|photo circa 1898 by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC07UT&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
In 1896 two of Manhattan’s most fashionable eating and catering establishments, Delmonico’s and Sherry’s, were feeling the pinch of competition. The elegant Waldorf Hotel, opened three years earlier conveniently close to the mansion district on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, was the newly favored spot for cotillions and dinners. To make matters worse, the Astoria Hotel (at the time temporarily called the Schermerhorn) was under construction and the combined Waldorf-Astoria would be a formidable threat.
In response both restaurants made plans to move upward along Fifth Avenue—a full ten blocks above the Waldorf. The rival caterers acquired large plots diagonally across from one another on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. On May 3, 1896 The New York Times recognized the intended moves as part of a trend.
“As significant moves as have been made in recent years are those on the part of the restaurant men, Delmonico and Sherry, who have secured corners on Fifth Avenue at Forty-fourth Street for their future places of business. They are trying to follow the northward movement of what may be termed the night life of the city—the life of after the opera and the theatres. Both, too, apparently feel the need of providing for their patrons more elegant and sumptuous surroundings, so as to meet the competition of the Waldorf and the new Schermerhorn Hotel now constructing. Another purpose is probably to be nearer the homes of those to whom they cater. The two establishments right at the edge of the new club centre will help to change the character of the neighborhood most thoroughly.”
Over a year later, on March 17, 1897, architect James Brown Lord filed plans for the new Delmonico’s. Lord had recently completed the monumental Beaux Arts-style Appellate Court building and he was riding a wave of favorable press. The plans called for an eight-story structure of brick, Indiana limestone and terra cotta that stretched 140 feet back along 44th Street.
“The entire front on Fifth Avenue will, on the ground floor, be devoted to the dining room,” advised The Times. “Above will be the ballroom. In the rear of the dining room will be the palm garden, encased by glass partition walls, and back of this, separated only by glass, is the café proper, with a separate entrance on Forty-fourth Street. The main entrance is also on the side street, where there is a private entrance to let into an elevator to the ball and assembly rooms, which may be cut off from the rest of the house.”
Six floors of the building were devoted to the restaurant. The top two floors were income-producing bachelor apartments. Above it all was a roof garden (so popular in days before air conditioning) that would be enclosed by a vault of glass 30 feet high in the winter.
|The roof garden was covered during the cold months -- photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
The land on which the new building would rise was leased to Delmonico by the Havemeyer family. As the building neared completion in 1897, family patriarch Theodore Havemeyer died; throwing into question whether the family would be present at the restaurant’s opening. The Times mentioned on October 31, 1897 “Mr. and Mrs. Havemeyer are in mourning, but their appearance at the public christening of the really beautiful building which that clever young architect, Mr. James Brown Lord, has given New York in the new Delmonico’s, and in which the late head of the Havemeyer house, Mr. Theodore Havemeyer, was so peculiarly interested, would certainly be pardonable and would seem most fitting.”
|The New-York Tribune published a sketch of the new building (copyright expired)|
The Astoria Hotel and the new Delmonico’s were neck-and-neck as the finishing touches were completed and openings planned. But, although the Astoria beat Delmonico’s by about ten days; the elaborate interiors previewed by reporters promised stiff competition. The New York Times said “It is too early for any predictions to be made as to the probably effect upon New York society life of the opening of the new Astoria. Delmonico’s new building, which is now understood will be quietly opened at Fifth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street on or about Nov. 10, without any flourish of trumpets, may compete in the matter of drawing fashionable patronage with the Waldorf-Astoria more than is at present expected, and with music and the permitting of smoking in the palm garden at the dinner hour the new establishment may prove so attractive as to win back the favor which Delmonico’s once held in New York society.”
|The kitchen staff (above) and the wait staff posted in 1902 -- photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
The “informal opening” was held on November 15. Nearly 1,000 guests strolled through the various period rooms. On the ground floor the ladies’ restaurant was paneled in oak and “upholstered in green” and was deemed by a newspaper as “a dainty room.” Also on this floor were the palm garden and the Elizabethan-style café.
|The cafe was done in the "Elizabethan" style -- photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
On the second floor were the private dining rooms “artistically decorated in quiet effects,” according to The New York Times. The Louis XVI ballroom engulfed the eastern half of the third floor and was “lighted by electroliers, screened by a mass of small glass beads.” The woodwork in the 71 by 60 foot room--designed to accommodate 600 persons--was stained green and the walls were covered with rose-colored silk. On the Fifth Avenue side of this level was the “supper room.”
The kitchens, larders, refrigerating rooms, butcher shop and other culinary departments were housed in the two floors below street level.
|Below street level workers in the confectionery department (above) fashion compotes from spun sugar. An army of chefs prepare gourmet foods. photograph by Byron Company from the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
On reporting on the opening of the new building, which it deemed “a good example of the Italian Renaissance,” The Times opined “The opening of the new house marks another epoch in the social history of New York.” The newspaper was correct.
|The ornate banquet room featured two lofts for musicians -- photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
A week later the first ball was given in the sumptuous new ballroom. A subscription dance, the first of four, it was under the patronage of six prominent socialites who dared not to engage the ballroom of Caroline Astor’s new hotel. If there was a question of Delmonico’s holding its own against the mammoth Waldorf-Astoria, the November 25th ball set the matter to rest.
A full orchestra played following the 11:30 supper and a reporter commented that “The dance was most successful, and instead of the 150 guests expected, 190 were present.”
|Across the street to the south were the butcher shop and tavern, the presence of which on 5th Avenue mightily annoyed several New York socialites -- photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894&PN=1#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894&PN=1|
On December 9 Mayor Strong held a dinner here to discuss “the funeral of Old New York.” With the merging of Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 1898; he sent invitations to about 100 prominent citizens, neatly engraved on official stationery, to lay plans for a memorial service to be held in the Metropolitan Opera House.
Reflecting the morose attitude of Manhattan residents concerning the consolidation, he planned a “solemn service.” “In the language of the Mayor,” said The Times, “it will be ‘the funeral’ of the old city, whose life is then to be terminated, not as a result of the ravages of old age, but by legislative enactment.”
|Stenciled, beamed ceilings adorn one of the private dining rooms -- photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894&PN=1#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894&PN=1|
A year later, on Christmas Eve 1898, the New-York Tribune considered Delmonico’s move uptown. “Time has demonstrated, however, that the step was a wise one. Society folk took kindly to the change of site, and with the new building offering exceptional and unusual attractions for dinners, both big and little, it became almost immediately a fad.”
Earlier that year wealthy debutante Josephine W. Drexel had proven that when she raised social eyebrows by throwing herself a lavish ball here. Five hundred invitations were sent for the affair which was held on February 8, 1898; despite Josephine’s formal coming-out in December hosted by her mother.
“The ball was rather unique among the social events of this city,” said The Times, "as it was given by a debutante of the season, and not, as usual, by her mother or other relative, in her honor. Miss Drexel, who conducted the management of the affair herself, was formally introduced to society at a large reception given for her at her mother’s home some weeks ago.”
Josephine booked the 20-piece Lander’s Orchestra and invited the cream of New York and Philadelphia society—“chosen almost entirely from the younger set.” The cotillion began directly after the 12:30 a.m. nine-course dinner. The guest list read like the Social Register, including “Mr. and Mrs. James Abercrombie Burden, Sr., Mrs. William Astor, Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Orme Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. De Lancey Nicoll, Mr. and Mrs. Philip Livingston; who danced among Dahlgrens, Beekmans, Mortons, Kernochans and Schieffelins.
Meanwhile, the Church Temperance Society parked its coffee van outside in the freezing February night air to offer comfort to the rows of coachmen sitting in the vehicles of their wealthy employers.
The bachelor apartments on the upper floors were reserved for only the most fashionable young unmarried men. Among its first residents was the 34-year old widower Thomas Henry French. A dramatic agent and publisher of plays, he took a suite of rooms. Although the often-elitist Manhattan society normally looked askance at theater types; French was a member of the New York Yacht Club, the Manhattan Club, the New York Club and the Lambs. He had managed Madison Square Garden upon its opening and later built the Grand Opera House and the Broadway and American Theatres. The representative of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London; he also managed the Lillian Russell Opera Company.
In November 1902, after living here two decades, French became ill. At 7:35 p.m. on December 1 he died in his bedroom crowded with his business manager of 30 years, his secretary, Dr. J. H. Emerson, personal friends, and the entire staff of his publishing office.
Wealthy diners were frightened just before midnight on August 2, 1903 when the cry of “Fire!” was heard in the corridor. A small electrical blaze had burned for about 20 minutes in the basement engine room before being noticed and by now the faint smell of burning wood was reaching the dining rooms.
“There were 150 men and women in the large dining room on the first floor, and in the café were a number of men,” reported The Times. The guests rushed to the doors; “Many of them did not go through the formality of getting their hats, coats or wraps.”
Although the fire was small, at the height of the confusion it crippled the electrical system, plunging the building into darkness. The tony patrons filed across the avenue to Sherry’s for shelter while the fire department responded.
When the fire was extinguished, some of the customers returned for their belongings and more than 30 waiters scurried about to light candles which they carried in the silver candlesticks of the dining room.
Apparently unperturbed by the excitement, some of the patrons went back to their plates. “By the light of these [candles], the guests who had returned, sat down and finished their dinners,” said the newspaper.
In 1908 the restaurant was incorporated for the first time since its establishment in 1827 by brothers John and Peter Delmonico. Now sisters Josephine and Jeanne Delmonico ran the business. Three years later, as the lease on the Havemeyer land neared expiration, rumors spread that Delmonico’s would move once again.
On August 5, 1911 The Times noted “Delmonico’s has always moved with society as is evinced by the fact that the great-grandmothers of the present social leaders dined at the restaurant in Beaver Street.” However the newspaper put to rest any thoughts that the grand Fifth Avenue building would be abandoned. “But the uptown march of the famous restaurant has been retarded now for at least sixteen years,” it said, and reported that a new lease had been signed.
Earlier that summer, as Manhattan’s millionaires abandoned the city for Newport, Bar Harbor and Long Island, management began redecorating the interiors. Patrons returning for the Winter Season of 1911 would find refurbished dining rooms and new culinary offerings. Managing Director Taupier had spent the summer in Europe “looking up novelties for the coming season of banqueting.”
Tragedy visited Delmonico’s during the parade for the 165th Infantry returning from action in Europe on Monday, April 28, 1919. Bartender Robert Provenzano went to a fifth story window to watch the parade high above the throng that crowded Fifth Avenue. Several bystanders in the crowd looked up to see Provenzano leaning far out of the window, then losing his grip and falling. Shouts of warning went out to those directly below.
Among the parade-watchers was 65-year old Grace Laflin Whitehead of Chicago who was accompanied by her daughter and a friend. “Mrs. Whitehead either was too intent upon the marching columns to heed the cries or did not suspect their portent. Provenzano’s body came down squarely upon her. An ambulance surgeon declared she had been killed outright,” reported the New-York Tribune the following day.
The bartender suffered internal injuries, a fractured skull and broken legs; which proved fatal as well.
It was not the uptown movement of society nor the aging structure that tolled the death knell for Delmonico’s—it was Prohibition. As with so many other hotels and restaurants, the loss of income once provided by the sale of wine and liquor was debilitating. More than once the classy restaurant was raided by Dry Agents in the first years of the 1920s. Finally, on May 20, 1923, nearly a century after its founding, Delmonico’s announced that it would close. The New York Times ran a sub-headline that read “Famous Fifth Av. Restaurant Succumbs to Prohibition.”
“At Delmonico’s last night,” the newspaper reported, “it was said that the lease, which was to run until July, 1927, had been canceled by agreement. The Harriman National Bank, it was said, now located on the opposite corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street, plans to erect a bank and office building on the site of the famous restaurant.”
The Times was acerbic in its assigning blame. Two weeks later it wrote “Prohibition, however, was the finish of the venerable establishment. The typical Delmonico frequenter regarded dinner as a rite and the drinking of choice wines and liqueurs as a semi-public ceremony. The old guard at Delmonico’s was composed of wine connoisseurs. To those who went there it meant something to have a dusty, cobwebbed bottle of Pontet Canet or Chateau Yquem brought on in a little straw basket with its neck tilted at just the right angle and the contents exactly at the temperature of the cellar. The Delmonico patron beamed when he saw a champagne cooler visibly alongside. Delmonico belonged to the days when sauterne or chablis stood guard over the oysters; when ruddy wine came with the redhead duck; and champagne was due with the dessert, and port and cordials or fifty-year-old brandies were borne in with the coffee pot.”
On May 21, 1923 Delmonico’s served dinner guests for the last time. At 9:00 that evening the orchestra struck up “Auld Lang Syne” and the doorman was told to close the doors and admit no one else. One exception was made.
John Lynn had been a patron of the restaurant for decades, since it was located at Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. The 73-year old was determined to be there for the last night and so he laid down in the afternoon for a long nap in his apartment in the Hotel Ritz-Carlton. He overslept.
When the elderly gentleman knocked on the doors of Delmonico’s he was let in. Newspapers reported that “there were a few moist eyes among the diners,” many of whom were prominent in New York society. Talk centered around the long history of the restaurant, which over the decades in several locations had served Louis Napoleon, later Emperor of France; Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Whitier, Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Political and military figures included Ulysses S. Grant, General Winfield Scott, William Seward and Andrew Johnson.
When the lights were turned out that night, it would seem to have been the last entertainment held in Delmonico’s. But there was one more in the future.
|When the above photograph was taken in 1924, the end of the line for Delmonico's was near-- photograph by Wurts Brothers, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWC0C0C&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
In the summer of 1925, as the building was reduced to a pile of bricks and dust, a workman found a rare bottle of wine in a subterranean vault that had been a cellar. The “honest workman,” as described by The Times, turned over the dusty relic.
On August 19 a nostalgic group of stalwart men dressed in dinner clothes gathered in the ruins to consume one last meal at Delmonico’s—including the vintage wine recovered from the cellar. “While bricks and lumber crashed within a few feet of them, fifty men sat down to luncheon yesterday in the ruins of Delmonico’s, at Fifth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street, the last meal under the arrangement of a family which has catered to New York palates for 100 years,” reported The Times.
Among the diners was E. H. Nies, who had started out as a boy in one of the downtown Delmonico restaurants and had risen to assistant manager by the time of its closing. For the occasion he had written a poem, the first verse of which read:
No more the grape with fire divine
Shall light the torch of pleasure gay,
And where the gourmand paused to dine
Hot dog and fudge shops have their day
Despite the demolition going on around the table, the luncheon was served with all the propriety and embellishments of the restaurant’s glory days. “The tables were ornamented with candy made in the shape of flowers, the fruit was served in dishes made of ice with ferns frozen in them, there were plates of dainty sweetmeats, and the soup and chicken and ice cream and coffee were worthy of the name of Delmonico,” said The Times.
When the last sip of champagne was gone the 50 gentlemen left the ruins of Delmonico’s. The “social epoch in the history of New York” that began with the opening of the restaurant’s doors 28 years earlier was over.
|photo by Alice Lum|