For six weeks this spring, an illegal Manhattan cocktail lounge gave 700 strangers a night they'll never forget.
Invited guests to the least probable cocktail lounge in New York meet at a prescribed time on a busy Manhattan street corner. They’re met by a young man in garb somewhere between steampunk and lumberjack, who leads the group down the block, and says something into his lapel.
The entrance tickets they carry are in the form of a pocket watch – which can only be obtained as a gift – with a reservation number and instructions inside advising against high heels and to be ready for a bit of climbing.
A door opens, and once shuttled inside all are told to turn off phones, refrain from photography or tweeting, and that you are in fact trespassing. While they have done their best, the Night Heron cannot guarantee your safety. Follow me.
Then it's through a dark hallway with paint curling off in sheets, onto a fire escape, across a chasm onto a low ledge, and through the back door of a building under construction. After climbing twelve dusty flights to the debris-strewn roof, you see it — the icon of the New York City skyline. Not the looming Empire State Building, or the sharpened jewel of the Chrysler. An extension ladder leads 20 feet up to the underside.
Yes, you're going up into a water tower.
After squeezing through a trap door, you are welcomed into a candlelit wooden cylinder outfitted with a bar, drink tables, and chandelier, all made from upright piano parts. You sip an aromatic amber concoction made by a dapper proprietor and survey this cedar jewel box, seemingly constructed by a pauper of exquisite taste.
The Night Heron is not a themed bar riding the broken wave of the speakeasy trend of several years ago, where an air of exclusivity was imparted by lack of signage or a secret entrance. Equal parts art installation, business, and social experiment, The Night Heron is the most recent production by 31-year-old N.D. Austin, who has staged similarly elaborate experiences via Wanderlust Projects, a closely related but separate endeavor which he runs with partner Ida Benedetto. Among other exploits, they've taken an RV full of people to an abandoned honeymoon resort in Pennsylvania for jazz in the wrecked showroom and "couple's time" on circular beds under mirrored ceilings, and organized a 5 a.m. photo safari in a defunct Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn. Guests are given only the vaguest of notions about activity or final location.
Urban exploration is usually considered the realm of thrill-seeking bridge climbers and sewer-spelunkers, but there is a small contingent who use abandoned, hidden, or otherwise odd spaces as a creative medium. In New York, there’s been the 2010 Underbelly Project, a collection of works by over a hundred street artists in an unused subway station organized by artists Workhorse and PAC, and a year later the elaborately staged Sweet Cheat, a dystopian musical production created by Jeff Stark, and held in a decommissioned power plant an hour outside the city.
"Actually, urban exploration is just a small part of what we do," says the mustachioed and articulate Austin. He and Benedetto call it "transgressive placemaking," a term they feel indicates a more complex, curated experience, as opposed to what Benedetto describes as the simpler act of "surveyance."
The Night Heron is a departure from Wanderlust's one-time, usually profitless productions, but shares the same approach to designing experiences in line with the historical context of a space. Even the name is precisely tuned – a creature of both sky and water, active primarily in darkness.
Austin chose an accessible, nightlife-free part of Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, specifically avoiding Brooklyn. "It's too easy to write you off – y'know, dudes with curly mustaches in Brooklyn," he says. "I wanted to circumvent the part that makes people think, 'I know what that is.'" He then zeroed in on a location using a combination of online research (including satellite photos) and a solid two weeks of legwork, in the literal sense. "I started with a list of at least fifty buildings, and climbed to the top of about thirty water towers."
The buildout of the space took two months, with Austin and crewmembers Myric Lehner and Mike "Dirby" Luongo going through an elaborate process each night to lug materials up the stairs, diligently avoiding notice and covering their tracks. The original plan to send guests up the tower's outside ladder with climbing safety gear was kyboshed when safety-and-logistics man Lehner realized the fire exit plan was untenable, and so a trap door was cut. And the overhead stage, a ludicrous idea at first, proved a fantastical addition. By the end, the wooden barrel that seemed tiny and uninhabitable from the outside had become the wardrobe entrance to a Prohibition-style Narnia. But one important issue remained.
How does one invite people to an illegal establishment that holds perhaps fifteen individuals comfortably and will only operate for six weeks? A sidewalk sandwich board? Facebook?
"One of the things I wanted to do," says Austin, "was give people the ability to share the experience itself. Exposure had to be limited for security reasons, so the only way you could share it was by passing it on to a person." Guests could attend the Night Heron only once, and entrance had to come in the form of a gift from one who'd already been. At the end of a seating, a letter thanked guests and explained that gifts of watches providing entry for two were available for purchase if desired. The price was $80 at the beginning of the run and capped out at $300 by the end, with the average price hovering around $160, according to Austin.
The system was supremely practical for vetting guests, as anonymous channels like the Internet can easily bring thieves, groping drunkards, or gossip column reporters, potentially jeopardizing the experience for all. But beyond mere practicality, says Austin, "The effect was more powerful than anything I would have expected."
After several "seeding" nights of invited guests, the scheme took its own course, growing into a garden of surprises and insights.
In one example of synchronicity, a watch found its way into the hands of Christine Jones, a Tony-award winning set designer and self-described "theatrical experience junkie." "Because you don't know what's happening," she says, "you start looking at everything around you with this heightened awareness. And you make the investment of risk, doing something that's illegal and maybe dangerous, and inside the tower you feel their investment, which is incredibly moving. Everything was done with such artistry, and you just couldn't wait to buy a watch so that you could gift it to a friend. The hard part was figuring out who you were going to give it to."
The secret became a gift of an unfolding surprise, one that people often added to with their own dramatic flair. Lehner relates the story of a business owner who sent an office-wide hoax request for a volunteer to come in on a Sunday, rewarding the helpful employee who did with a watch instead.
"The hipster quotient was very low," says Austin, describing a Mulligan stew each night of types and classes, from struggling artists in threadbare jackets to hedge fund manager couples in matching pink sweaters. Actor Ed Norton sipped a bourbon and amaro with bitters next to a union jet engine mechanic from Queens. Amanda Palmer belted out vocals in the tiny space as ecstatic house musician and fan Matt Dallow accompanied her on accordion, while husband and author Neil Gaiman scribbled furiously in a notepad at the table. An office manager and a freelance set builder listened to an animated Damian Kulash, lead singer/guitarist of OK Go, talk about the stunt driving lessons he had to take for the band's well-known music video.
In a quieter moment, one guest climbed the interior ladder to the top hatch so he could take in the view of the Empire State Building and the cubist jumble beyond. He drew in the night air, gazed at the scene in the human-sized diorama below, and began to cry.
"I'll never look at the skyline the same way again," says Night Heron bartender Lindsay Cooper at the end of a weekend-long stint. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say that."
"Yes, it reminds me of that question in The Little Prince," Austin adds, helping the crew clean and stow away evidence of their existence. "'Why is the desert beautiful? The desert is beautiful because somewhere it hides a well.'"
Seven hundred people came through the establishment, now sealed, since it opened at the end of March, and the expressions of gratitude have been overwhelming. Austin recalled one email in particular from a guest mentioning people he intended to pass the gift to, saying he was "happy to contribute to the cause as fits custom - to a few folks who were born in the water tower, and a few that need to see the water tower to be born."