at its core,” says Pogash.

“New York will literally be missing a piece of its history” if The Campbell Apartment closes, laments Pogash, and he’s not alone.

A petition has been started to ask the MTA to reconsider evicting Hospitality Holdings at the end of this month. Read and sign it here.

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