Monday, August 15, 2016

A Landmark Lost -- Luchow's German Restaurant, No. 110 E 14th Street




On October 26, 1938 when Berenice Abbott took this photograph, Luchow's was a startling anachronism along busy 14th Street.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In April 1892 George Huber hired German-born architect Jobst Hoffmann to enlarge his Prospect Garden at Nos. 106 and 108 East 14th Street.  The old stable behind the property was demolished and the 14th Street building was extended to the rear.  Hoffman’s $5,000 plans included “interior alterations, being part of a hotel and summer garden.”

Huber’s Prospect Garden was a bit different from the typical Victorian pleasure garden.  The open-air rear area was, in fact, a bier garten, and the music would have been provided by German bands.  The respectable hotel-restaurant-saloon complex catered to the residents of Little Germany.

Next door, at No. 110, was another German restaurant-saloon, known as Luchow’s.  Within a few years August Luchow would expand to the east and the west, absorbing both No. 108 and 112.

No. 110 East 14th Street had been the small Von Muehlbach Restaurant in 1879 when August Guido Luchow arrived in New York from Hanover, Germany at the age of 23.  The young man found a job with von Muehlbach, and just three years later bought out his employer in 1882.  The New York Times would later recall that he “shortly afterward began enlarging the business…It soon became widely known for German cooking and beer.”

The 14th Street neighborhood was not only part of the German community; it was New York’s theater district.  Nearby was the Academy of Music—Manhattan’s premier opera venue before the Metropolitan Opera House—the German-language Irving Place Theatre, and several other theaters.  Luchow’s exceptional German cuisine, wines and imported lagers drew some of the most celebrated names of the day.

The Times wrote decades later “many famous singers were patrons of the restaurant.  Anton Dvorak, the Bohemian composer, was one of the many musicians among its clientele.  Caruso was a frequent customer, going there for caviare [sic] of which he was very fond.  Chaliapin, the Russian opera singer, was another.  Colonel Roosevelt often dined there, and German sea Captains whose vessels stopped here were regular visitors.”

Among the staples on the menu were boiled beef with horseradish sauce and roast goose livers, introduced in 1882.  Another was pigs knuckles, which Enrico Caruso always ordered; and “Diamond Jim” Brady’s favorite, sauerbrauten.

Among the dining rooms was the Nibelungen Room -- postcard from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
A splendid example was the farewell dinner held in a private dining room here on the afternoon of April 17, 1896.   Polish opera stars, brothers Jean and Edouard de Reszke, and Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski, were feted by noted New York Germans, including the Steinway brothers.

The 24 guests sat down to dinner at 1:00 and the gathering went on into the evening hours.  A newspaper account the following day said “Paderewski not only played solos, but he also accompanied the singing of the de Reszkes, and made an address which proved him to be a raconteur of much merit…William Steinway kept the party in continual laughter with his funny stories and his pleasant sallies at the three guests.”

By the turn of the century Luchow had acquired the flanking properties and in May 1900 he commissioned architects Julius Kastner & Son to make alterations to the “brick and stone restaurant.”  It is possibly at this time that the unified six-bay façade which became an unofficial New York landmark was installed.  The two floors above the restaurant front of plate glass and multi-paned transoms featured ambitious stone window surrounds, bowed balconettes, Ionic pilasters and a neo-Classical frieze.  A balustraded parapet crowned it all.

August Luchow opened a restaurant in the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, the Alt Nurenburg; and another in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, named the Tyrolean Alps.  It was at the St. Louis Fair that he purchased the huge painting “The Potato Gatherers” by Swedish artist Auguste Hagborg for the 14th Street restaurant.

A long-time employee would later explain that although Luchow purchased most of the oil paintings in the restaurant, he “wasn’t a great devotee of art.”  As for "The Potato Gatherers," floor manager Ernst Seute pointed out “He bought it because it was just the right size to cover one wall of the restaurant.”


An early 20th century postcard highlighted "The Potato Gatherers."
Patrons at Luchow’s were expected to maintain the demeanor of the high-class establishment.  So when William O’Connor entered the restaurant with a friend around 11:30 on Sunday morning, August 8, 1909 wearing neither a collar nor a tie and “in a generally disheveled condition,” Manager Miller took notice.   He watched closely, not wanting to excite the nearly 100 other patrons at their tables.

O’Connor called a waiter over and ordered two drinks.  He was told that drinks were not served on Sundays without meals and “that, besides, he would not be allowed to serve any one who didn’t have on a collar and necktie.”

O’Connor flew into a fury, yelling “I’ll be served here or I’ll know the reason why.”  He then approached the bar, pulled out a revolver and, waving it in the air, announced “I will have the drinks.”

More than a dozen waiters ran into the street looking for a policeman and well-dressed patrons raced “panic-stricken,” according to a newspaper account, out the door.  Manager Miller later explained “He looked to me as if he had been drinking.  He was undoubtedly in a highly excited state.”

And then O’Connor surprised everyone by revealing he was an off-duty policeman.  “To impress us further he then showed his badge and again, demanded drinks.”

When four policemen responded to the restaurant, O’Connor showed them his badge.  Rather than arresting O’Connor, the cops took in head waiter Charles Kuhner and three other waiters.  O’Connor’s story was that he attempted to arrest the waiters for serving alcohol on Sunday, and they attacked him.

The Lieutenant at the desk was at least slightly suspicious, asking O’Connor why he was attempting to make an arrest out of uniform, off duty, and outside his precinct.  The New York Times reported “O’Connor mumbled something which could not be understood.”

After doing a bit of investigative reporting, The Times noted “O’Connor was formerly a detective attached to Inspector Walsh’s staff.  About three months ago he drew his revolver in a Harlem saloon, and as a result of that episode was reduced to a patrolman and sent to the MacDougal Street Station.”

In the meantime, word of the episode reached August Luchow who was enraged.  “The management of Luchow’s threatened last night to take the case against O’Connor to police Commissioner Baker,” wrote The Times on August 9.

Several weeks later William M. O’Connor received his punishment from Police Headquarters.  The editor of The New York Times was appalled.   On September 17 the newspaper reported “Much surprise was expressed around Police Headquarters yesterday over the announcement that Deputy Commissioner Stoven had let off William M. O’Connor, the policeman who on Aug. 8 was one of the principals in a fight in Luchow’s restaurant, with a mere fine of ten days’ pay, amounting in all to about $38.  The general opinion seemed to be that O’Connor was mighty lucky not to be dismissed from the force.”

At the time August Koehler ran an internationally-known restaurant in southern France.  The Sun called him “a skilled chef and restaurateur” and said “The fame of this caterer to traveling bon vivants spread across the ocean.”  August Luchow offered Koehler a somewhat bizarre business deal in 1909.

Neither Luchow nor his sister, Olga, was married.  According to Koehler, August Luchow wrote him saying “If you will marry my sister, sell out your business in Europe, move to New York and help with your services, knowledge and effort in my business, out of the net profits you will receive 20 per cent.”

Koehler agreed and immigrated to America.  On February 27, 1909 he married Olga in Jersey City.  Things went smoothly—for a time.  Well enough that in 1912 Luchow commissioned architect Frank Wennemer to design a one-story office building for the restaurant’s business operations on the north side of 13th Street.

Despite the war which erupted in Europe 1914, Luchow continued to import German beer and ale.  One shipment alone, in November 1915, contained 22,492 casks of Pilsner and Wuerzburger Hofbraeu beer.  Luchow’s had been the first American restaurant to import the beer from the Bavarian town of Wuerzberg, where it had been produced for centuries.

But even before America entered the conflict, German-Americans were being viewed with suspicion.  And following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, August Luchow found himself defending his patriotism.

At least one newspaper reported that the patrons of Luchow’s celebrated on hearing the news of the attack.  August Luchow fired back in a letter through his lawyer.  The New-York Tribune reported on May 9, 1915 “In his letter, Mr. Luchow says that his orchestra is instructed to play no foreign national airs, and that no patriotic songs were played, either by the orchestra or sung by any Germans who were present at the time.

“I am an American citizen and have been such for many years, and I resent the inference in the article to the effect that my restaurant is patronized only by German sympathizers, whereas most of my guests are Americans.” 

He strong insisted that he would not “permit a demonstration in favor of any of the belligerents in this most unfortunate war.”

The upward-turned fixtures of the chandeliers in this 1904 postcard were lit by gas.  The down-turned fixtures were electric.
In 1917 a different type of battle broke out on East 14th Street.  Troubles between Luchow and Koeher boiled over that year and Koeher left New York to open a restaurant in Chicago.  Things were no better between him and Olga, and she remained in New York.

In January 1919 August Koeher sued Luchow for $100,000 (nearly $1.4 million in 2016).  He demanded that the restaurant be put into receivership, that the partnership be dissolved, and the proceeds be divided.  The vitriolic feelings between the brothers-in-law were exemplified by the clause insisting that Luchow should "be restrained from conducting the restaurant which bears his name.”

Once again August Luchow looked out for his sister.  According to Koehler he received “letters, telegrams and telephone messages” from Olga and Luchow, urging him to return home.  Luchow promised him a trust fund of $200,000 from which he and Olga would received $10,000 a year if he came back.  He did.

But two years later, in July 1921, he sued Olga for $30,000.  He alleged that only she received the $10,000 income each year “with no provision for him.”

On January 27, 1923 Olga Luchow Koehler died.  Her brief obituary in The New York Times made no mention of her husband, merely calling her the “dearly beloved sister of August Luchow of New York City.”  Seven months later, on August 21, August Guido Luchow died six days before his 67th birthday.

Although The New York Times remarked that August Luchow “occupied himself less with handshaking than with careful supervision of his restaurant,” his familial treatment of his employees resulted in many of them staying on for decades.  Victor Eckstein, hired in 1900, was Luchow’s President when he turned 70 in 1950.  His head waiter, Ernst Seute, employed since 1917, would work well past mid-century.

Meanwhile, conflict in Europe came to 14th Street once again in 1934.  On May 27 one newspaper reported “Nazis made their most daring bid for power in German-American social circles in the history of the American Brown Shirt movement in America on Friday night when they arbitrarily ‘crashed’ a meeting of the German-American Conference.”   That meeting was being held in an upper room of Luchow’s Restaurant.

“Friday night’s meeting is considered the most significant since Hitler’s rise to power,” said the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.  German-born New Yorkers decided that night to discontinue the meetings.  “Leaders are understood to have reasoned that to continue their regular meetings would eventuate an absolute disruption of the Conference, or worse, the surrender of a large part of it to the Nazi control.”

In February 1914 Victor Herbert and eight associates had met at Luchow’s to draft plans for the performing rights organization which became the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.  On June 28, 1951 an all-star dinner of around 200 members were back for a dinner in memory of the composer.

The following year, on May 7, the City of New York presented the restaurant with a bronze plaque.  It read “Presented to Luchow’s Restaurant on its seventieth anniversary by the City of New York in recognition of its service to the people of this city and the nation by preserving the character and atmosphere of old New York.”

Outside, the flavor and atmosphere of old 14th Street was essentially gone by now.  Department stores and office buildings had long ago replaced the houses and theaters.  Only Luchow’s hung on as a relic of the 1890s.  And that nostalgia, along with the high quality of the restaurant itself, contributed to its survival.

Even as the 20th century progressed, bow-tied waiters still wore the Luchow crest, as this postcard attests.
In April 1954 Helen Hayes gave a party for Jack Benny in a private dining room on the second floor.  During the evening she dedicated the Lillian Russell Museum.  The New York Times explained “During her engagements at Tony Pastor’s Theatre, which was situated across the street from the restaurant, Miss Russell frequently dined there.” 

In the “museum” were “dresses, fans, handkerchiefs and parasols that Miss Russell used on stage and off, as well as autographed pictures, letters she wrote and posters and programs of her productions.”  Present at the ceremony was waiter Hugo Schemke.  The 74-year old was first hired in 1905 and he well remembered serving the famous actress.

Luchow’s continued to be the go-to spot for celebrity athletes, politicians, theatrical types and even explorers.  It was here on June 5, 1960 that Sir Edmund and Lady Hillary hosted a luncheon during which he announced an upcoming expedition to Nepal’s Malaku Peak.  The purpose of the exploration, he told reporters, was in part “to make further efforts to track down the ‘Abominable Snowman.’”

A charming postcard from the 1950s managed to crop away the buildings around the old restaurant.

To the tremendous dismay of New Yorkers, the owners of Luchow’s decided to abandon 14th Street in 1982 and move uptown.   The Times lamented “Luchow’s, long since deserted by the theater district, is following it uptown to Broadway and 51st, leaving its once-glamorous block to a Tad’s, an Arby’s and a White Rose bar.”

The restaurant was jammed with former patrons on closing night, July 11.  They reminisced and mourned the loss.  Co-owner Peter Aschkenasy’s commented somewhat bitterly, “If everybody who told me how much they loved Luchow’s had been coming here, we wouldn’t be leaving.”

In August the Buildings Department received an application for a demolition permit on Nos. 108 through 112 East 14th Street.  A Save-the-Original-Luchow’s rally took place at noon on August 28 as “the drama will be playing itself out in city offices downtown,” according to The Times.

The Buildings Department had asked “for a clarification from the Landmarks Preservation Commission concerning the building’s status.”  The Times noted “The old Luchow’s building is not a designated landmark, although the commission could act on the matter.”  City Council President Carol Bellamy called the situation “a race with the bulldozers.”

Rather surprisingly, the Landmarks Preservation Commission did not move on the famous structure.  The Luchow's building did, however, escape demolition—at least tenmporarily.    In November it was converted to a disco, The Palace.  The incredibly intact 19th century interiors--where once no one without a tie could be served--were transformed with sound, strobe lights, and neon.  Three years later it became the New Palladian Night Club, popular with club goers.

But in 1986 the old restaurant building became part of a group of properties assembled by the Glick Organization.  The site of August Guido Luchow’s nationally-celebrated restaurant is now occupied by New York University’s University Hall, a student residential hall.
photo via www.nyu.edu

4 comments:

  1. As a coda to this miserable tale, prior to its actual demolition, the building that was Luchow's (where I ate, once, in 1977) suffered a devastating fire. Passing by the site, I managed to scoot under the yellow plastic tape and snatch a fragment of charred egg-and-dart metal cornice, which I still have on a shelf in my kitchen.

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  2. After the building sat vacant, there was great support to preserve the remarkable interiors, but the fire did put an end to that effort. I also believe the large historic theatre next door was actually the Palladium night club, but that too was demolished when the neighborhood bulldozing beast, NYU bought both the properties and built the eyesore currently on the sites. NYarch

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  3. Another gem lost to 'progress'.

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  4. Luchows had Liquor License #1 in the city

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