The Sloane House YMCA – Infernal Machine

I posted this archive as a sort of anniversary. I won’t say how many years as it’s embarrassing or difficult to acknowledge that much time going by. I think back to Sloane and the place itself sort of STOOD OUT OF TIME anyway.

The 1600 rooms of the Sloane House YMCA were located at 356 West 34th street just below Hell’s Kitchen near 9th ave in New York. It’s right above B&H Photo now. The School of Visual Arts dorms were there along with other schools like Parsons and NYU. The building also had floors that functioned as a hostel and a notorious 5th floor that was a long term S.R.O. (Single Room Occupancy). S.R.O.s don’t really exist now in NYC the way they did then.

The history of the YMCA went back to the 30s where it was for ethical Young Christian men striking out in the big city. Soldiers stayed there extensively during the war. By the 70s it became a cruising backdrop for gay culture. It was sold in 1993 for 15 million dollars and now houses “luxury” rentals. This makes me laugh hysterically. I guarantee there are still certain restless vibes. If those people only knew what went on there.

The building itself is structured around a figure 8 with these two very large pits that went down more than ten floors. Most of the rooms were about 7 x 11 with a window. The hallways were similar to train corridors in garish fluorescent light. Some more luxurious rooms in the corners actually had sinks.

In my time there people used to throw everything imaginable out the windows into the pits, particularly at the end of the school year. If you were very unlucky and lived on the transient fourth floor for students and your room faced the pit, you were subject to rats, massive roaches and reputed dead bodies mixed in the trash.

"Meeting of the American Jules Verne Society June 18th 1941"

As a Freshman direct from NJ, I showed up for the semester with a portfolio in late August and paid about $200 a month for the accommodations. The lease was hard to get out of and I can’t remember if it was paid in advance. I do remember being stuck there for a second year because I couldn’t break the lease. But I graduated up to a sink that year with more space.

Ad found by Ephemeral New York from the 30s.
lounge circa 60s maybe
Vintage room from the 60s.

As a resident of that first end of summer night, it became wildly apparent that hundreds of young artists and creators were now suddenly your very close neighbors. It was an excitement the boring hollow suburbs could never provide for me. This included people who created sculpture, paintings, music, film, comics and writing. These passions crossed over and were a strong influence day to day. It was all doing and fearless nervous action. There was something profound at the possibilities of that community and being eighteen or nineteen. Also there was the pure energy of late 80s NYC shadowed with the epidemic of crack and the days of AIDS in the background.

Being that, young people consistently got into trouble or explored areas they had no right being in. Because Sloane was a block and half away from Madison Square Garden, there was always an influx of style, drugs and attitude when something like the Grateful Dead would travel into town for a few days. It was almost what I’d imagine the center of an ever changing ancient Rome to be like.

There were a series of jumpers from the higher floors who were always supposedly confused hostellers from foreign lands. On some occasions a body would hit a flagpole on the way down and bounce around before landing on the sidewalk.

On other occasions, I remember buses pulling up at the 34th street door and mental patients being off loaded to their new home. Somehow the concept of Sloane as a halfway house is perplexing as it wasn’t located in any real reality.

One of my favorite experiences was co-creating a space called the Mood Room on the tenth floor in Jason C.’s studio. It was like a late late night lounge and we kept the key hidden above the door, so if you knew where it was, you were in. Somehow a bunch of us managed to transport about eight old TVs, carrying them like a line of ants, from the Sloane trash back upstairs and created a wall of screens. The guards let us because we told them it was for an “art project “ as was everything. The stack of TVs didn’t pick up any signals but some displayed a comforting static blue glow or just a dot. We also found some patriotic street chair on 23rd street that had E Pluribus Unum written all over it with eagles and carried it back. Within the Mood Room we would leave this all night AM radio show on called Danny Styles. He played thousands of old eerie 78s which fit the middle of the night setting of Sloane remarkably well. Too well in fact. I remember noticing that the guard desk downstairs listened to the same station in the middle of the night. The ghosts apparently liked that music.

There was also a large pear shaped guy named Elmo who used to waddle around all the floors in circuits stepping over inebriated students in the hallways to check the security keys in every corner every twelve hours. I wrote a song about him.

We explored the structure of the place from top to bottom; from the roof to the sub-basement which was 4 spooky floors down. Our curiosity was infectious. Hopefully some of these pictures and videos are evidence of that 30s industrial strangeness. Inexplicably broken and decaying sub machines and valves in the bowels serving some larger infernal machine.

I remember one particular incident with Marc A. where we discovered a room in back of the basement laundry that was unlocked. He strangely had a pith helmet on ready for an adventure. This was where they kept all the lost luggage and mystery boxes from decades ago. We spied an entire defunct church organ, but before we could get near it a freaky man who was lying on a hospital bed!? sat up out of nowhere like a Frankenstein. We ran laughing frantically, slamming the gate behind us, our lives spared.

Another intriguing character I never would have met otherwise was this crazy cat from Japan named Koji Kaia. We used to sit around and eat rice cakes with seaweed and drink Jack Daniels in his room. I remember him always THERE as he couldn’t go all the way back to Japan for the holidays. He was also nocturnal and would be up all night giggling as he drew on the blank message paper tacked to my door. The bi-product was a mini comic called “Cows Have Their Own Faces” published within Tuna Casserole that was an incredible anthology of SVA people produced at Sloane.

There are far too many stories. I am just scratching the grimy funky surface. I still regret to this day not doing a formal documentary going from room to room, studio to studio interviewing everyone for 15 minutes. I’m also amazed at how there seems to be so little media about that place in time considering how many visual people there were. I guess it is all in an analog box somewhere.

A Facebook group was set up a while back, and it’s odd to see evidence of people who probably lived in my room years before me. But items on The Facebook don’t really show in search engines and it could all go away tomorrow. Plus it’s the CIA.

Ah youth, it is a kind of torture to look back upon it knowing it is unrepeatable or you could never withstand and adapt to the madness with the same resiliency today.

A video playlist:

Pianobomb (1:13)
I need More (2:33)
Birdman (2:52)
Mr Lucky – by Bob Turner (3:58)
Good Morning Sloane (6:12)
RND Sloane (8:42)

19 thoughts on “The Sloane House YMCA – Infernal Machine”

  1. Hola. Wow, really was blown away to stumble on your site! Very cool. I also lived at Sloane House (Parsons) for 2 years 1984/85. Strange place. Although pretty wonderful in that there were so many of us art school freaks in one place. Did you ever see the “fire walkers” across the street at the New Yorker Hotel? Or eat at that diner across the street on 9th Ave. -Wasn’t there a bar called “two pubs” or something.. All a blur to me now. Thanks for publishing this. Take care, J

  2. Ha. Thanks for the comment. I remember those firewalkers. I think they were all Moonies from the New Yorker. Yea they finally moved that diner. It was called the Cheyenne. Also the bar Twins is still there on 9th ave. Pretty much exactly the same.


  3. Wow. Nice read. I was an SVA/Sloane resident during the fall of ’89. Was recently researching Sloane House for a paper/presentation I am working on about memories.

    My personal experience with a jumper hitting the flagpole on the way down, landing three sidewalk squares in front of me, exploding from the waist down and then dying about a minute later while staring into my eyes from a foot away is etched in my brain for eternity. Don’t know if your time there was before or after mine, but can verify that happened at least once. So bizarre that you actually mentioned that; it wasn’t a search term I used to land on this page.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. That’s so intense! Sorry you had to see that in person. A difficult thing to forget. But these things make us stronger somehow.
    I remember jumpers happening every so often. I was there in ’87 or so but I remember someone talking about after I left too.


  5. Hi Original Poster! I am a current resident at the Sloane, now that it is “luxury apartments”. One of the main things that drew me to the building was it’s rich history as a YMCA house, but I did no real research until I had already moved in. I’ve been here for about two months, and am
    now deep in my research and fascinated with everything I’m finding. I’m a recent college grad and would like to say how envious i am
    of all of you who were able to live here in it’s hey-day. I can attest it is much, much more boring now. I would love if any past residents would share their stories and experiences with me. My email is I am looking to write a research piece, primarily for myself, but potentially to publish and share with the public the rich history of the Sloane. Any and all help would be appreciated. Warm regards, Paulina

  6. Thanks for posting this! I was with Jethro and that (jumper) almost hit us. It was literally one of those, “hey, look out!” moments. It looked like someone threw a carpet out a window. The stories from those days don’t even seem real. Over the course of a school year (1988/89 ?) there were at least one or two other jumpers. At least one was into the pit. An FIT student accidentally fell into the pit from the 7th floor and survived (only 3 floors maybe?). The security guard in the basement laundry room got stabbed something like 27 times, and survived. And at the time I remember thinking: meh, I need to do laundry, and did my laundry. The elevators were so slow I actually wrote a paper about them. (The teacher wasn’t impressed. I didn’t like him either.) The TV lounge watching the first season of the simpsons. The payphone at the end of the hall…

  7. Hi
    I stayed there 1 night in 1980 as an Aussie traveller arrived from England for a trip around the USA. I only have vague memories but thought I might have been in room 770 (?) on the11th floor. Would that be right? About the only things I remember are the lifts, as stated, were very slow . . if they arrived at all. I evetually gave up and went down the stairs. I also remember the handbasins in the communal shower area operated by standing on a pad. I thought the water was coming out by some sensor when you waved your hand under the faucet until I finally reaslised that everytime I stepped forward I was standing on a small pad.

  8. The year I graduated high school – 1976; my friend and I took the bus from our hometown in Pennsylvania to New York City for the New Years Eve celebration in Times Square. We stayed for a few nights at the Sloan House/YMCA. Because of the memories involved, that was probably one of my best overnight stay ever for me. The rooms were tiny, a bunk on both sides of the room and a place to store items at the foot of the cots/beds – all built in. The sheets were crisp and clean, tucked tightly around the bed. Indeed the room was spotless. The bathrooms were down the hall. The place was festively noisy the entire night, because it was New Years Eve. We ate some meals in the cafeteria during our stay. They had great diner specials at a reasonable price. The food was good. My Dad, who was in the military during WWII, and stayed there during his service time, recommended the place. We were given a discount on the rooms because we were members of the Wilkes Barre YMCA, in Pennsylvania.
    I probably stayed at the facility about five times during my high school days. I really cherish the memories from staying there. I plan on seeking out the building just to see it soon. I left a part of my heart at the Sloan House during my high school days.

    1. That’s great. Thanks for that early memory. I like how your Dad stayed there too. Very Cool.
      Ha. New Years in Times Square in 1976ish must have been so different and REAL.


  9. I lived at the Sloane House for a time when I first came to NYC in 1977. It was terrifying. Prostitutes and drug dealers screaming and pounding on the doors. No idea which floor I was on. I had no idea there were college students on some of the floors. Maybe I was on the “hostel” floor. The room itself was fine, the bathrooms awful. But it was the neighbors that freaked me out – at the time a lost starving kid from the midwest with hay in my hair.

  10. I’m an arts student living at Sloane now and it’s been incredible reading about the history. It’s hard to visualize the past when the building is renovated so modern. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

  11. Thanks for the great memories! I, too, lived there briefly in 1979. I was from the midwest, 22 years old, just graduated from college in June and arrived by train in August at Penn Station. My only friend was an ex-girlfriend who shared an apartment on the upper west side with her cousin, a makeup artist. They let me stay one night, but really didn’t have room for me, he suggested the YMCA’s. I first checked the West side Y but they were completely full. I ended up at Sloane house and for a small town boy from Ohio, it was quite scary. But, I was up for an adventure. In fact, I dreamed of living in NYC, since I was about 14, so I figured in a couple months I would become the next Andy Warhol or Richard Avedon. Well, that didn’t quite work out, but I had a good time. I had no idea there were art students there. The people I saw looked dangerous and were there because it was the absolute cheapest place to stay. I think it was $9 a night, back when the cheapest, creepiest Times Square hotel was $45 — so, a good deal if you were broke. So, under $300 bucks a month seemed like a good deal (even though it was 3X my Ohio rent.) Anyway, I had an inside room on the 8th floor with no view unless you got up on a chair and looked down at an angle — so much for the New York skyline I pictured in my dreams… I remember the dark hallways exactly like your photos with the light fading completely from the one bulb to the next. I also remember the communal showers which were dark and filthy and looked like the way prison showers are portrayed in movies. Everyone, seemed unfriendly to me. Mostly, I slept there and walked around during the days enjoying the good things NYC had to offer. Interesting to hear about the hidden rooms and basement. I remember the elevators being very slow and I often took the stairs even from the 8th floor going down. Once and I’m not sure how I did it, but I took a back stairs down and keep in mind each floor door locks behind you as you enter the stairway, so there is no going back. I thought, no problem, I’m going down, anyway. Well, I get to the bottom and the only door is not to the lobby, but a security door to the back alley or something. It had an alarm on it that said don’t open except in emergencies. Well, keep in mind there were no cell phones back then. I walked back up to the next floor door and tried it again, just in case and it was locked. I went up to the next floor and same thing. So, I was trapped and went down and just went out the security door and of course, a super loud alarm went off, but I just kept walking like it must have been someone else. And, technically, it was an emergency, in my mind!
    During this time the word was there was a murder a week in my building. I don’t know if that was true, but certainly believable based on what I saw. I continued my search for a better living space and soon realized any hotel where you talk to a person behind glass through a little hole, was probably not the best or safest. I checked out various apartments in the $325 to 600 range, although $450 was probably my limit back then, considering first and last month’s rent plus deposit would have been my entire life’s savings at the time. I did check out the Chelsea Hotel, which was famous according to folklore, but was a dump for $600 a month, and, again, you had to talk to a person behind glass…I also found similar creepy hotels in Greenwich Village that were out of my price range, as well. Anyway, I ended up moving to the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th which was nicer, in a better neighborhood and felt safer. It was more expensive at $11 buck a night, but I liked it better. I remember there was a student discount offered, but I wasn’t a student and probably was too honest to lie back then. I kept trying to get my foot in the door at certain businesses, with no luck. My dad had a couple connections, but none of those places were hiring. I did apply at Time magazine for a job as a darkroom assistant, which I felt was beneath me, being a college graduate, but I didn’t get the job — just the same, I was amazed that 60 people showed up for a “cattle call” type interview. Same with some of the apartments I looked at, “we’re showing the apartment today at 4:30” and to my surprise 60 people show up for that, too. Usually, I either hated the apartment or couldn’t afford it, but there always seemed to be about half of the group that was interested. Oh well, I certainly didn’t make my mark on the New York art world, but I really enjoyed my time there, seeing the museums, galleries, punk rock, jazz, and eating a bunch of great and unusual types of food. Anyway, after a few months I took the train back home for a visit and decided not to return to NYC. I’ve visited NYC many times in the 40 years since and always try to treat myself to a nice hotel room…

    1. Absolutely great! Thanks for the comment and the history. That was a full decade before the pictures in the post were taken. People get very romantic about 70s NYC and I feel like it’s justified. Goes to show you need very cheap rents for any kind of artistic scene to flourish. Now you just have boring rich people trying to take creative chances. LOL.

  12. I love reading this stuff. I graduated from Ball State U. spring of 1964, and caught an overnight Greyhound from Muncie, Indiana to New York with two matching pieces of Samsonite, a graduation present. I was a singer and planned to take the town by storm. I had saved up $500 to last me until I could find a job. When I arrived at rush hour at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I had no idea where to go. I got a cab and said that I was new in town and need a cheap place to stay. He just said Sloane House YMCA, get in. I checked in to a cubicle sized room on a high floor and showered and went out to see the town on foot. I walked all the way to the Battery, up through lower east side, upper east side, central park and got back to my room around 11 that night, feet nearly bleeding. I fell into my cot-sized bed and was asleep in moments. At some point I was awakened by loud banging on my door, someone yelling open up, New York Police. I thought how the hell did I get in trouble in just one day? I opened the door in my tighty whities and the hall was full of cops. They started shooting questions at me. “Did you hear anything? Did you see anything?” I said I’m not saying a word until you tell me what’s going on. They looked at each other and finally said “Well, the guy in the room next to you either jumped or was pushed.” That’s all I remember as I ran to the window and looked down to see a dead body maybe ten stories or so down surrounded by cops with flashlights. I never found out whether it was jumped or pushed. That morning I headed to Greenwich Village to look for a place. I finally found a horrible hole on Bleeker that was a room with an old sink in the corner and a toilet which looked disgusting. What was worse was that I couldn’t afford it. The landlady advised me to look into apartments to share, so I ended up in a really pleasant place on Columbus at 69th. The guy who rented the apartment was Howard Richardson who was well known as a playwright who had had some Broadway hits. It was four bedrooms (six floor walkup). Howard was leaving for two years in Europe via tramp steamer so I had his room. Pleasant roommates, a singer with Light Opera of Manhattan, an actor trying to make it, and a nurse who kept us supplied with supplies he stole from his hospital job. I was only there a couple of months, before I found a job and could get an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Oh yah, a new lover came with the apartment. The rent on Columbus Ave was 98 a month rent controlled, so we each paid $25 a month in rent. The extra two bucks were for toilet paper and soap for the bathroom. Within three days I got a job singing professionally in the Riverside Church choir, and a month later, a job working for a music publisher. Two years later I started grad school at Columbia University, so I did ok. Glad I didn’t jump…

    1. Thanks Kenneth!!! That story is great. Love how it’s like 1964 and still unexpected and surreal. The rent on Columbus ave is probably now $9800 rather than $98.


  13. It was July 1982, and I was a 19-year-old kid from Texas, my first visit to New York City. Arriving at LaGuardia Airport I stopped off at Travelers AID to ask for any kind of advice for my first time in NY. They recommended The Sloan House YMCA and off I went. After coming up from the subway on 34th street, I attempted to find the Sloan House but with a few heavy bags I gave up and walked into the Penn Terminal Hotel. Upon checking into my room, I peeked out the window and saw the neon lights (it was already dark) for the Sloan House and realized it was just a couple of more blocks, looking the other way I saw the Empire State Building. What a thrill this was for me! I was really in New York City!! Anyway, the next day I checked into the Sloan House and stayed for just under a week. I had a room with a private bath and really enjoyed my stay there and being in NY! Didn’t seem too scary. Took advantage of their events and tour guides. Whenever I visit NY now, I always pass by the former Sloan House YMCA and stare at it in awe.

    1. Ricky Lee Wagers

      I was a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts NYC 1981-1982.

      Sloan House YMCA was their recommended “dorm.”

      Wow. What a time.

      I hailed from Eastern Appalachia, Kentucky.
      …first time on a plane and “YMCA” still playing in my ears.

      New Yirk City !?

      Now, luxury apartments, I see.

  14. I believe I stayed here in August 1978 – my brother and I had both just graduated from UK universities and my father took us on a trip of a lifetime, as it was from Europe in those days. Flew with Freddy Laker’s Laker Airways from Gatwick and as we were on a budget my Dad thought this would be a good choice! We had two rooms but I remember us all sleeping in one room as we were so scared. All we could hear all night were bottles being thrown from on high into the internal courtyard. Hot footed it out of NYC with a car from Sunshine Rent-a-Car after a breakfast of eggs ‘sunny side up’. Despite being old school Cockneys from the East End of London this was a whole new level of human low life. No idea that my son would end up in a luxury penthouse in West 43rd Street 45 yers later and I would become a US citizen. Off to NYC this week so will check this address out – thanks for article as I always wondered where it was. Would anyone like to confirm my distant memories?

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