Touring the False Facades of New York City

A Tour of New York City's Fake Buildings Carousel image: 2012 Matt Green/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ; Video: HowStuffWorks

City-dwellers don't want to be reminded they live in an industrial wasteland. Appearance is everything, right? But the metropolitan landscape isn't all brownstones and charming local shops. There's an infrastructure that keeps cities running, and it can be an eyesore. Fortunately, we humans are pretty ingenious creatures. The solution: fake buildings. And New York City is full of them.

These false facades are masters of disguise. Sometimes they look like townhomes, complete with windows, stairs, doors and balconies. And sometimes they're repurposed facilities, like the Strecker Memorial Laboratory on Roosevelt Island, which you can check out in the above video. But their exteriors belie their contents — inside, the machines that power the city's energy and transportation systems are busy working. The buildings house ventilation shafts, electrical substations and emergency tunnels (because the zombie apocalypse is sure to start in New York).


The Big Apple isn't the only place you can find these deceptive fronts. There's a cover-up for a substation in Toronto. A ventilation chimney hides in plain sight in Paris. In Chicago, an imposing limestone and black granite building topped with an art deco carving shelters one of Commonwealth Edison's substations. It's not all fashion before function, though: The buildings make it harder for thieves to access valuable materials, like copper, inside.

There are some telltale signs of these structures' alter egos. The windows may be covered. The doors may not open or may be made of heavy-duty metal. And oh yeah, sometimes they don't have roofs. So maybe their disguise skill level is more Groucho glasses than Clark Kent. But that's OK — they're still pretty cool, inside and out.