Panic Rooms of New York

On March 29, Jodie Foster opens in a film about a recently divorced mother who picks up and leaves tranquil Greenwich, Conn., with her daughter for a state-of-the-art townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. On their very first night under their new roof, three violent intruders break in, and mother and daughter scramble into a small, airtight concrete cell-a Panic Room , the film’s title calls it-where, as they wait for help, their nightmare continues for another hour and a half on-screen.

But in a genuine “safe room”-as these rare but very real top–secret Manhattan bunkers are called by security experts, who have been building them for rich, high-profile clients on and around Fifth Avenue for several years-the plot is supposed to go something like this: If someone breaks in, the owner retreats to a room no larger than 12 feet by 12 feet, reinforced with steel and bulletproof, with a magnetically locking door that seals itself with 1,800 pounds of pressure.

Inside, there’s an independent phone line, a back-up generator, an “oxygen scrubber” to replenish the air supply, as many as 16 closed-circuit television screens connected to hidden cameras outside and inside the home, and a computer with a kind of joy stick with which to lock and unlock doors throughout the house so that the perp is the one who finds himself trapped.

Security executives who are confidentially installing safe rooms in some of Manhattan’s most expensive residences say their clients pay a lot of money to feel superior to their wildest anxieties and darkest fears: burglars, stalkers, even kidnappers. “It’s a very serious room,” said Karl Alizade, president of City Safe Inc., a Farmington, N.J., company that has designed and installed several safe rooms in the city. “It’s a command center and an attack room-it’s not a hideout.”

To sell tickets to the Hollywood version, however, screenwriter David Koepp said he had to take some liberties and make hay off the wealthy, neurotic Manhattanite. “I made up the term ‘panic room’ …. Safe Room didn’t sound like a compelling thriller,” he said. “If they’re safe,” he said of the movie’s protagonists, “why should I go?”

Not long after reading some accounts of safe rooms in California, Mr. Koepp, who also wrote the screenplays for Jurassic Park and the upcoming Spider-Man , moved into an Upper West Side brownstone with his family. “We were remodeling, and I spent so much time there and with the infrastructure of the house,” he said. “Four stories of narrow house seemed like a great setting for a thriller.”

When he finished a script and it had gone out to several studios, he said, “I started hearing a lot from Hollywood types-things like, ‘Oh, so-and-so has a safe room; this person has one,'” he said. But he wouldn’t name names. “You don’t want to advertise your panic room-it’s like a bomb shelter.”

Mr. Koepp added, “Think about how paranoid you have to be to have one of these.”

Bob Leonard, the owner of Detective Store International on Christopher Street and a security specialist who worked Liza Minnelli’s wedding, said his clients “have a reason to be nervous. They have pictures on the walls that cost a million dollars, rings in their drawers that cost another million, and they usually can’t fight worth a damn.” He describes the couples that come to him as “40-year-old yuppies.” They live in townhouses and fancy apartment buildings on or near Fifth Avenue. If they aren’t rolling in Wall Street dough, they’ve inherited millions. Some feel they are kidnapping targets, and they come to Mr. Leonard asking for a way to protect themselves in their homes. If they’ll spend the money, Mr. Leonard suggests they install a safe room. “If you had millions and millions of dollars and are living in Manhattan,” he said, “why wouldn’t you?”

Mr. Alizade, whose safe rooms start at $400,000, said, “It isn’t even celebrities that we build this type of room for. This is for the super-rich and heads of major corporations; it’s a whole different level. This is for people who have to deal with the threat of kidnapping and extortion.”

Anne Snee, the head of the townhouse division of the Corcoran Group, knows of two safe rooms in Manhattan. “They are for a very specialized segment of the market,” she said. “It’s mainly captains of industry who perhaps have dealings that are, shall I say, different than anyone else’s.” One of the safe rooms, said Ms. Snee, “was a separate room constructed so that nobody would find it; it was literally hidden in the wall. You would think it would be in the basement-and this particular basement was reinforced-but the safe room was on the top floor. It wasn’t huge and it wasn’t finished when I saw it, but you could tell it was going to be state-of-the-art.”

A similar type of security-control room is being planned by a developer who just signed a $5 million contract to buy a town house at 129 East 73rd Street, said broker Richard Steinberg of Ashforth Warburg Associates. After renovations, some of the features that will be controlled from a secret basement room will be “hidden cameras throughout the house and wiring so that you can hear what is going on in every room.”

The safe room is the cr