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.


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