Monday, March 18, 2019

The Lost Thompson's Restaurant - 33 Park Row

With the restaurant's name emblazoned four times (one in terra cotta and one in electric bulbs) patrons seeking out the "beanery" could not miss it.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On October 28, 1912 the Syracuse Journal ran the headline "'Sinkers' Meehan, Noted New York Lunchman, Dead."  The article began saying "Over the door of one of the most famous restaurants in this city there was posted to-day a sign which read: 'Closed in consequence of the death of John T. Meehan."  That the news would be of interest so far upstate was not surprising.  He ran the venerable Dolan's Coffee and Lunch Room" at 33 Park Row, founded by his uncle Patrick Dolan.

Dolan's was famous as a "beef and" restaurant.  Its menu offered downtown businessmen items like corned beef, boiled ham, pork and beans, pickled tongue and oyster pie.  The Syracuse Journal noted that the cafe had drawn "everybody worth while, from P. T. Barnum and Horace Greeley clear down to the very youngest of the judges of the highest courts sitting to-day."

On January 21, 1913 the New-York Tribune reported that Francis Husted had purchased No. 33 Park Row, "the ground floor of which is occupied by Dolan's famous 'beef and' restaurant, run by 'Johnny' Meehan, who died recently."  Husted paid the equivalent of $4.85 million today for the valuable downtown property.

Three months later The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced that Chicago restaurateur John R. Thompson had signed a 21-year least on the property with two 21-year renewal options.  The article noted "Mr. Thompson, who conducts four restaurant and lunch places in this city, three on Broadway and one in Grand Central Station, will erect a three-story building there for his exclusive use."

The indefatigable Thompson had started in the restaurant business in 1891 at the age of 26.  By the time he leased the Park Row property his chain of self-service lunchrooms totaled 68.   His operations were aimed at providing office workers with nutritious food in clean surroundings at low prices.  And fast.

There were no waiters in Thompson's Restaurants.  Customers purchased foods like cold corned beef, cold boiled ham, smoked boiled tongue or hot frankfurters (a menu strikingly similar to Dolan's) at a counter.  They then took their trays to "one arm" chairs lined up along the wall.  There were no tables; instead customers ate at what was similar to turn-of-the-century school desks.

An interior view of a similar "one arm" restaurant shows the desk-like chairs, counter and self-service coffee urn.  original source unknown

In May 1913 Chicago-based architect H. R. Wilson filed plans for the new structure.  The American Architect placed the projected construction cost at $100,000--just over $2.5 million today.   The completed structure was clad in white terra cotta.   Steel framing allowed for vast expanses of glass.  The first and second floor openings were framed by a single continuous foliate sheaf, echoed at the third floor.  The cornice took the form of a deeply-overhanging sloped terra cotta roof.
Interestingly, this shot appears to have been taken only seconds before or after the photo at the beginning of this article. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
While office workers came and went, gulping down pie and coffee, Thompson continued his colorful lifestyle and sometimes controversial business dealings.  

On March 8, 1914 The Sun reported that "John R. Thompson, millionaire restaurant owner" had wired the president of the National League "an offer to buy the Chicago Cubs" the day before.  Thompson told reporters that he and his associates "mean business and are ready to pay any reasonable price."

Thompson's self interest clashed with patriotic efforts in 1918.  On January 26 that year President Woodrow Wilson, in an effort to conserve food for the war effort, called for one meatless day, two wheatless days and two porkless days each week.   Thompson refused to comply.

Americans, for the most part, embraced the restrictions to aid the war effort.
While the New York restaurants (Thompson added a fifth Broadway location in 1915) seem to have been unaffected; such was not the case in Birmingham, Alabama.   On May 24, according to The Sun, "The Thompson restaurant, operated by John R. Thompson, Incorporated, of Chicago, was practically wrecked this afternoon by a crowd of angry citizens because, it is said, the company refused yesterday to join other city restaurants in voluntarily eliminating wheat products."

The manager was chased down the street by the crowd until he found refuge in a police station.  Angry protesters carried placards that read "For Germans Only," "The Kaiser's Restaurant" and "German Cafe."

From 1917 through 1918, sugar was heavily rationed and the shortage extended for several years afterward.   Thompson took matters into his own hands.  On May 27, 1920 it was reported "John R. Thompson, millionaire owner of a string of 'one-armed' restaurants, will sail from New York Saturday for Czecho-Slovakia, where he will buy 10,000,000 crowns' worth of sugar to prevent further shortages for his restaurants."

But none of that sugar would arrive at No. 33 Park Row.  The following year Thompson's Restaurant was gone and small real estate offices had taken over the building.  The situation remained as such for years, joined by 1927 by the Yale Land Company.   In June 1941 the agents of the American Export Lines opened offices here.

Around 1949 the building was home to by City Hall Hardware Shop.  Shelves of paint cans, displays of shovels and drills, and drawers of nuts, nails and bolts filled the space where patrons had grabbed a corned beef sandwich and cup of coffee.

City Hall Hardware Shop's display spilled onto the sidewalk at mid-century.  photo via NYC Department of Records & Information Services
In 1971 newlyweds Joe and Rachel Friedman leased the basement of No. 33 where, originally, they opened an audio hardware store selling mostly Panasonic and Sony components.  Before long they branched out into vinyl records, and soon their J & R Music World record store took over the operation.   

Upstairs was a restaurant, the Chew and Chat.  Unlike Thompson's, it struggled with cleanliness.  Closed down for health violations early in 1976, it reopened in February that year.

By 1982 J & R Music World had engulfed the entire building.  The basement held classical records and the first floor was entirely opera.  The top floor was dedicated to jazz where, according to Billboard magazine on May 22, 1982, 15,000 different jazz titles were housed.

The Park Row block front was a visual cacophony of garish signage in the late 1970's.  original source unknown

J & R Music World had four locations in 1996, leasing the entire Park Row block front from No. 1 to No. 34 Park Row.  No. 33 Park Row was now "the classical outlet," according to Billboard on June 15 that year.   Amazingly, H. R. Wilson's 1913 terra cotta facade was still greatly intact.

Shocking its landlord, the Steinberg family, J & R announced in 2013 that it wanted to end its lease.  The J & R store at No. 1 Park Row was the first to close, in April 2014.

On May 10, 2018 Tim McKeough, writing in The New York Times, announced that London-based architect Richard Rogers had designed a 25-story, 31-unit condo building on the corner site which included No. 33 Park Row.   The architectural medley of little buildings on the site , including the terra-cotta clad Thompson restaurant, are now gone.

A rendering of the building, incomplete at this writing, was released by Nöe & Associates in 2018.  via New York Times May 10, 2018

1 comment:

  1. This is one your great, if a little heart-stopping posts, Tom.