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Inside a Manhattan Bar’s Surprising Feminist History

The newly opened Ophelia’s chic-yet-eclectic interiors are as fascinating as its backstory

Located on the eastern perimeter of the skyscraper-dense Midtown East, the Beekman Tower is an Art Deco gem hiding in plain sight. Given its peripheral location across from the U.N., the tower may be obscure to most New Yorkers, especially since the 2012 departure of its rooftop space’s previous tenant, the Top of the Tower bar. But with the arrival of penthouse lounge Ophelia earlier this month, Beekman Tower—and its surprising feminist roots—are having a moment in the sun.

In 1928, widow, suffragette and burgeoning real estate entrepreneur Emily Hepburn opened the 26-story development as the Panhellenic House—a residence for young sorority women entering the workforce (Hepburn herself was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma). Ophelia, co-developed by Merchants Hospitality (the muscle behind Playboy Club NYC, Philippe Chow, and more) and the female-led branding and design firm Public Agenda, pays homage to the building’s original tenants—and their place in early feminist history.

“We wanted to look at the women who lived [in the Beekman] and what their lives were like,” says Public Agenda cofounder Laura Mueller-Soppart. “And to understand the duality of the building during that time, especially in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” she adds. “Often times in women’s residences, [rooms]  were paid for by companies they were working for. Yes, you were surrounded by women in this building, but you were also being asked to live there and often not truly there by choice.”

Ophelia (a reference, of course, to Hamlet’s iconic yet shape-shifting heroine) reflects that duality both in name and in its visually eclectic style. “The building itself is definitely art deco architecture, what came after art deco was art nouveau,” explains Mueller-Soppart. “The difference between those was moving from a fascination with machines to a fascination with nature.” Indeed, the lounge, with its jewel-bright blue walls and organic accents (potted plants, romantic cathedral windows), may recall its namesake’s watery grave as depicted in John Everett Millais’s famous painting.

But the space also recalls comparatively happier times in feminist history. Working with a specialty curator, Public Agenda tracked down postcards once used by the Beekman’s young female residents, then inlaid them in the 24-foot, pewter-cast bar. “One postcard has a picture of the building on the front and was written by a woman who lived [here] in the 1930s. And to see that and read that and hold that and to know that it came from here is such a cool, special reality now that it’s back in the space,” says Mueller-Soppart.

With Ophelia’s cool-toned palette, it’s hard not to be reminded of Millais’s ethereal, solemn painting. But with its vibrant interior accents (to boot: two stuffed peacocks, one male and one female) and a cocktail menu of refreshments like “Purple Tuxedo,” “Pain Killa” and “The Flapper,” this arcadia in the sky certainly offers more exciting methods for drowning your existential dread.