Over the years, we’ve lived everywhere from Cleveland to Phoenix, and that’s just a shortlist of the most recent. Our move east can be boiled down to a very simple consideration: access. To be specific, it was access to New York City and everything that it encompasses. We’ve discovered over the years, however, that you don’t need to live in or near the city to get the inside scoop. We’ve also learned that your experience as a local isn’t limited to a surface-level transaction. It can be deepened, but only if you choose to engage. Whether you’re a weekend warrior or tried-and-true local, here’s how to unlock the best NYC secrets with one of New York’s most vibrant, beloved and essential institutions: Open House New York.
The History of Open House New York
When we think of October, the first thing that comes to mind is Halloween. (We are unabashed fans.) But October is also Architecture and Design Month, or Archtober, as it’s affectionately called. Honestly, with all the diverse architecture in New York City, a month barely does it justice. But in August 2001, founder Scott Lauer wanted a way to “engage New Yorkers in the city’s architecture, public space, and the future of urban life.” So with the help of passionate board members and volunteers, Open House New York Weekend officially kicked off in 2003.
During that weekend, 84 sites across all five boroughs opened their doors to the public… for FREE. Today, over 250 sites are accessible during Open House New York Weekend. Open House New York took its cues from Open House London, which was founded in 1992. But the concept has spread like wildfire across the world, with exciting cities like Perth, Vienna and Bilbao now participating.
Why You Should Attend OHNY Weekend
We’ve attended OHNY Weekend for several years, yet we’ve barely scratched the surface of the overwhelming options available. Open House New York has curated an incredible list of New York City’s jewels, all you have to do is show up.
Access of Off-Limits Properties and Sections
One of the best parts of Open House New York is that it gives you entry to the sites you wouldn’t normally have access to. (Hence the “Open” in OHNY.) The Woolworth Building–once the tallest building in the world and a National Historic Landmark–is strictly off-limits to tourists except for 30- to 90-minute tours organized by the architect’s granddaughter. The limited number of free tours offered during Open House New York Weekend usually disappear within minutes.
Jefferson Market Library is a courthouse-turned-library that serves the public all year round, but we scored special access to its normally off-limits tower during Open House New York Weekend. (The staircase was perilously narrow and the balcony had only a modest amount of room, but the views up and down 6th Avenue were well worth it!) Businesses open the doors to their studios and workspaces, and private residences participate too. Open House New York truly affords unparalleled access.
Access to New York City History
New York City is a modern metropolis, with new structures popping up at a moment’s notice. But it has a rich history too, and you can trace a lot of it through the city’s architecture. Travel back in time by visiting a Gilded Age or Art Deco treasure. Visit the homes of prominent historical figures. Learn about properties that have found second acts through imaginative repurposing.
Brooklyn Navy Yard was one of the first five naval shipyards authorized by President John Adams as part of a robust defense strategy, and it supplied the US Navy with ships from 1801 to 1966. This popular OHNY Weekend site is now a hotbed of creative activity, and it boasts some of our favorite NYC businesses among its tenants. We’re regular patrons of Russ and Daughters’ century-old shop in the Lower East Side, but they now have a brand-spanking new 18,000-foot bakery and store at Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Access to Fresh and New Sites
If you’re a neophiliac, or a lover of all things new and novel, Open House New York also has a lot to offer in that arena. In 2017, we visited the brand new American Copper Buildings. The first building had just started accepting tenants that April, and the second building was still in its final stages of completion. We were able to get an insider tour of the stylish interior, including the skybridge with amazing views overlooking the East River. For 2019, the freshly-restored Belvedere Castle in Central Park is part of the lineup. Renovations include a recreated tower, lights that illuminate the structure from below, and a host of high-tech upgrades.
Access to Guided Tours
For the seasoned city lovers, OHNY Weekend offers new perspectives on old favorites by way of amazing guided tours. The Audubon Mural Project is on our list of best street art galleries in New York City, and you can experience it with an art historian and local resident as your guide during Open House New York Weekend. When we toured the Fulton Center, we had the privilege of attending a tour run by Grimshaw, the project’s architect. The excitement of the guides always comes across, and there are plenty of insider tidbits shared during these tours that you won’t hear anywhere else.
For New York City Locals
If you’re a local with a penchant for urban exploration, then you’re in luck! There are a couple of additional Open House New York opportunities you can take advantage of.
Volunteers helped get Open House New York off the ground, and they’re still a key part of the organization. During OHNY Weekend, volunteers might assist with questions from the attendees or crowd control. It’s a great way to experience the sites from a different perspective. Volunteers also get perks, like expedited access to Open Access sites all weekend. But volunteer opportunities are also available throughout the year, so be sure to sign up.
You might feel (like we do!) that it’ll take you decades to see everything you want to see on the Open House New York lineup. Or perhaps the thought of enduring the crowds during OHNY Weekend makes you break out in hives. Not to worry, becoming an Open House New York member gives you access to similar programming throughout the year. From talks to tours to social events, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the city you love at a pace you’re comfortable with.
For New York City Visitors
Planning a visit to New York City can be, in a word, overwhelming. The city is an embarrassment of riches, and with so many choices, comes indecision as to where to go and what to see to make the most of it. Our list of favorite things to do makes the perfect starter kit, but OHNY Weekend is a great way to expand on that.
Open House New York organizes their website in such a way that you can easily filter the sites by your interests. Maybe you’re a big fan of walking tours. Or perhaps you’re curious about urban farming. Maybe you’ve always wanted to explore the Bronx, but didn’t know where to begin. Consider timing your visit with OHNY Weekend, and make the most of your trip.
If you’re more interested in the sites than the fact that you can get in for free, or you’ve got some spending money to burn through, then consider purchasing an OHNY Weekend Passport. It’ll get you expedited access into all the Open Access sites, and you can write it off as a tax-deductible charitable donation. If you’re planning to pack your weekend with as many sites as possible, it’s a great way to simultaneously support a great organization.
What You Need To Know About Attending OHNY Weekend
Important OHNY Weekend Dates
When you’re planning your weekend, there are a few dates to know. OHNY Weekend always takes place in October, the weekend after Columbus Day. Besides the actual dates of the weekend, there are two other dates to mark on your calendar. The Big Reveal occurs three weeks prior, and this is when the Event Guide is released. The Event Guide includes a list of all the participating sites that year. Some sites are repeats from prior years, but there are always new ones to explore too. Take some time to mull over your options. Then a week later, Registration Day opens for Registration Required sites.
Open Access vs. Reservations Required
What’s the difference between Open Access sites and Reservations Required sites? Open Access sites are accessible to the visiting public during opening hours all weekend. Reservations Required sites, however, require visitors to sign up for a limited number of reserved spots. In our experience, available slots go quickly, especially for really popular sites. (The process was sometimes akin to buying tickets to a Beyoncé concert: reload page, reload page, reload page, sold out.) So don’t put all your eggs in one basket, a mix of the two is usually a good idea. Just note that while access to the OHNY Weekend sites is free, there is a $5 reservation fee for Reservations Required sites, and you can only reserve two tickets at a time. This way only serious attendees sign up, and everyone gets a fair chance.
Whether you’re a visitor to the city hoping to amp up your itinerary or simply a local looking to explore your own backyard, Open House New York offers a little something for everybody. Visitors can time their trips to coincide with the public culmination of OHNY’s annual programming by attending Open House New York Weekend every October. Locals can meet other like-minded residents and deepen their understanding of the city they love. New York holds many secrets, sure, but it isn’t stingy with them. Open House New York is an institution whose mission it is to open closed doors, bring up the lights, and show you everything you didn’t know was there all along. So plan now. Get involved. You won’t regret it. We certainly didn’t.
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– L. & J.