John Williams Campbell was, as his wife once said, “a showman.” He liked things big and splashy. Like his office.
Born in Brooklyn, Campbell never attended college. Instead, in 1898 at the age of 18, he entered his father’s firm, the Credit Clearing House. Little by little he worked his way up until by the 1920s he was president of the company and was appointed to the board of the New York Central Railroad.
Through the railroad appointment, he rubbed elbows with William K. Vanderbilt II whose office was in Grand Central Terminal. Most likely through this friendship Campbell first saw the vacant office space at the southwest corner of the terminal.
The immense office, then the largest ground floor space in the city, was 1800 square feet -- 60 feet long by 30 feet wide -- its walls rising 25 feet to the ceiling. It was the sort of office that would impress.
Campbell signed the lease in 1923 and commissioned Augustus N. Allen to transform it. When Allen was done, Campbell had a Florentine palazzo fit for a doge. A mixture of complimentary styles – Romanesque, Renaissance and medieval – the space made the intended impact.
Anchoring one end was a huge stone baronial fireplace (which hid a steel safe). Leaded glass windows admitted light and the wooden ceiling beams were hand painted in brilliant colors. There was a mahogany musician’s gallery with carved quatrefoil designs, a pipe organ, a baby grand piano, 19th Century Italian furniture (pretending to be 13th Century), and Campbell’s overpowering desk.
More impressive than the $1 million art collection lining the walls was the custom woven Persian rug that covered the entire area. The carpet cost Campbell $300,000 in 1924 – an amount that would translate to between $3 and $4 million today.
Along with the large bathroom there was a kitchen. From here Campbell’s butler, Stackhouse, prepared lunch and saw to his boss’s needs. Because Campbell despised wrinkled trousers, he removed his upon entering the office, hung them, and worked behind his huge desk pantless.
After working hours, Campbell would often invite up to 60 guests for private recitals by renowned musicians. John Campbell kept his office until his death in 1957.
Things went downhill from there.
The railway took over the space, initially for a signalman’s office. Later the Metro-North Commuter Railroad police used it to store their equipment, stowing guns in Campbell’s curio cabinet. The Persian carpet disappeared, the furniture was taken away, and little-by-little the magnificent office lost its magnificence.
A dropped ceiling was installed below air conditioning ducts and industrial fluorescent lighting fixtures were hung. The railroad police set up a small jail at one side. Through it all, the main elements remained – the grand fireplace, the painted beams beneath the fake ceiling, and the leaded windows hiding behind plywood boards.
In 1994 a $100 million restoration of the Terminal was initiated and the doors to John Campbell’s former office were finally opened by someone who was not merely looking for storage space.
A restoration of the old office began in 1999. $1.5 million later, the timbered ceiling was restored, the windows were uncovered and the sumptuous space gleamed again. Renovated into a posh bar called The Campbell Apartments, its integrity was sympathetically preserved.
In 2007 bar owner Mark Grossich decided to spruce up the well-used space and commissioned London-based interior designer Nina Campbell to redesign it. Grossich spent $350,000 to re-do the color scheme, replace the furniture and carpeting. The entire project was completed overnight, precluding the need to close the bar for even one day.
John William Campbell’s former lavish office is now an equally lavish hide-away for New Yorkers to relax -- a sumptuous reminder of Jazz Era excess.