Thousands of people walk by them everyday, oblivious to their existence. But you’ll notice them if you’re looking. At eye height, two peepholes covered by sliding metal shutters allow passersby to watch one of the movies playing at IFC Center in Greenwich Village. The two holes look into an actual theater on the ground floor, allowing the peeper to surreptitiously observe the activity taking place inside.
The peepholes on Sixth Avenue might just be one of the city’s best-kept secrets. “It’s something that we’ve never drawn attention to,” said John Vanco, senior vice president and general manager at IFC Center. “It’s just something that people discover or they don’t.” And most people don’t. It’s relatively uncommon for anyone to actually notice the hidden feature on the façade of the old Waverly Theatre, Vanco said. In a city where “speakeasies” and “hidden museums” are written about ad nauseum, the peepholes appear on a Reddit thread and that’s about it.
I discovered them a few weeks ago, when one of my friends pointed them out to me and said her husband, Luis, had showed them to her on a date about a year ago. “I’ve always liked checking it out and showing others when I walk by… It’s one of my favorite places in NYC now,” she said.
The peepholes– which you can see in action by watching the above video– are the handiwork of Larry Bogdanow, the architect who redesigned the Waverly Theatre for IFC after it closed in 2001. “He had a very playful sense of humor,” said Vanco. “And so he liked these easter-egg types of architectural moments, that would make you think or make you smile.”
The peepholes came into existence in 2009, after a ground-floor cafe was converted into theaters four and five. “You know, theater five is a fairly small theater,” said Vanco. “I think it’s actually a lovely place to see a movie, but it was a small theater and we were trying to think of things that could make it special and interesting.”
The IFC Center is the oldest continuing operating cinema in Manhattan, according to Vanco. It opened as the Waverly in 1937, although the building was originally built as a church in the 1800s. The peepholes reference the origins of cinema and nickelodeons from the early 20th century, where for five cents people could walk into a small and simple storefront exhibition space and peer into a lens to see a strip of film.
“It was the way to see movies,” Vanco said. “Before what we all settled on was the best experience, of a big room with projected light reflected back on all of us strangers sitting in seats.”
After speaking with Vanco, I sauntered back to the sidewalk of the IFC Center, leaned against a nearby post and waited. Over the course of a little under an hour, the only people that approached the peephole was a young couple. They looked into the movie being projected for a brief instant (the documentary American Factory) before the sidewalk swept them away.
Later, I approached the peepholes and looked in. The sounds of the street substituted for the audio of the trailer I was seeing—where Keira Knightley plays the part of a badass whistleblower—but I was still startled when a voice up close to my left asked, “What is that?”
I turned around to see a man in his mid-forties wearing a baseball cap and a quizzical look. I explained what I knew.
“I come here all the time. I had never noticed it,” he said, peering into the darkness of theater five. “Oh I was just in that theater. Just saw that trailer!” he said excitedly and added, “Thank you for showing me that.”