Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Russian Tea Room - 150 West 57th Street

photograph by the author

On February 3, 1873 John F. Pupke purchased two back-to-back lots on 57th and 56th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues from Mary Douglass, a widow.  Pupke paid $29,750 for the property--almost $630,000 today.

Pupke had come to New York from his native Germany in 1845 at the age of 16.  He took a job in a coffee firm; and later he became a partner in the coffee and tea importing company Pupke & Thurber.  He and his wife would have five children.

The wealthy merchant erected a 25-foot wide brownstone on the 57th Street side of his new property and a brick carriage house behind that faced 56th Street.  Designed by prolific architect John G. Prague, its construction was completed in 1875.  Living in the house with the family was a staff of three servants.

Jutting into the rear yard was the glass-cased conservatory, so fashionable in upscale Victorian residences.  Here the Pupkes would relax amid tropical and rare plants.  That conservatory survived until 1886 when John Pupke had it demolished to be replaced by a two-story brick extension to the house.  Designed by well-known architect William Schickel, the renovations cost Pupke $8,000, or around $215,000 today.

By the time John F. Pupke died in his brownstone residence on May 25, 1898 he was president of the Eppens, Smith & Wiemann Company, another tea and coffee importing firm.  The funeral of the 69-year-old merchant was held in the residence two days later.

The family remained in the brownstone house at least through 1909.  Daughter Helen, still unmarried, was listed here that year.  She was Assistant Secretary of The Art Workers' Club for Women, founded the year of her father's death.  The group was formed for the "mutual interest and support among women artists and models."

But the once-exclusive residential block had changed by now.  Steps away was Carnegie Hall, opened in 1891, and one-by-one the old homes were being converted to boarding houses or businesses.   While they retained ownership of No. 150 West 57th Street, the Pupke family had left by 1911.  Nellie H. Wall leased it, operating it as a boarding house.

The Pupke house is seen just to the right of the building in the left foreground.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Pupke family bowed to the inevitable in May 1913 when they hired architect Katharine C. Budd to make extensive renovations.  Her plans called for a storefront, new walls, and studios.  The artsy neighborhood was replete with living and working spaces for painters, sculptors and musicians.  No. 150 filled with similar tenants.

New-York Tribune, October 11, 1914 (copyright expired)
After having been in her family for nearly half a century, Helen C. Pupke sold the house and stable to real estate operator Robert E. Simon in February 1919 for $150,000.  It was a significant sum, more than $2 million today.  Simon made his own renovations, removing the stoop and installing an automobile showroom on the ground floor, offices on the second, and "bachelor apartments" on the third and fourth.

The showroom was rented to Ogden & Clarkson, American agents for the Pic-Pic Automobile Company.

This April 25, 1920 ad promised that the Pic-Pic car had "proved its remarkable stamina on shelltorn mountain roads and terrain at the Front with the French and British armies."  The New York Herald (copyright expired)
Pic-Pic's lease would be short-lived.  In November 1920 Robert E. Simon rented the showroom to the Fiat Automobile Company of Turin, Italy.

Significant change to the former Pupke mansion would come around 1929 when a cafe, The Russian Tearoom, leased the former showroom.  The business, incorporated that year, had been formed in 1927 by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet.  It listed among the items available here "Russian Art Chocolate."  Vocalists and musicians continued to rent studios in the upper floors.

The storefront in 1935 looked little different than any other lunchroom or cafeteria.  photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Russian Tea Room began life modestly; but by the 1940's it engulfed the entire property to 56th Street.  Its sleek, art moderne interiors reflected the upscale patrons who spilled in from Carnegie Hall concerts.

The design of the bar area exhibited clean modern lines.  It replaced the soda fountain after Prohibition was repealed.  photograph by Samuel Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The restaurant and its management found themselves in hot water with the State in December 1939.  The Russian Tearoom, Inc. and Solo Judenfreund, its secretary, were charged with "having defrauded the State Insurance Fund of premiums due for several years on their workmens' compensation insurance."  On December 19 Judenfreund pleaded not guilty for both himself and the organization.

But finally, on June 18, 1940, guilty pleas were entered on behalf of the restaurant and Judenfeund, admitting, according to The New York Times, "they defrauded the Insurance Fund of the State Workmen's Compensation Department of $3,973 between March 1934 and March 1939."

It was a rare smear on The Russian Tea Room's reputation.  The following year the restaurant received much more favorable press when it joined other eateries in providing Thanksgiving dinners to the thousands of soldiers and sailors on leave in the city.

While celebrated patrons dined on chicken Kiev, caviar and borscht downstairs, the top two floors continued to house artists.  Among them were soprano Carmen Rueben, and her husband Paul Schumm (the diva used her married name only privately).  The solo vocalist was well-known both on the American and European concert stage and gave vocal training in her 57th Street studio.  She lived here until her death on July 27, 1944.

The Boyar Room featured modern paintings of Russian scenes.  photograph by Samuel Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Broadway producer Lee K. Holland (whom, The New York Times said "in 1947 introduced James Mason and his wife, Pamela Kellino, to Broadway) opened his "lavishly appointed offices" above the restaurant in November 1951.

By then Alexander Maeef had sold The Russian Tearoom,  After running it since 1933 he gave it up in 1946.  Maeef had become a celebrity in his own right, as would the buyer, Sidney Kaye, who was the son of Russian-immigrant parents.  It was under Kaye's proprietorship that the interiors took on a splashier personality.

The New York Times would later remark "Mr. Kaye considered the old-world quality of the restaurant sacrosanct...He decided never to remove the Christmas balls and tinsel from the chandeliers in the dining room, because, he said, 'Christmas comes around again so soon.'  He even had the Christmas tree remain in the front window all year because, he said, 'it looks so Russian.'"

Kaye married an actress, Faith Burwell, in 1957, who joined him in managing the restaurant.  Coincidentally, his sister was the wife of operatic tenor Jan Peerce.

The Russian Tea Room's most famous neighbor, Carnegie Hall (and the source of many of its well-to-do and celebrated patrons) was threatened with demolition in 1955.  The restaurant became the ad hoc meeting place for the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall.  Luncheons were held here to hammer out strategies to battle the loss of the landmark.

Perhaps even more famous to its guests than the proprietor was The Russian Tea Room's maître d'hôtel, Anatole E. Voinoff, one of its original founders.  Born in Moscow and educated at the Military Academy of Catherine the Great, he had served as an officer in the Czar's army.

His death on February 9, 1965 prompted headlines in Manhattan newspapers.  The New York Times said of him, "To operagoers, devotees of the ballet and classical music, as well as to the stars and other performers, he was probably the best-known 'maître d'' in the city, and one they had come to look upon as a permanent fixture because of his long service."  

The same press coverage followed the death of Sidney Kaye at the age of 53 two years later.  His obituary mentioned "He wore impeccably tailored dark suits and black-framed glasses, and he had a warm smile and easy wit and humor.  He brought an atmosphere to the restaurant that combined European cafe and, as he said, 'the tremendous effort to maintain a shabby gentility.'"

The first week of September 1977 The Russian Tea Room was closed for renovations.  The New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton was nervous to visit the remodeled interiors; but was relieved at what she found.

Along with "improvements" like the carpeting that hushed the din which had previously bounced off the hardwood floors, she approved of the bar being "cut in half to make room for an extra, curved banquette in this cafe-entrance," and said the "marble, brass and polished mahogany give this area considerable style."  But she was equally pleased that much of the old Sidney Kaye decor survived.

"The same pine green walls, pink cloths, cranberry glass hurricane lamps, the mixmatch of paintings, the brilliantly polished brass samovars and the glittering Christmas tree tinsel and ornaments combine to create an atmosphere that is still uyutno--about as close to the Russian language comes to that particular homey charm the Germans describe as gemutlich."  

The renovations extended the restaurant into half of the second floor, where a cafe was installed.  Interestingly, the architectural details of the 1875 house still survived within the top floors--the marble Victorian mantels and woodwork, for instance.

As Christmas approached in 1981, Moira Hodgson, in an article on December 9 in The New York Times, commented on the famous diners who haunted the restaurant.  "Only last week a visitor might have seen Diana Ross, Diana Rigg, Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Max von Sydow, Maureen Stapleton or Joseph Heller," she wrote.   Actress Candice Bergen, a regular customer, told the writer "If it weren't for the Russian Tea Room, I'd starve."

Other patrons were stars of the dance world, like George Balanchine, Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev; and Broadway and motion picture personalities.  Hodgson recounted "When Raquel Welch arrived after her first performance in 'Woman of the Year,' she asked, 'Now that I've taken over Bacall's part do I get her table?'  She did, the second booth on the left at the front."

At the time of the article Sidney Kaye's wife, now Mrs. James Stewart-Gordon, still ran the business which required a staff of 168.  There were 177 dishes on the menu, and a separate bakery on the premises provided items like cakes and piroshki.

That same year Faith Stewart-Gordon announced plans to add three floors and completely re-do the facade.  She hired architect Millard Bresin make the changes; while insisting that "the appearance of the restaurant will not be changed."

Architect Martin Bressin released this rendering in December 1981, showing the surviving Tea Room appearance .  

While those plans were never fulfilled; the facade was completely refaced, resulting in a stark plaster wall ornamented with a large bas relief of a dancing Russian bear.  The old ground floor storefront was not, as promised, preserved.

Scenes from at least two movies took place in The Russian Tea Room.  Dustin Hoffman, as Michael Dorsey, aka, Dorothy Michaels, was here in the 1982 Tootsie; and the following year scenes in The Russian Tea Room appeared in Unfaithfully Yours.  Sort of.  The restaurant had been minutely reproduced in Hollywood, 3,000 miles away.

The Main Dining Room as it appears today.  photo via
In 1999 the interiors were redone by Harman Jablin Architects.  Three years later the venerable restaurant closed; but happily reopened in 2006, reviving a New York City culinary icon.


  1. Having Russian parents and Czech in laws, the first place my New York aunt and uncle took us to in New York was the Russian Tea Room. Thank you for the historical details about the building... which my rellies knew nothing about.

    I will write up my wonderful experience in the New Year and create a link back to your excellent post.

    Art and Architecture, mainly

  2. This place was as close to a hangout as I ever had in Manhattan, and every threatened closing has given me apoplexy. I'll never get back there again, but knowing it endures is pleasure enough.