At 5:32 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st amendment to the Constitution. With the requisite three-fourth states majority, prohibition came to an end after 13 years, 10 months and 19 days. The era of the speakeasy was over, the era of swank nightclubs was about to begin and “café society” born.
The Plaza Hotel opening in 1907 typified the Beaux-Arts style so popular in the first decade of the 20th Century. For the next two and half decades the Plaza represented Edwardian respectability.
Now that prohibition was a thing of the past, the management of the Plaza wanted a new space to attract the night life crowd; a space to compete against nightclubs, like The Stork Club, El Morocco and The Central Park Casino. The New York Times announced the plan for the nightclub on January 31, 1934:
Hotel Plaza Plans New Cocktail Room
Corner at 5th Av. and 58th St. Will be Fitted Up at Cost of $50,000.
The Plaza Operating Company filed plans with the Building Department yesterday for a new cocktail room in the south corner of the Hotel Plaza, at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-eighth Street. The new room will contain a service bar and dance floor and will cost $50,000.
Four windows will face on the east overlooking the Plaza, from which side there will be a special entrance. Other approaches will be from the lobby of the hotel and from the Palm Court.. The new room will be known as the Persian Room and will be designed and decorated by the Joseph Urban Associates.
Five murals reminiscent of old Persians miniatures are being designed by Lillian Gaertner Palmedo for this room, which will seat from 250 to 300 persons. A twenty-seven-foot bar will adorn the west wall and on the south side of the room there will be raised orchestra platform for about fifteen musicians.
As the article in the Times reported, Joseph Urban Associates undertook the job of designing the new nightclub. Joseph Urban one of the most famous designers in the United States in the 1920’s and 1930’s had designed the Ziegfeld Theatre and The Central Park Casino among many other famous buildings in New York had died the previous May. His company certainly kept his aesthetic alive in the Persian Room. The oval shape of the ceiling as well as the use of black carrara glass and gold panels is more than just a little reminiscent of Urban’s design of the Urban Room in Pittsburgh. Less than four months from the announcement of the new club the room opened to the public.
Scheduled for an early April opening, Vogue Magazine of April 1, 1934 described the new night spot this way:
Consider, for instance, the Plaza, which for years has been as nobly aloof from the jazz age as the professionally quaint cab drivers outside its door. Well, the Plaza is stepping out to meet a new life. On the second of April, it is opening a brand-new room, called the Persian Room because of the subtly intricate Persian murals designed by the Joseph Urban Associates. The proceeds of the grand gala will go to the New York Infirmary. In the Persian Room, you will see a New York that is not (thank God!) Lillian-Russell-Bustanoby’s-Diamond-Jim-Brady any more than it is the New York of the speakeasy era.
You can’t describe the atmosphere, because there is nothing with which to compare it. Certainly, the room has nothing to do with the marbled, potted-palm lobby which lies outside its door. The Persian Room is a sport, a freak, an anachronism. Only a very great lady could afford to be so whimsical and so disdainful of tradition. The room is, in short, New York in the spring of 1934. A bar and café and (when the occasion demands) a supper room with space for orchestra and dancing. It overlooks the Plaza and is as modern – with concealed flood-lighting (each table top is specially illuminated), a white-and-red colour scheme, and a metal-and-ebony bar – as you could ask. The lighting alone is worth going a considerable distance to see, and, if the ghost of Mr. Urban ever walks, it might well drop in at the Persian Room and look things over: the chances are it would approve.
After it’s April 2nd gala opening night, the Persian Room became one of the most successful New York City Night clubs. Many top performers appeared there in the forty-one years it was open. But the original decor would not last even a decade.
When the Persian Room closed for the summer in 1942, its decor so chic and modern in 1934, seemed very dated. The Art Deco gave way to what we now call “Hollywood Regency”. Gone were four of five murals and black cararra glass. Legendary café society performer Hildegarde reopened the re-modeled Persian Room in late September, 1942. L. L. Stevenson in his syndicated column Lights of New York reported on October 31, 1942 wrote the following about the new decor:
In honor of the advent of Hildegarde, the Persian Room, for the second time since it opened in 1934, has undergone a complete change in decor and minor change in arrangement. The noted Lillian Gaertner Palmedo Persian murals are still over the bandstand, but little else remains of the past. A terrace, with a balustrade and a full-lenght banquette, has been built along the Fifth Avenue side, reducing the capacity of the from 300 to 275, and thus making it that much more intimate.
The 1942 Re-Model
Malcolm Johnson’s, September 29, 1942 “Cafe Life in New York” column in The New York Sun had this to say about the new Persian Room:
It is enough to say that its new dress, with egg shell white as the dominant motif, is bright and cheerful and quite unlike any thing the Persian Room has worn before. Only one of the famous murals remains – the one over the bandstand – and the room has been terraced to command a better view of the floor than in the past.
Even this “new” Persian Room would not last a decade. Conrad Hilton purchased the Plaza Hotel in 1943. In 1950 Hilton contacted famed industrial and interior designer Henry Dreyfuss to discuss plans about a complete renovation of the space. Dreyfuss, writing in his 1955 book, Designing for People, said this about his redesign of the Persian Room:
More than appearance is involved in remodeling and redecorating a night club. The industrial designer must think also in terms of air conditioning, lighting, easy access for the waiters through the crowded tables, acoustics, fire exits – but always glamour. The most popular night spots are those in which lighting magically erases wrinkles and double chins, making dowagers look like debutantes and tired merchants feel like Olympic champions.
Our examination of the room recalled the excavations of the site of ancient Troy. Four successive designers over a period of forty years had imposed their ideas on the room, but, unfortunately, the last three had not bothered to remove the previous interiors, which nested one inside the other. In order to enlarge the capacity and satisfy a critical municipal building code and fire department, the four interiors were removed, and we got a fresh start from the brick walls. We settled on a diagonal plan that would give every seat a good view. The bandstand, therefore, was placed in one corner and everything fanned out from it.
Our design was contemporary, but with a Persian motif chosen because of the famous name of the room, and for this we visited museums and haunted the Iranian Institute, reading the lore of Iran and studying Persian temples and miniatures. The Persian Room has eight enormous windows twenty feet high on two of its walls. For these we had curtains woven of deep blue and green with metallic strands.
Alice Hughes in her September 29, 1950 Buffalo Courier Express column wrote:
New York, Sept. 28 – Tonight’s the night when the jogalong horse-and-buggy pace of the Hotel Plaza is jet-propelled into this new electronic world. It’s the night of the opening of the fabulous new Persian Room, the Plaza’s cafe, rebuilt and recreated this past Summer by Henry Dreyfuss. He is the industrial architect whose designs went into the American Export luxury liners Constitution and Independence, also the new 20th Century Limited, also the erstwhile New York World’s Fair exhibits. What he has created for the Persian Room is a secret until tonight. That it will surpass most going night clubs is without doubt for Dreyfuss is a superb designer.
“Mid-Century Modern” is the best way to describe the new decor. And in this design the Persian Room would thrive for the next decade-and-half. But in the late 1960’s the era of the super club came to an end. The Persian Room closed for good in 1975. A dress shop went into the space that formerly hosted some of the top entertainers in American show business. Today the Rose Club occupies the space and it fits in nicely with the rest of the Plaza Hotel stylistically.
But lets end with one last look at the original Persian Room. The very short-lived elegant club that ushered in a new era just after the end of Prohibition.
Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, ‘Tiquen Guys)