Monday, October 22, 2012

The Lost 1864 Central Park Casino

Sketch from the Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of The Central Park, 1864 -- copyright expired
When the 843 acres of city-owned land far north of the developed areas known as The Central Park was officially opened in 1857 it was unplanned, unimproved and studded with squatter’s shacks and other buildings.   A competition to design a proper park was won the following year by Frederick Law Olmsed’s and Calvert Vaux’s ambitious “Greensward Plan.”

Construction on the immense project began that same year, in 1858, and would continue until 1873.   The structures the designers envisioned for the park would enhance the fabricated fantasy world—a turreted stone castle, rustic shelters, cast iron pavilions and a Moorish bandstand.   Just off the Mall, where Victorian aristocrats would promenade in the height of fashion, Calvert Vaux designed his Ladies’ Refreshment Saloon in 1864.

Just getting to the park in the 1860s was a significant jaunt.   Civil War era women, dressed in yards of voluminous fabric and cinched into corsets, could find relief from the summer heat in the cool interior of the quaint two-room stone cottage.    Here they enjoyed food and refreshments sold at a modest price.

Victorian proprieties were set aside before long, however, as men were admitted.    The building was renamed The Casino and transformed from an inexpensive snack-bar to a high-priced established restaurant.    In 1882 James D. McCabe, Jr. gave it a mixed review saying that it was “a pretty cottage of stone, containing an excellent restaurant.  Good meals are served here, but the charges are somewhat high.”

The New York Tribune included a sketch of well-dressed New Yorkers enjoying The Casino in its June 27, 1897 article titled "Summer Fun In New York" -- copyright expired
By the time McCabe was assessing the Casino, the Upper East Side was quickly being developed.   In 1884 James Humbleton lived at No. 335 East 73rd Street, just five blocks from the Park, when he shot a letter off to the editor of The Sun on May 28.

The laws of this State prohibit the sale of intoxicating drinks on the Sabbath day.  Notwithstanding this fact lager beer is sold and drunk openly at the Casino in Central Park every Sunday.  The authorities of this city of cognizant of the fact, and detail policemen to preserve order in the immediate vicinity.  Why is this thus?

Humbleton’s letter resulted in a chain of contradictory statements as a reporter from The Sun followed up.  Captain Beattie of the Central Park Police denied the charge.  “There is no liquor sold in the Park on Sunday,” he asserted.

But on the same day the journalist visited the Casino to find beer being served.  “’We’re a hotel,’ said a waiter as he dashed around at the Central Park Casino with foaming beer on a tray last Sunday. ‘therefore we can sell this beer Sunday or any other time,’” the reporter wrote.

Park Superintendent Conkling had another explanation.  “The liquor at the Casino is left on storage there by private parties.  They go there after driving and drink it with their dinner.  Consequently, it is not liquor sold in defiance of the law.”   And Park Commissioner Olliffe was confused.  “I don’t believe they sell beer there at all.  It must be a mistake.”

The issue would not quickly go away, either.  A member of Rev. Charles Henry Parkhurst’s New York Society for the Prevention of Crime complained to police about the matter four years later.  And on Sunday evening, April 4, 1892, waiter Julius Peller was arrested by Officers Hagan and Fay of the Essex Market Police Court for selling liquor on Sunday.

Before the end of the century, the modest building would be significantly expanded --NYPL Collection
As an added attraction, diners at the Casino enjoyed evening entertainments.  Two days after Julius Peler was arrested the Casino was back in the newspapers, this time because chorus girls were rebelling against their revealing costumes.  The Evening World reported “In the new comic opera promised at the Casino some of the chorus girls must personate Hieland ladies and wear kilts and stockings that reach only to the knee-cap, leaving a portion of each limb exposed to the Summer draughts.  The girls fear rheumatism and protest.”  The reporter then added his own tongue-in-cheek comment.  “Why shouldn’t they object?  There are limb-itations to everything, even to comic opera costuming.”

The pastoral setting of the Casino, in the midst of the city, and the highly-acclaimed fare drew tourists as well as New Yorkers.  The tourists, however, sometimes were unfamiliar with metropolitan conventions—like tipping.   On June 22, 1893 a couple dined on the piazza of the Casino.  According to The Sun they were “a rather flashy-looking man, and a fat, but pretty girl.”  After a light supper they prepared to leave.

Their waiter, “a blond-moustached German, was very attentive,” insisted the newspaper.  He presented the bill and the man fished a handful of coins from his pocket, leaving the exact change on the table.  As they walked away the waiter called after them, “Haven’t you forgotten something?”

“Both stopped and looked puzzled,” said The Sun, “The man looked at his hat and the woman examined her gloves and parasol.  The waiter stood bolt upright looking at the man indignantly, but the latter remained innocent, and with a careless ‘I guess not,’ he and his companion passed down the steps.”

By the end of the same year the Department of Parks realized that the popularity of the Casino necessitated enlarging the structure.  On December 20, 1893 it requested an appropriation of $10,000 “to complete the Casino.”  Although the proposition was briefly tabled, The Sun reported that “it was favored by Comptroller Myers.”

The Park Department did receive substantial funds for park improvements and in March of 1894 The New York Tribune lobbied in favor of the Casino project.  “This is a popular and well managed restaurant, which is far too small for the crowds that go there.  The building could be extended so as to take in a much larger area without becoming obtrusive or losing the artistic harmony with its surroundings.  It is so situated that it could easily be amplified and improved.”  The newspaper estimated that “Thirty of forty thousand dollars expended upon it would be money well applied.”

The Casino was enlarged and continued to be a huge success.   The popularity of the restaurant was greatly attributed to its long-term manager, Isidor Isaac.  In 1896 The Tribune commented that “Mr. Isaac has shown rare skill in managing the establishment, and has given satisfaction to every one who goes to the Casino.  He has proved that he is a manager of exceptional ability, and the Casino during all the years in which it has been under his charge has been conducted in a manner to win general approval and general liking.”

Despite his popularity and success, Isidor Isaac was about to face his most daunting challenge.  The same year that The Tribune praised him, The Act was passed which, in part, forbade the sale of “liquors, wines or beer in any building which is public property.”  This included the Casino in city-owned Central Park.

The New York Tribune was outraged.  “If the prohibition of the Raines law is construed literally and enforced rigorously, great inconvenience will be caused to every person who desires to take a meal [at the Casino] and who wishes to drink wine or beer with his dinner or luncheon or supper.”  Moreover, said the newspaper, it would be impossible for the restaurant to remain in business.  “They could not make any profit if they are not allowed to sell liquors, or wines, or beer, at any time and in any circumstances.”

Casino waitresses pose around the turn-of-the-century -- photo Library of Congress

Not only did the Casino weather this storm, but it would go on to become one of the most fashionable and exclusive night spots in Manhattan—an incarnation that would be its own undoing.

By the end of the 1920s the Casino was being run by small-time theatrical producer Carl F. Zittel.    Restaurateur Sidney Solomon recognized the potential of the restaurant as a sleek Jazz Age nightclub and convinced Mayor Jimmy Walker to give him the lease upon its expiration in 1928.   The flashy, dapper Walker was well known for his love of night life, chorus girls and speakeasies.  He refused to renew Zittel’s lease and gave it to Solomon.

Carl Zittel was managing the enlarged Casino when this postcard was published in the 1920s.
Zittel immediately sued the city, asserting that the sumptuous and expensive nightclub-restaurant flew in the face of the stated purpose of Central Park—a recreational spot available to everyone.  The courts did not agree with him.

If the courts did not agree, The New York Times did.  The newspaper would rather see the Casino razed than turned into a lavish nightspot.  “Such a place may be agreeable for the few who can afford to use it,” said the editor.  “That it might, if elaborately renovated, be one of the most fashionable haunts in the city may well be assumed.  But the building occupies precious space in a park which already has too much of its area given over to other than park purposes.  If it were eliminated and the present knoll which it occupies were pleasantly landscaped, the land could be made into an added attraction.  Then more people would enjoy it than use the restaurant.”

The editor did not sway Mayor James Walker who personally attended to the details of the $400,000 refurbishing.  Inside Calvert Vaux's Victorian cottage was an Art Deco black-glass ballroom where the orchestras of Leo Reisman, Emil Coleman and Eddy Duchin would soon play as the cream of society danced.   Hundreds scrambled for reservations for opening night, but only 600 could be accommodated.

Among the celebrities who were met at the door by liveried footmen that night were producers Florenz Ziegfeld and Adolph Zukor.   The demand for tables was so great that a second “opening night” was held.  Walker and his mistress, showgirl Betty Compton, attended that one.   The Mayor was also a part-time composer and from that night on when he would walk into the ballroom of the Casino the orchestra would play his song “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May.”

Despite Prohibition guests drank liquor with their French haute-cuisine.  To side-step the liquor laws, the wealthy patrons would step from limousines well stocked with bootleg alcohol.  The maitre d’ carefully observed each table.  When patrons ran low on liquor, he would signal their chauffeur who restocked that table.

As the Great Depression neared, the Casino had transformed from a Victorian two-room Refreshment Saloon to perhaps the most lavish and exclusive nightspot in Manhattan.  But Mayor Jimmy Walker had made a formidable political enemy who saw the Casino as his way of exacting revenge.

Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was never a fan of James Walker.  He had a near adoration for New York Governor Al Smith who mentored Walker and was greatly responsible for the Mayor’s political success.  Once in office, however, Walker made remarks against Judge George Olvany, who had nominated him for mayor,and who was close to the Governor.  Moses considered the remark an indirect insult to Smith.

Moses, according to some political historians, decided to get back at the Mayor by attacking his “Versailles.”  The Commissioner resurrected Carl Zittel’s argument and went to court in 1932.  He argued that the Casino was located on public property yet was not accessible to the general public.  He pointed out that a cup of coffee in a normal restaurant was a dime.  At the Casino it was an exorbitant twenty-five cents.  Moses argued that Jimmy Walker’s beloved Casino must be torn down.

Apparently the only person in 1932 who stopped to recognize the architectural and historic significance of the building rather than its function as a restaurant or nightclub was Judge John Carew.  He decided against the demolition of the Casino saying that “[Moses] is only to hold office for a brief term.  He is the passing creature of a day.  He will in time, and that not long, be superseded.  He may not ‘waste’ the heritage of New York.”

Shiny automobiles await their owners outside the glittering Casino -- photo
Whether he was a “passing creature of the day” or not Robert Moses dug in.  He appealed the case and won.   In what has been called a political act of vengeance, the Commissioner had the building—an original and integral element in Olmsted and Vaux’s design of Central Park—demolished in 1935 to be replaced by the Rumsey Playground.

In retaliation, Mayor Jimmy Walker refused to pay his large outstanding Casino bill to the Park.


  1. Moses was a vindictive S.O.B. Aside from destroying many NYC neighborhoods in his day, his ego-driven persona was just as miserable.

  2. And it was Robert Moses who bears the responsibility for the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers.May he rot in the inferno of Brooklyn's ire.

    1. Not only was Carl Florian Zittel the manager of the casino in the late 1920's, but was for many years the right hand man to William Randolph Hearst, and close confidant to Marcus Loew. It was Carl Florian Zittel Jr. and Gene Zukor (son of Adolph) who were entrusted to gather artistic materials to be the foundation for future motion picture productions under the Hearst Cosmopolitan Pictures banner....used for the most part to establish Hearst mistress Marian Davies as a legitimate film actress.

  3. Tom, you might be interested to know the Austrian born architect Joseph Urban who was Hearst's film production designer starting in 1919 and later designed the Hearst Building was in charge of the 1920s redesign of the casino. Neil, you have the basics right about Zittel, but just clarify one of your points, Zittel Jr. who worked with Zukor's son Eugene, was the son of the Carl Zittel who was the man associated with the casino. The son died suddenly in 1919. The father started with Hearst as his key advertising man and then moved over to Hearst's diverse film ventures (which predated Hearst's involvement with Davies by almost two decades). For a more complete portrait of Zittel and especially Hearst's long involvement in film you may be interested in my book Hearst Over Hollywood: Passion, Power and Propaganda (Columbia University).
    Louis Pizzitola

  4. Louis thanks for the correction re, Davies. I know the story of "Zit" better than I married into his extended family many moons ago.

    Some facts for you......."Zit" was not only an employee of WR Hurst during the early part of the century, but was also closely associated with Marcus Loew......the man behind Loews Theaters, and the corporate owner of MGM. Additionally "Zit" dabbled in song writing, and one of the houses that published his work(s) was "The Music House of Laemmle".......a venture of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures. Zit also published a theatrical weekly called "Zits".......which pre dated Variety.