Monday, January 16, 2023

The Lost Rector's Restaurant - 1508-1510 Broadway


Massive electric letters spelled out RECTORS within the over-sized parapet.  King's Views of New York City, 1903 (copyright expired)

Charles Rector recognized a niche in 1884 Chicago, hundreds of miles away from an ocean--oysters.  Well-heeled Chicagoans who traveled to New York, Philadelphia and Boston enjoyed that staple of American cuisine.  Those cities were filled with oyster restaurants and oyster bars, and socialites' tableware included decorated oyster plates.  That year he opened Rector's Oyster House to immediate an immense success.

On February 23, 1899, the Portland [Maine] Express reported that Rector had introduced another East Coast delicacy to his Midwestern menu.  "Many of our citizens who have visited Chicago are aware of Rector's mammoth restaurant devoted almost entirely to fish...Mr. Rector asserts that he is the second man in this country to serve broiled live lobsters."  The article mentioned, "Rector has just established a branch house in New York at Broadway and 43d street."

Charles E. Rector had partnered with Carl G. Essner in the new venture.  They took over a recently constructed building on Longacre Square (renamed Times Square in 1904), an area that was rapidly transforming from a carriage making center to Manhattan's theatrical district.  Designed by William Strom, the building was commissioned by restauranteur Jack Dunstan, who for some reason backed out of the project.  Its two-story design straddled the Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival styles.  

The rusticated brick ground floor featured fluted Scamozzi columns and an impressive metal-and-glass entrance below a large second-floor arch fronted by a massive winged griffin, the restaurant's symbol.  Patrons entered through a revolving door, reportedly the first in New York City.  The openings of the second level wore Renaissance pediments, their formality balanced by delicate carved garlands.  Large electrically-lit letters filled the spaces within the story-tall pediment upheld by paired columns and capped by stone urns.  

Rector's immediately claimed a place among the upscale eateries like Delmonico's and Sherry's.  Its arrival made such an impact on society that within months, it was so recognized that it appeared in a new play, Around New York in Eighty Minutes.  On November 7, 1899, The World reported, "The opening scene was the outside of Rector's restaurant.  Then, after a moment, the front disappeared and the gay crowds within were revealed."

A 1940 revival of the play resurrected the old set.  (original source unknown)

The Longacre Square location drew not only socialites, but figures from the theatrical and sports fields.  Among the latter was boxer James J. Jeffries, who was named heavyweight champion of the world the same year Rector's opened.  On November 22, 1899, The Buffalo Times reported, "It was 2 A. M. when Jim Jeffries and a friend dropped into Rector's restaurant on Longacre Square.  Three men and three women were at a table.  Two of the men were matching bills."  They caught Jeffries' eye because one of them was a friend.

The affluence of the Rector's restaurant patrons was evidenced in the pair's amusement.  "Matching bills" was an informal gambling game.  The article said, "The bigger man was always the loser.  First he lost a $100 bill, then a $1,000 bill, and finally $500 in five crisp bills...The loser of the $1,600 went over to Jeffries, shook hands and laughed with him."

"Who is he?" Jeffries asked.

"Why, don't you know?  That's---Oh, but never mind.  I can't recall his name."

The good sport had lost the equivalent of $54,000 in 2023 money.

Only months after their restaurant opened, Carl Essner changed his mind.  The New-York Tribune reported, "He expressed a wish to withdraw from the firm, and finally Mr. Rector purchased his stock for what he paid for it, and the two parted amicably."  He was replaced by Charles Rector's son, George, who had been trained in exclusive Parisian restaurants and awarded a medal from La Société des Cuisiniers de Paris.

Rector's Restaurant played a significant part in the Thaw-White murder trial in 1907.  On February 25, 1907, attorney James Jerome questioned Evelyn Nesbit Thaw on the stand, "When did you first meet Thaw?"  

She replied, "I think it was either in December, 1901, or January 1902."


"At Rector's Restaurant, at a dinner given by Mr. Thaw.  It was after a matinee, and the dinner lasted about an hour.  I was accompanied by another girl."

Stanford White's chauffeur, John Burns, testified that in February 1905 (prior to Nesbit's marriage to Thaw) he had driven the two to her home from Rector's, and again in September that year (following the wedding) he drove them from the restaurant to her hotel.

On February 21, Evelyn testified that she, Harry Thaw, and another couple had spent Christmas Eve 1903 at the restaurant.  She became indignant when attorney James Jerome asked, "Didn't you have to be helped out of Rector's at 4 o'clock in the morning because you had drunk so much wine?"

Decades before the concept of credit cards, even well-heeled patrons sometimes found themself short of funds when the bill arrived.  Such was the case in 1907 when August Bonoit, "after ordering, eating and enjoying a sumptuous Christmas dinner," as worded by the New-York Tribune, was unable to pay his $12 check (just under $400 in 2023).  The management's Christmas spirit was not sufficient to brush the matter off and Bonoit was arrested.  He was also charged with stiffing a cabman, Seward Meltzer.  The magistrate was short on holiday warmth, as well.  "I don't mind you defrauding Rector's," he said, "because I think they can stand a little loss, but I am going to punish you for defrauding this cabman."

After attending the theater on November 13, 1908, broker Cyril Hatch took his party of eight to Rector's.  They enjoyed themselves until 5:30 in the morning, when the waiter presented a check for $35.20 (just over $1,000 today).  Hatch told the waiter he "had been in the habit of charging items to his account."  The waiter, however, insisted on payment.

Hatch's fury prompted the waiter to "withdraw," and the broker attempted to leave the restaurant.  But the doors had already been locked.  When head waiter Charles Decermeaux attempted to intervene, Hatch struck him.  The following day The New York Times headlined an article "Broker Hatch Locked Up."

The restaurant building was vised between taller structures at the time of the Cyril Hatch incident.  image from the collection of the New York Public Library.

The waiter's insistence on having the bill paid in cash may have been prompted by an incident the previous month.  William M. Schwenker, Jr., described by the New-York Tribune as "the son of a millionaire dealer in brewers' supplies," was married to actress Mae Murray in September 1908, and hosted an extravagant wedding breakfast at Rector's that cost the equivalent of $18,000 today.  Seven months later, on April 10, 1909, the New-York Tribune wrote, "The restaurant man has been trying ever since to get his money."

On June 5, 1909 The Sun reported that Charles E. Rector had hired architect John Russell Pope to design a 12-story hotel at the southeast corner of Broadway and 44th Street, "replacing the present Rector restaurant."  The project spurted along, with Pope being replaced by Chicago architects D. H. Burnham & Co.  Finally, on February 1, 1910 Charles E. Rector assembled a party of ten in a private room in Rector's "to celebrate the launching of the new Rector enterprise," according to the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide.  The article noted that the contract for demolishing the old building and erecting the new one had been signed.

D. H. Burnham & Co. released a rendering of the proposed structure in 1910.  Record & Guide, February 19, 1910 (copyright expired)

The replacement building was demolished to make way for 1500 Broadway, designed by Leo Kornblath and completed in 1972..

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  1. The replacement building, originally Rector's Hotel, later the Claridge Hotel, was the site of the famous Camel billboard (with the smoke rings), and Hector's Cafeteria, which I always thought was a tribute to Rector's since it was in the same location.

  2. "The Girl From Rector's," a naughty sex farce, and "The Easiest Way," a celebrated drama about an actress who tries but fails to lead a moral existence, both appeared on Broadway in 1909. The latter has a famous closing speech as the heroine, in despair, says to her maid, "Doll me up, Annie, doll me up! Dress up my body and paint up my face! I'm going to Rector's to make a hit and to hell with the rest!"