Each October, the organization known as Open House New York welcomes visitors to hundreds of landmarks within the city’s five boroughs for one weekend. The event celebrates the past, present and future of New York’s architecture and design by opening the doors to these sites, providing educational tours about each spot’s role in the city landscape.
It was back in 2011 when I first discovered this organization. I wasn’t living in the city yet, but was visiting a friend for the long weekend when we stumbled upon one of the sites near Battery Park. I dragged my friend into the site for a full walking tour, and there met a few of the volunteers with the organization. They explained that OHNY is a cultural organization that aims to spread awareness and appreciation of New York’s architecture scene, and as volunteers, they help man individual sites to welcome guests and provide more information on the organization.
Now, as a strong advocate of the arts and culture scenes in my previous homes, I was pleasantly surprised at the dedication these volunteers had towards OHNY, and made a mental note to return each year to continue to support such a fun weekend. That was before I decided to move to the city.
2012 was my first year volunteering with OHNY. I was assigned to the Grand Lodge of Masons in Chelsea, where for four hours I helped welcome tours and direct traffic. 2013 was my second year volunteering, where I helped give tours of an architecture firm in TriBeca.
What I truly love about volunteering for OHNY year after year is sharing in the joy of New York’s history with others. With so much culture on every corner, it can be almost overwhelming to find where to start. I’ve lived here now for three years and have only seen a fragment of the city—and I explore it all the time! But with OHNY, volunteers are placed in one of the hundreds of participating sites, where they are given a chance to not only interact with weekend visitors, but also learn about a location they may have never traveled to before.
This year, I was assigned to LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Air Terminal, a once thriving gateway to the glamour of flight in the late 1930s-early 40s. This terminal was the base for Pan American’s Clipper aircraft, as well as for ‘flying boats’ that could land on both land and water. You can still see the docks where these planes would land outside the windows of the terminal’s restaurant.
Today, the Marine Air Terminal still boasts its original mural in the main lobby, an art deco-style tale of the history of flight, painted by James Brooks in 1940 (a fun fact, in the 1950s, the mural was painted over because of fear that it contained Communist propaganda, but was restored in the 1980s). The terminal is still active, mainly used for Delta’s shuttle flights to Chicago and Washington D.C., as well as for private planes (Joe Biden comes through this terminal when he visits the city, and has famously referred to it as feeling like going through some ‘third world country’). But despite criticism, the terminal is a sight to see, and the employees working there were friendly, helpful, and informative, providing me with all the information I needed to tell the terminal’s story properly.
The other perk of volunteering for OHNY is that you get to skip the lines when you’re not on duty. When you meet up with volunteers and visitors at your site, they always give out information on where they’ve already stopped by, and where they are headed next, so by the end of your shift you usually leave with a list of 50 sites to squeeze in within the hour. I only had Sunday afternoon to explore, so I narrowed it down to one site: The World’s Fair Grounds in Queens, a spot I have always wanted to see.
Bonus: Sunday was also game two of the NCLS championships, with the Cubs playing my Mets at Citi Field, so I had to stop by to give the Mets some luck. They won 4-1!