Friday, May 25, 2012

The Barely-Recognizable Shell of Whyte's Restaurant -- No. 145 Fulton Street

Whyte's Restaurant as it appeared in 1910, one year after opening -- Architecture and Building (copyright expired)
In 1904 Edward E. White and his son, Frank H. White, came to New York from St. Louis where they had learned the restaurant business.  The native Ohioans had set their sights on making it big in New York City.   Four years later their plans were set.

At Nos. 143 and 145 Fulton Street in Manhattan’s busy financial district sat an old printing house building which was available for lease.  On New Year’s Eve, 1908 Edward White signed a 21-year lease on the property and The Sun announced that he would “tear down the present structures and erect on the site a three story building which he will occupy as a restaurant.”

It would not be just a restaurant, however.  The Whites envisioned a high-class eating establishment on a par with the nearby Delmonico’s.   They hired architects Clinton & Russell to design a building with character and charm that would attract notice.

On May 8, 1909 The Sun reported on the filing of the plans “of modified old English design” at a projected cost of $50,000.   In 1909, with modern skyscrapers rising skyward all around, the short, quaint cottage would, indeed, be eye-catching.  The owners modified their name with a “Y” to be more in keeping with the old English theme.

The building was completed within the year and Architecture and Building called it “a quaintly attractive little building, designed in extremely good taste.”

Architectural Review 1913 (copyright expired)
Looking more, perhaps, like a Swiss chalet than a Shakespearean cottage, the façade was half-timbered with colorful paintings within the stucco panels.  The many-paned windows were deceptively expansive and a charming planted window box stretched along the second floor.

Inside, the main floor featured the gentlemen’s dining room with the long oak bar and its well-shined brass spittoons.    The Times would later recall that “Whyte’s strove to retain an Old-World aura, with its dark paneling [and] gilt-framed portraits.

The main dining room in 1913 -- Architectural Review (copyright expired)
Also on the ground floor were the rathskeller and a cafe.  The ladies’ dining room was upstairs, as was the kitchen.  The top floor was given over to the bakery and storerooms.

The nearly-male only population of the daytime Wall Street area resulted in few feminine patrons.  Decades later a manager would insist that women were never banned “unlike other restaurants of its type.”  He added “I think it was the bar right in the dining room that may have discouraged them.”

The Ladies' Dining Room on the 2nd Floor -- Architecture and Building 1910 (copyright expired
Nonetheless, diners of both sexes raved about the American fare offered by Whyte’s.    Eating at Whyte’s was more expensive than most other restaurants—except Delmonico’s—but it was worth it.  The menu of seafood, steaks and freshly baked pies was famous throughout the city.  It became a favorite watering hole for executives and a luncheon meeting place for politicians, businessmen and stock brokers.  Throughout the 1910s the New York 7th Infantry Regiment met every Tuesday in the summer months and it was a favorite venue for honorary dinners and celebrations.

The New York Times remembered, decades after the opening, that “The restaurant’s specialty of the house was finnan haddie, but some long-time aficionados said that the homemade rum-raisin ice cream was Whyte’s chef d’oeuvre.

Judge Edward Weinfeld might have taken issue with that, however.  In his autobiography he reminisced “We would leave and go over to Whytes, a famous restaurant on Fulton Street.  I remember exactly what I would have.  I think Lillian did, too:  the most delicious cold salmon you ever tasted, the finest blueberry pie just oozing with blueberries and juice—no gelatin or anything like that—and iced coffee.”

1918 was not a pleasant year for Whyte’s restaurant.  With the war raging in Europe and rationing in effect, the Federal Food Board instigated a ban on wheat flour.  Restaurants were required to use a wheat substitute known popularly as “Victory Mixed Flour.”  Whyte’s didn’t.

On June 6 the restaurant was found in contempt of the ban when it was found using wheat flour in its Vienna and French rolls.  A violation notice was posted on the restaurant.

When investigators returned they found that Whyte’s continued to use the banned flour.  The New York State Food Commission ordered the bakery portion of the restaurant to be closed for three days and gave an ultimatum:  close the restaurant for seven days or pay a fine of $1500, payable to the American Red Cross.

Frank White blamed the violation on “an Austrian baker” whom he had subsequently fired.  The baker contended he had never been instructed to use the substitutes.   On June 10 Frank White made out a check to the American Red Cross for $1,500 to keep his business open.

That same year Edward White died.  The ownership of the restaurant went to his widow, Mary, and her four sons, including Frank.

The restaurant had another turbulent year in 1920.  It started in February when J. J. Mullan walked into Whyte’s for lunch.  Passing the hat check boy, he was escorted to a table and one of the “captains” helped him remove his overcoat and hat.  The waiter then hung them on a hook nearby.

When Mullan was finished with his meal, he asked the waiter for his hat and coat.  Only the hat was still hanging on the hook.

The enraged diner insisted the restaurant was to blame.  The restaurant insisted that it was not.  The issue ended up in court.

Happily for Whyte’s the judge ruled in its favor.  “We are dealing with a subject that is a matter of everyday experience with most of us, a commonplace of life in a large city, and we know that restaurant managers do not, and in the nature of things cannot, station employees to stand guard over coats and hats, unchecked, and hung on hooks about the room.  Even if there were such watchers, they would not know which coat belong to a given guest.”

The judge added that coat checks were there for a purpose; one which Mr. Mullan chose not to use.

Later that year Frank White had his fill of his union wait staff.  In addition to their average wage of $50 a week, the waiters were given three free meals per day.  And yet on August 17 they threatened to strike.

So Frank White fired them all.

“I will not be run by Bolsheviki,” he told a reporter from The New York Tribune.  “These men have been trying to run the restaurant for a year.  They wanted us to take back one of the men and we agreed to do this.  They wanted us to discharge our head waiter and we told them we’d keep him and let them go.”

White added “The men seemed to be swayed by the advice of some Bolshevik Russians among them.”

In March 1929 the Whites decided to move the restaurant uptown.  “On March 23,” reported The Times, “The Whytes, Inc. proprietors of the Fulton Street place, will open a new modern restaurant at Fifth Avenue and Forty-third Street, where they will introduce dancing at the dinner hour.”

The mammoth Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Fifth Avenue was slated for destruction in May, to be replaced by the Empire State Building.  A group of its employees banded together to buy the Fulton Street restaurant.

The Times said that Whyte’s, “for many years the dining place of businessmen and city officials of downtown New York, is not to pass out of existence, as recently reported, but will be continued under the name of Woolley’s.”  The three top managers would be Sherman E. Woolley, the steward and purchasing agent of the Waldorf; George Lucas, the Waldorf’s assistant manager; and head waiter Theodore Meyer of the Waldorf’s men’s café.

Despite the vast experience of the managers, the venture failed.  On August 17 that same year Woolley’s sold its lease.  Before long, Whyte’s Restaurant was back on Fulton Street.

Although Frank H. White—the real force behind Whyte’s Restaurant—died on Christmas Eve 1943; the restaurant kept on.  It was by now a Wall Street institution and The New York Times raved about its mince pie in 1957.  The food critic called it, in mouth-watering terms, “a triumphant of bakery, full of apples, currants, fruit peels and spices as well as raisins.”

Unbelievably, however, in April 1971 Whyte’s was out-bid for its space and was unable to renew the lease.  “We were outbid so fantastically we just didn’t have a chance,” manager George Macris told reporters.  After 66 years in business the quaint chalet that offered superb food to Wall Street moguls, politicians and regular Joes, was forced to shut its doors.  A few of the 150 employees had been with the restaurant for 38 years.  “Some of them cried like babies,” said Macris.

The most regular of customers received a letter or telephone call notifying them of the closure.  Others found a note on the door explaining that a chapter in New York social history had ended.

Clinton & Russell’s charming three-story building was not demolished for a high-rise office building.  Instead the street level was obliterated and today accommodates a discount electronics store and a fast food fried chicken outlet.  The wonderful multi-paned casements were replaced by plate glass sheets and the interiors were gutted for a women’s health spa.  A coat of industrial-colored yellow paint covered the picturesque exterior panels and half-timbering.

Deplorably abused, the little building is barely recognizable today -- photo by Alice Lum
All of this makes the case for saying that, if the building was not demolished, it was quite certainly destroyed.

2 comments:

  1. When will we learn that even secondary structures can be rich with history and experiences that make ones city a better place. The closing of the restaurant, by then a local institution was tragic enough, but further indignity occurred when the structure was modernised for the cheap retail/commercial establishments now located there. Another piece of the cities soul was destroyed.

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    Replies
    1. My great grandfather was a chef in that restaurant.

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