Chris and I love to collect vintage magazines. The cover art can add a wonderful, period, decorative, Deco touch to a room. The advertisements are fun and informative, but it is the articles that are the real golden nuggets. I know it seems like everything is available on the World Wide Web, but that is not the case. Sometimes the articles in these vintage magazine are the only source for specific information and photographs. This is especially true of the article about the Central Park Casino in the August, 1929 issue of The Architectural Record. Chris purchased the magazine on Ebay several years ago and I’m glad he did – there were more pictures of the interior of the Casino in that article than I had ever seen before or since.
It is a shame that a restaurant as special as the Central Park Casino could be destroyed by political vindictiveness. The casino started life in 1864 as the Ladies Refreshment Salon in a building designed by Calvert Vaux. The Casino was located inside the park near 5th Avenue and just south of 72nd Street. By the 1920’s it was a restaurant that had seen better days. Mayor James J. (Gentleman Jimmy) Walker (1881-1946), who was elected to office in 1925, wanted to have a place to be entertained and to entertain visitors to the city, decided the Casino was the perfect place. Walker obtained the lease (by not exactly fair methods) and gave it to his friend, the hotelier Sidney Solomon.
Solomon hired famed Austrian-American architect, theatrical and film set and interior designer Joseph Urban (1872-1933) to do the $500,000 dollar renovation. Urban had just designed the Ziegfeld Theatre (1927-1966) on Sixth Avenue, as well as designing the sets for the first two shows in that theatre, Rio Rita and Show Boat. In 1928 Urban was at the peak of his fame. With a design style for visual impact and the dramatic he the transformed the Victorian restaurant into an ultra-moderne night club. The ball room, with its black mirrored ceiling, reflecting the crystal chandeliers and dancers enjoying the best orchestras of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, received the highest praise for design at the time. Joseph Urban’s design sketch for the mural seen in the below photograph, is the only surviving color record of the any of the Casino. “It presents a flora fantasy set against a soft, gold background.” – Carter Cole, Joseph Urban Architecture, Theatre, Opera, Film (Abbeville Press, Inc., 1992, Pg. 190-193). Consisting of pink and white flowers over dark green foliage, The side walls were decorated with stylized green leaves with pink and silver highlights on a black background.
Another popular room in the Casino was the Pavilion, a light, airy space with no obstructing columns. This was made possible by the use of Lamella construction for the roof, first developed for airplane hangers. Urban made good use of the lattice-work, painting it and the ceiling cream with stylized flora in red and green. Illuminating the room, were Urban’s enameled metal, indirect lighting chandeliers (Urban used similar chandeliers in several other buildings including the Atlantic Beach Club on Long Island).
A preview for the press was held on the evening of June 3rd. Joseph Urban was the chief figure at the reception. He explained to the New York Times the design he created:
“The moods of each room are established through rhythmic line and sensuous color and the whole composition each room plays up to the next room. (In) the main dining room, broad surfaces of silver, give a living neutral background to a pulsating rhythm of maroon and green. In the ballroom, the line of the mural composition is like the wave of a conductor’s baton beginning dance music, while dim reflections in the black glass ballroom ceiling give space and movement in sympathy to the life of the room. An entrance lobby where reliance on pure proportion serves as a foil to these formal rooms. The pavilion, where the freshness of Spring flowers and joyousness of a wind among young leaves inspired the decoration. An informal small dining room of fumed knotty pine, a ruddy ceiling and materials of vigorous texture and pattern.”
The New York Times, June 4, 1929, Pg. 30
On June 4, 1929 the renovated Central Park Casino opened its doors with a brilliant, invitation-only party for 600 guests at $10 ($139.00 in 2015) each. The intention of the new management was to make the Casino “a place for the fashionable and fastidious”. There was a fear that the Casino would be turned into a private club for Walker and his cronies, but that was never the plan. On June 5th the doors were open to the general public, but its menu prices and cover charges made it the most expensive restaurant in New York. The high prices would also be the main reason given for closing it down.
The Central Park Casino was a favorite after theatre destination for politicians, show business folk and the wealthy. It also drew the ire of Park Commissioner, Robert Moses (1888-1981). Moses hated Jimmy Walker, who he felt had insulted his mentor, New York Governor Al Smith and he hated Walker’s corrupt administration. A progressive administration came in when Fiorello Laguardia was elected mayor in 1934, two years after Walker resigned from office. In that same year Moses and three friends went to the Casino and Moses was unpleasantly surprised when their bill came to $27.00 ($480.00 in 2015), which was higher than the prices at the Plaza Hotel. The whole story of the political battle over the Central Park Casino can be found in Susannah Broyles excellent blog post for the Museum of the City of New York. Click on Robert Moses’ photograph below for the link to that article.
Moses’ public argument for closing the Casino was that there was no place for a restaurant in a public city park that was so out of reach for the majority of the citizens. But the proof of Moses’ vindictiveness toward Jimmy Walker was clear when the lease holder of the Casino, Sidney Solomon offered to revise the menu and cut prices to make it a more middle class restaurant, Moses still revoked the lease. In February of 1936 the Casino closed its doors, then came the final court battle to decide the fate of the structure. On May 1st the Appellate court decided that Moses had the power to tear down the building and five days later demolition began. In April, 1937, at the cost of $1,000,000 a playground replaced the Central Park Casino, and New York lost not only a historic building, but a one of the best late 1920’s modernistic design interiors.
For the entire article about the Central Park Casino from the Architectural Record, click on the photograph below.
It is sad that the Central Park Casino’s life as an ultra-smart night spot lasted less than seven years. And since New York changes so much, so fast, the Central Park Casino has not only vanished physically, but also in the minds almost everybody.