Mitch Horowitz on Occult New York

Boing Boing guestblogger Mitch Horowitz is author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation and editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin publishers. Grandcennnnt

Okay, so New York is supposed to be the city of big commerce, literary culture, and high art - no room here for woo-woo spirituality, the odor of patchouli, or anyone who capitalizes words like Light or Truth. Well, actually not. This Sunday, October 11th I'll be conducting a walking tour of occult New York -- and hopefully giving participants a new way of seeing the city: As a once-upon-a-time laboratory for alternative spiritual ideas, which it helped to export to the rest of the world back before there was a New Age. Here are a few of the historic sights - familiar and obscure - we'll be viewing...

• The Lamasery (8th Ave and 47th Street). This is the five-story building that in the 1870s housed the famed salon of the Theosophical Society, whose earliest members included inventor Thomas Edison, Major-General Abner Doubleday, and the mysterious Russian noblewoman (and one-time New Yorker) Madame Blavatsky. This understated apartment building is where Civil War Colonel Henry Steel Olcott claimed to encounter Hidden Masters of wisdom and from which the nascent Theosophical Society launched a new vogue in occult ideas.

• The New York New Church (East 35th street). This beautifully restored Renaissance-revival Swedenborgian church was a wellspring of mystical ideas in America in the mid-nineteenth century, its pulpit presided over by Spiritualist-Swedenborgian minister George Bush - ancestor to the Bush presidential clan. Congregants included Henry James, Sr., and Al-Anon founder Lois Wilson

• Grand Central Station. This crowning edifice of the beaux-arts architectural movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries forms a temple of occult imagery, including magnificent statues of Hermes, Athena, Hercules and a domed ceiling featuring the images of the zodiac, the equinox, and a variety of ancient symbols. Grand Central sits on Pershing Square, named for the American World War I general who patronized the work of Manly P. Hall, the renowned esotericist who completed his Secret Teachings of All Ages steps away at the New York Public Library.

• Marble Collegiate Church (5th Ave and 29th street). From the pulpit of this Romanesque church - one of America's earliest congregations - the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale spread the esoteric-rooted philosophy of "positive thinking" across the nation in the mid-twentieth century. More than any other figure, Peale shaped the contemporary culture of self-help. The pioneering minister is enshrined in a life-size bronze statue at the gates of this landmarked building.

• New York Theosophical Society (East 53rd street). The site of New York's premier library on matters of the esoteric and occult, and home to the New York branch of the oldest occult organization in America. This stop will include time to browse the building's emporium of esoterica, The Quest Bookshop.

For more information visit the New York Open Center -- but please note that registration is nearly full. We may plan a second run of the tour in the near future.

Also see:
New York, Bastion of the Occult
God, Mystics, Yoga: What Americans Believe
Occult America


  1. Also, the first link is to the NYT linking to Boing Boing. Might as well cut out the middleman, yes?

  2. dagnabbit! Typisch…hold a super-fascinating walking tour the Sunday I have to leave to visit Mom in PA. HAVE MUCH FUN!

  3. I think that Madame Blavatsky was more than just a member of the Theosophical Society. She, along with William Quan Judge and Henry Steel Olcott, founded the society.

  4. Don’t forget the Gurdjieff Foundation building in NYC. Google G.I. Gurdjieff or look him up in Wikipedia. I think the building is somewhere near 56th street in NYC

  5. Don’t forget the ley line at 72nd Street and the Obelisk in Central Park. Is this tour leaving out the Dakota? What about the Thoth Temple of the Golden Dawn and the Penthouse Garden Lodge in Murray Hill?

  6. very interesting, but i disagree with including grand central station. yes, there are many classical statues and forms, and they were all referenced, but i’m unaware of the “variety of ancient symbols.” everyone knows and recognizes appolo and hermes, etc, but pointing out the ancient symbols would be cool.

    also, because it sits on a site that happens to be named after someone, who was a fan of someone, who was an esotericist, who taught a class some where else is a pretty loose reference. it seems weird that the new york public library wasn’t referenced, when thats a place where occult classes by the esotericist actually took place.

    i do look forward to visiting some of these places next time i’m in in nyc, because the rest seem interesting.

  7. i disagree with including grand central station …
    … i’m unaware of the “variety of ancient symbols.”
    … pointing out the ancient symbols would be cool.

    I’m confused then. You DO think it should be included, since you didn’t know the symbols were there?

    If you still think it should not be included, why not?

  8. The Level Club is a beautiful building — I live nearby. Another nearby monument to old fraternal organizations is the Pythian building on West 70th St., between Broadway and Columbus Avenue.

  9. @ ANON

    by that i meant that the author pointed and named out the obvious classical pieces that most of the public see and recognize, but then in passing, mentioned that there were “a variety of ancient symbols” as well without naming a single one, or pointing out where one might be found. is there a cartouche somewhere? something in sanscrit? pagan symbolism? give me something.

    i do think that grand central is a magnificent place, but without showing or describing anything physically “occult” about it, or having something more than a coincidental location of a place named after someone who was a fan of someone who was involved in the “occult,” i will have disagree it’s spot on this particular list.

  10. take a close look at the lobby and facade of the Chanin Building, and tell me something occult is not going on there! pilgrimages past the former Magickal Childe and Sam Weiser bookstore might also be appropriate, as well as a turn ’round the graveyard of St. Marks Place Church… these were the haunts of OTO and other black-caped clientele, who quietly tapped their silver handled walking sticks and pondered their nocturnal work. Some interesting tidbits on Herman Slater (proprietor of Magickal Childe) found here. Blessed be!

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