Monday, April 18, 2022

The Lost Schrafft's Building - 61 Fifth Avenue

photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc,, Architectural Record, Vol. 83, 1939

In 1898, Frank Garrett Shattuck opened an ice cream and candy store on Broadway, opposite the New York Herald Building.  The candies were made by W. Schraftt & Sons of Boston.  In 1906 he joined forces with George and William Schrafft, sons of the candy firm's founder, and incorporated the Frank G. Shattuck Company to exclusively handle the Schrafft operation.

The Frank G. Shattuck Company transitioned Schrafft stores into the restaurant business.  The New York Times later said "Remembering the neatness and cleanliness of his mother's farm kitchen and also some of the bad meals he had eaten in restaurants while a traveling man, [Shattuck] insisted upon cleanliness and quality as cardinal virtues in his organization.  The Schraftt stores prospered and others were opened in rapid succession." 

Schrafft restaurants catered greatly to middle-class women.  Ladies stopping for lunch sat a tables with white linens and ordered from menus offering items like "egg and mushrooms on toast [with] tomato sauce," or "English chicken pie."  (Frank M. Shattuck, the grandson of the original Schattuck, commented to The New York Times in 2004, "Everyone wore hats and handmade suits.  And if you were a lady, it was safe to sit at the soda fountain and drink gin from a teacup.")   

By 1938, there were more than two dozen Schrafft's restaurants in New York City, and there was about to be one more.  On October 30, The New York Times reported, "The new Schrafft's restaurant and store, a two-story building at 61 Fifth Avenue, corner of Thirteenth Street, will be opened on Tuesday morning."  The article noted it would be the first Schrafft's "in the Washington Square section."  Designed by the architectural firm of Bloch & Hesse, the journalist described it as "in colonial style showing the Greek revival influence."

And while a window on the 13th Street side did offer a nod to Colonial architecture, the overall influence of the design was Art Moderne.  Bloch & Hesse bowed the Fifth Avenue elevation, and stressed verticality with vast windows.  Although technically two stories, the building rose to the equivalent of three, affording soaring spaces inside.  Keeping the mostly female customers in mind, the sleek Art Moderne interiors were decorated with murals of 19th century figures in fashionable costumes, and walls of painted flowers.  The new restaurant had the seating capacity of 200.

photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., Architectural Record, Vol. 83, 1939

Not everyone was pleased with the building.  The New Yorker architectural critic Lewis Mumford called the Bloch & Hesse design "pretty bad," saying that the curved facade was nothing more than "the new cliché."  

The Schrafft's restaurants prospered for another three decades, but on April 1, 1972 The New York Times began an article saying "Changing neighborhoods and changing times have brought trouble."  It reported, "Schrafft's, which operated 39 restaurants in the New York metropolitan area a year ago, will be operating 32 when its new fiscal year begins today."

The wall murals depicted Victorian ladies and gentlemen, and trailing flowers.  photos by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., Architectural Record, Vol. 83, 1939

Donald S. Carmichael, president of Pet, Inc. which now owned the Schraftt's chain, explained the closed restaurants "were in places where they had outlived their usefulness as higher-priced, fixed-menu shops."  The days of ladies-who-lunch had passed.  "We're changing the concept of the restaurants to meet the markets in which they're located.  We'll open some pub-type operations with moderate prices and some fast-foot-to-go places."

A year later, on March 15, 1973 Pet, Inc. announced it was in negotiations to sell its Schrafft's restaurants to the Riese Brothers National Restaurants, the largest privately owned restaurant organization in the country.  Following the purchase, Riese Brothers immediately sought to recycle the once-refined Fifth Avenue space into a more profitable endeavor.

The Village, on February 14, 1974, reported, "The MacDonald's Corporation is considering the opening of a second Greenwich Village restaurant to be located on Fifth Avenue at 13th Street."  A Riese spokesperson confirmed the bid for the lease, but said the firm had not made a decision.  "Right now our inclination is toward placing a Brew Burger there."  He noted, "The problem with places like MacDonald's is that they draw many people from outside the community and you always get a few bad apples."

The prospect of bad apples prevented yellow arches from appearing on the Fifth Avenue facade.  Instead, an even more surprising tenant signed a lease.  On January 28, 1977, The New York Times reported, "A new club devoted to country music and country rock will open Wednesday at 61 Fifth Avenue...It will be called the Lone Star Cafe, and by the end of February it hopes to have record company support for name acts."  The renovated space was capable of seating 150 on the lower floor, where food was served, and an equal number "in a sawdust-covered standing area in the balcony."  Any trace of the floral murals that enchanted feminine patrons in 1928 was gone.

The owners perched a gigantic, 40-foot iguana on the roof.  The lizard was a noticeable fixture until neighboring businesses took the Lone Star Cafe owners to court, forcing them to remove it.  (The sculpture was eventually removed to the roof of the Fort Worth Zoo animal hospital in 2010.)

Shortly after its opening, on February 17, 1977, The New York Times commented on the still-struggling venue that hoped to book well-known country names.  "It would be nice to have such a club, and the place has much in its favor, including a good location and a nice décor."  The newspaper need not have been concerned.  Over the years recording artists like Willie Nelson, The Blues Brothers, Roy Orbison, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis and Kinky Friedman appeared at the Long Star Cafe.

The Lone Star Cafe moved to West 52nd Street in 1989.  The former Schrafft's building became home to a vegetable market and delicatessen.  Then, in 2006, it was gutted by fire.  Writing in The New York Times, Christopher Gray wrote, "The heat blistered the paint on the marble, and big panels have popped off the facade."  It was the end of the line for the what was now a vestige of a much different period.

photo by Hiroko Masuike, The New York Times June 29, 2008

The property was purchased in 2007 and architect Alta Indelman was commissioned to design a 10-story apartment house on the site.  Gray reported, "She said that she had considered trying to salvage some of the Schrafft's facade, but that it was too far gone."  The replacement building was completed in 2015.

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  1. By far one the most eggriediest saddest things ever.
    Would have lunch there with napkins in the 70’s with my mother.
    As an nyu student living a 55 East 10th, Brittany Hotel, suite 1107,
    Overlooking Grace Church spire..
    Then again, loved it as lone star avec iguana. Great music!
    Your efforts, observations, etal, are admirable, to say the least!

  2. Mom & I ate there each Saturday after I, an 8 year old, attended a children's theater class at Mills College. We ate upstairs. I would notice women in their cups and say to my mother "Look mom, that lady's gassed!"; And Mom would say "..Don't look, dear"..
    This Schraffts did NOT offer the Peter Rabbit Sundae on its menu..