Sunday, January 3, 2010

And so it ends

Built in 1870, the rural Victorian Gothic structure now known as Tavern on the Green was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould as a sheepfold. It housed 200 South Down sheep, which grazed across the street in Central Park's Sheep Meadow.

It served admirably in that capacity until 1934, when legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses decided the building had a higher calling - that of a restaurant. He was anxious to usurp the prominence of the swanky Central Park Casino, on the opposite side of the Park, which had taken on the moniker "Jimmy Walker's Versailles." It seems the flamboyant mayor was conducting more business there than at City Hall. Alarmed by the possible repercussions for his beloved parks system, Moses sued to oust the casino's management and, eventually, arranged to have the building torn down.

In the meantime, Moses banished the sheep to Brooklyn's Prospect Park and assigned their shepherd to the lion house in the Central Park Zoo. Typically, Moses had WPA workers busy converting the sheepfold long before he made the official announcement of its new function on February 28, 1934.

The first incarnation of Tavern on the Green -- the restaurant -- was launched on October 20, 1934, with a coachman in full regalia at the door. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened the restaurant with a brass key and, in the company of a proud Moses, took a tour of the facility. After chatting with the chef and sampling a breakfast sausage, Fiorello and Moses pronounced their satisfaction with Central Park's newest attraction.

Embraced by New Yorkers as a gathering place and Tavern on the Green quickly became an integral part of the city's summer social life. In the late 1930s the building was taken over by the Civilian Patrol Corps as its headquarters until 1943, when the management of the neat by Claremont Inn on Riverside Drive took it over and renovated it to become a year-round restaurant. By the 1950s, Tavern on the Green was showing some wear and tear and the brilliant designer Raymond Loewy was engaged to renovate the building, yet again -- a process which resulted in the addition of the Elm Room (now the Park Room), named after the tree it wrapped around.

A succession of management companies operated the restaurant until 1962 when Restaurant Associates took it over. By the early '70s, Tavern on the Green was a restaurant no longer in sync with the times, and Restaurant Associates shuttered it in 1974.

Rather than signaling the end of an era, however, its closing was the beginning of an exciting new one for the venerable edifice. Warner LeRoy, the creator of the wildly popular Maxwell's Plum, acquired the lease and embarked upon a spectacular $10 million renovation. Then an unheard of sum to spend on a restaurant. With LeRoy's addition of the glass enclosed Crystal and Terrace Rooms, his lavish use of brass, stained glass, etched mirrors, original paintings, antique prints and, above all, chandeliers, Tavern was reincarnated. It became a glittering palace, Central Park's most spectacular structure.

Hand-hewn rafters re-emerged and the soaring vaulted ceilings above them reappeared after being hidden for decades by pedestrian plaster. The Elm, Rafters, and Chestnut Rooms were paneled in exceedingly rare wormy chestnut. In the Crystal and Terrace Rooms, rustic baroque gave way to flights of rococo fancy.

The reincarnated Tavern on the Green took New York by storm from the moment it re-opened on August 31, 1976. It dazzled the city with its decorative whimsy, its eclectic menu and its playfulness. Tavern, once so "out" that it had to close, was now very "in" indeed. Celebrities flocked to the restaurant to see and be seen. Tavern's size, spectacular setting and radiant charm quickly made it "the" place for New York's most prestigious events - charity and political functions, Broadway openings and international film premieres - a status it retains to this day.

Always a fantastic work in progress, Tavern on the Green underwent yet another renovation in 1988 to expand its popular Tavern Store, relocate the bar, and create the lovely Park Room and Garden.

Subsequently, the beautiful Crystal Garden overlooking the Sheep Meadow was remodeled to accommodate dancing during the summer months. And, in 1993, a celebrated "Menagerie of Topiaries", created by the Hollywood wizards who fashioned the fantastic greenery for the hit film EDWARD SCIZZORHANDS, took up residence in Tavern's gardens.

Three years later, during the summer of 1996, Tavern's treasured topiaries were given another Crystal Garden attraction to keep watch over, a 40-foot bar fashioned from trees harvested from New York City parks. Tavern's Garden Bar gives new life to trees that have died or been cut down for safety or landscaping purposes.

Since LeRoy's death in 2001, Tavern on the Green has continued to thrive under the direction of his daughter Jennifer LeRoy. Under her auspices the restaurant's snuggery of a bar has been redecorated and Tavern's massive 13,000 square foot kitchen is undergoing a comprehensive refurbishment. An employee cafeteria is being installed and the Tavern Store, long a source of unique decorative accessories and gifts for savvy New Yorkers, has been enlarged to showcase LeRoy's own line of fashion accessories, Jenny'z. She has also commissioned new hand-painted murals and installed additional antique treasures to dazzle the eye of the next generation of Tavern diners, while she addresses their palates with new menus by Executive Chef John Milito whom LeRoy recruited in October 2003."

- Tavern on the Green, A History

A few photos of Tavern on the Green, the legendary restaurant in Central Park, New York, New York, which hosted a last dinner on New Year's to ring in 2010 and then closed it doors after serving 500,000 covers a year.

The truth is, like most New Yorker's, I was ambivalent about the place. It had a great view but the food was lack-luster and seemed to always be cold and undercooked. I came along after it had slipped into a substandard abyss; always seeming to me to be my Grandmother's-era tourist destination.

My office held Christmas parties there for a while. It was a nuisance to get to and needed a good dusting, some refined and educated re-imagining, and more than a small dose of elegance and modernity. I can remember wondering to myself what all the fuss was about each year when it came time to get my coat and head over. Even in the days when the design house I worked for did so well we could have put old ham sandwiches and sold out with only days on-hand, we were reminded how lucky we were to even have a Christmas party. More than once person remarked that luck should not be wasted on the food at the Tavern. But it was, and now that it is gone, I am glad I knew it in all of its faux-elegance and cold chicken glory, such as it was.

If you wish to bring parts of Tavern on the Green home, the contents of the now-bankrupt folly will be auctioned off on January 13th. And if you wish to cling closely to the memories and recipes of Tavern on the Green, find the cookbook here.

Indeed, it was as so many noted, a substandard institution never truly showing pride in its status as a legendary New York institution: Nonetheless, it was our substandard institution and speaking only for myself, will be missed.


tintin said...

There have always been people who eat in a restaurant to 'see and be seen' and those who go to a restaurant to eat.

This dump, never the latter, couldn't even hold onto to the former. I have high hopes Harry Cipriani follows.

The Countess of Nassau County said...

Executive Chef Patrick Clark was poised to bring new life to the place, but his all too early passing left a sense of what might have been.

Tintin will likely get her wish, I can only pray that Cipriani doesn't turn it into a catering hall like he shamefully did with the Rainbow Room.

JMW said...

Always sad to see an institution go, even it had long since passed its heyday. Oh, well. Hopefully another establishment will come along and feature wonderful food, yet retain some of the old world glamour of the Tavern.

Karena said...

There are probably a hundred restaurants in the surrounding ten miles.....of all kinds. It is always sad to see a landmark close in any city.


Just a bit more news:

"The LeRoy family was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2009 after losing a bidding war for the lease to another proprietor, Dean Poll, who also owns the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park. Now that the restaurant is closed, its contents will be auctioned off by Guernsey's auction house.

As part of the 20-year license to operate the restaurant, Poll is expected to invest $25 million in renovations.

While maintaining the Victorian historic features of the building, Poll's plan is to incorporate green building technology, as well as replacing the kitchen and electrical and plumbing systems. The renovations, which are expected to take four years, will be conducted in phases so the restaurant can remain open.

Attorney Barry LePatner, who represents Poll, said the new revitalized restaurant will become a popular destination for tourists and New Yorkers alike. "The new incarnation of Tavern on the Green will integrate modern respect with an iconic location and a sensibility that will warm to New Yorkers," LePatner said. "We want more New Yorkers as well as tourists."

LePatner said that while the terms of the lease are still being negotiated with the city parks department and issues with labor unions are still unresolved, Poll's vision is to create a new era. "The game plan is to have one of the biggest creative moments in the history of the city, and bring Tavern on the Green back to its original, enhanced luster."

One issue still unresolved is the name of the restaurant, which the current management estimates is valued at $19 million. The LeRoy family says it trademarked the name in 1981. U.S. District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum is expected to rule on the issue in January.

In the meantime, LePatner said, the city has filed a trademark for "Tavern in the Park," but he said Poll would like to retain the original name and feels it should rest with the site."

The City of New York wasn't making enough money from the lease with the LeRoy's, so when their lease expired they put it up for bids. This is just business, isn't it?
The new lessee will create an absolutely delightfully new "green" space, AND a fabulous new menu.

Any of us who were lucky enough to spend time at TOTG will be happy to know a new incarnation will be returning soon.

EntertainingMom said...

I'm affraid you have the wrong information tintin. Cipriani is not to take over the site of the former Tavern on the Green, but it will go to the proprietor of The Boathouse, also in Central Park. I have high hopes that the restaurant will be reborn, if you will and find a new splendor. Really, Warner's daughter had been running it down ever since she took it over after his death in 2001. The Russian Tea Room survived only 17 months with her inexperience at the helm.

It is terribly sad to see a piece of history, of Americana go away, but I have high hopes for what is yet to come!

columnist said...

I saw the auction catalogue for a sale of some of their items. Sadly, nothing of interest to me, but then I suppose it's not unusual that a restuarant or any hospitality establishment should have very little of intrinsic value. Thanks for your post, which created an interesting background for me.

Julia @ Hooked on Houses said...

Very interesting! I always learn new things on your blog. Really enjoyed the photos of the Seelbach, too.