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The Unlikely Nightlife Hotspot at United Nations Headquarters

The monthly jazz night at the U.N, Delegates Lounge in New York. (Photo: Raphaelle Guillon)

As the U.N. Security Council wound down its quarterly debate on the Middle East, during which Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon unleashed a new round of scolding on Israel and Palestine for their protracted peace stalemate, worker bees down the hall at the U.N. Delegates Lounge silently arranged armchairs and tables in preparation for the monthly jazz concert.  

Around 6 p.m., the booze-ready U.N. proletariat began arriving. At 6:30, the football-field-sized room on the edge of the East River was a tenth full. Fifteen minutes later, most of the good seats had been taken, as bar-backs whisked a cart of booze past security guards manning a glass turnstile, opened only with a tap of the right ID.

By the time Finn Summerell, chief of the U.N. Yearbook Unit, pulled out his guitar and led his troupe of professional editors in a spirited blues number at 7 p.m., the room was completely full. At the bar, a long-haired, bearded bartender poured pints of Rockaway Brew Company’s ESB–the Delegates Lounge beer of the month.

“During the day, it’s a very calm place to have a coffee and negotiate. At night, it’s a fabulous environment to meet and talk with everyone–all the U.N. entities,” says Stefan, an officer with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DKPO). “Some days, when it’s your job to help achieve the mandate of peace on earth, it’s a requirement to come down, look at the art and relax."

The Delegates Lounge in use in 1964. (Photo: UN Photo)

For a few years, however, the fate of the Delegates Lounge hung in as much balance as any country under the official U.N. Charter.

When the U.N. finished its comprehensive, five-year, $1.9 million renovation in 2013, it considered keeping the lounge closed. The room was a midcentury modern throwback to the Mad Men-era days of unencumbered drinking and smoking at the office–replete with period tapestries, including a 617-pound, 32-foot arras of China’s Great Wall from 1974. Moreover, it encouraged bad behavior, some diplomats said, and they didn’t want to pay for it. 

Nevertheless, in 2013, under much pressure from his courtiers, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon reopened the “Seventh Committee”, as loyalists lovingly call it (an inside joke regarding U.N.’s six working committees), and described it as the place where “we are all leaders with no rigid rules, and we can speak out of order.”

The Lounge was redecorated by Rem Koolhaas in 2013. (Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs The Netherlands/ Frank Oudeman)

Redecorated by Rem Koolhaas at the behest of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the lounge elicited fresh hope of rubbing elbows with the world’s most influential people and offered spectacular vistas of eastern Queens–or “the airport terminal in Amsterdam” as one DPKO official said about the new decor.

But the people came in droves, with Friday nights bringing more and more employees and their friends to mingle alongside the 11th-century Surya Sun God, a 1982 gift from Indira Gandhi, or, at one point, the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. In lieu of the old-school honor system, guards began to issue guest badges to be worn around the neck. With the new passes, came a new rule: no more than four people per employee and only on Fridays.

“The first thing I did after I arrived was drop my bags and head to the Delegates Lounge,” says Daniel, an intern at the Permanent Mission of Colombia, who came to the Delegates Lounge to party after the General Assembly last fall. “I’ve been to the U.N. before, but never when there was reggaetón on the turntables and people dancing.”

Early days: a view of the Delegates Lounge in 1952, the year the U.N. Headquarters opened. (Photo: UN Photo/Walter Ethelbach)

“Do you know how many important people and decisions have been made here?" Nadir Dirar, supervisor of Arabic Editorial and Desktop Publishing, asks rhetorically. Many indeed, including Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama’s grudging agreement to shake hands and get along last September. 

“It’s a historical spot, not just a room, and one of the most awesome ones at that,” says Dirar, a native of Sudan, while sipping a glass of clear liquid.

Yet the Delegates Lounge management has never maintained a borderless state, long refusing entry to most everyone, including Alfred Hitchcock who, in 1959, requested to film the murder scene for North by Northwest there. (Hitchcock reportedly secretly filmed the room during one visit in order to better recreate the set.) 

The Lounge is full for the monthly jazz evenings. (Photo: Raphaelle Guillon)

Toward the end of the 70th General Assembly in December, however–after three months of delegates continuing to break guest rules, of interns drinking too much, and of everyone getting too busy on the dance floor–another Delegates Lounge resolution was passed: two guests per staffer, no interns without a Secretariat ID, and no DJs on Friday nights, unless someone was hosting a party. 

For their part, U.N. workers are supposed to have better nightlife options than just hanging out in their admittedly fabulous office watering hole (or the faux-Irish bars dotted along Second Avenue). “If you spend too much time at the DL it means that you have nothing better to do, which is quite sad,” says a political affairs officer. 

“My rule is: go there for one hour, get out at least before 8 p.m.,” she adds. “If you stay there until 10 p.m., it is ridiculous. Everyone definitely gets drunk and then, you just go home alone–or with someone you picked up.”