Delmonico’s turned 180 years old this week, and its current incarnation turned up and turned out in style to celebrate the amazing milestone with Gilded Age celebrities, costumes, and food.
Granted, one hundred and eighty years means that despite the grand restaurant being synonymous with the Gilded Age, it was founded well before the robber barons and Astors and Vanderbilts turned Fifth Avenue into a rich man’s playground. It was in 1837, to be exact, that the Delmonico brothers–John and Pietro–emigrated to American and opened a pastry shop in the business district of New York. They quickly prospered, with merchants, bankers, and the like addicted to the deliciously light and airy French pastries and hot coffee that was then a novelty to many Americans. The brothers were frugal, yet visionary, and when they accumulated enough business, they opened a restaurant next door to the pastry shop–Delmonico’s.
The lavish French and Italian dishes produced from Delmonico’s kitchens matched the zeitgeist of the proto-Gilded Age of the 1840s and 1850s, where the Erie Canal and railroads created a cohort of men who were millionaires one day and paupers the next. New York’s increasing prominence as the hub of American culture and high life also helped the prominence of Delmonico’s, since visiting European entertainers, artists, writers, and royals gravitated towards finely-cooked meals that reminded them of the best restaurants across the Atlantic.
Delmonico’s entered its iconic stage in the 1860s, when nephew Lorenzo Delmonico took the reins and the famed chef Charles Ranhofer entered its kitchens. Throughout the Gilded Age, there were actually multiple Delmonico’s locations across Manhattan, though the flagship location, so to speak, was located in a luxurious building at Fifth Avenue and 26th Street from 1876-1899. As early as the 1850s, Delmonico’s was the preferred site for high society gatherings, from suppers to cotillions. Though the brownstones of Old New York’s Knickerbockers were obviously too small to accommodate large parties, the practice of relatively public events held at Delmonico’s (or its rival, Sherry’s) was retained even after wealthy New Yorkers migrated up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square, where they built astonishing mansions. The reason for this: Ward McAllister, the social arbiter and the Mrs. Astor’s right hand man until his fall from grace in the early 1890s.
Delmonico’s under the approval of McAllister, the management of Lorenzo’s nephew Charles (Lorenzo died in 1881) and later Charles’s nephew Charles “Young Charley” Delmonico, and the chef’s knife of Ranhofer, reached it epoch. The 1880s and 1890s saw Delmonico’s as the site of many of the Gilded Age’s most infamous dinners, where multimillionaires splashed out thousands of dollars for the finest food and wine, the best cutlery, and the most luxurious of decor.
This was also the period in which the most famous Gilded Age dish, Lobster à la Newburg was invented by Ranhofer. The recipe originated from a sea captain named Ben Wenburg, but when he had a falling out with Ranhofer, the Delmonico’s chef merely replicated the dish with his own tweaks–including inverting its originator’s name!
The battle of the restaurant of the Four Hundred was waged in the 1890s, when Louis Sherry opened his eponymous restaurant and specialized in the types of treats and decor that appealed to the ladies of the Four Hundred. Sherry’s was also larger than Delmonico’s, which attracted the growing number of diners annoyed by the long wait-times to get into “Del.” Young Charley responded by closing the location at 26th Street and building a larger restaurant at 44th Street in 1897–though, by this time, competition for the patronage of the wealthy and famous was stiff, with the Waldorf-Astoria opening its doors that same year, and popular night spots known as “lobster palaces” siphoned the more raffish crowd. Nevertheless, if a member of high society or a politician wished to host a stately dinner, Delmonico’s was the only proper place to do it.
Most of Gilded Age New York’s popular restaurants fell afoul of Prohibition, but as seen with the 180th birthday celebration, the spirit of Delmonico’s continues to live on!
Museum of the City of New York Opens
Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery and Gilded New York, the inaugural Exhibition
Exhibition showcases beautiful design objects from New York’s Gilded Age as visual markers of the city’s metamorphosis into cultural capital
On November 13, the Museum of the City of New York will unveil The Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery. Its design and construction were made possible through a grant from The Tiffany & Co. Foundation. The Foundation’s Excellence in Design program supports organizations that are enhancing the field of the decorative arts.
The Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery and the installation of its inaugural exhibition Gilded New York, are designed by New York-based William T. Georgis Architects. The jewel-box gallery located on the City Museum’s third floor will feature newly constructed, state-of-the-art display cases that evoke a Gilded Age domestic interior finished with herringbone wood flooring, decorative wallpaper, mirrored window shutters, draperies, as well as a historic chandelier and fireplace mantel from the Museum’s collections. An elegant space, The Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery beautifully complements the Museum’s Georgian Revival design.
Gilded New York will be on view from November 13, 2013 to November 30, 2014 and is a vivid exploration of the city’s visual culture at the end of the 19th century, when its elite class expressed their high status through extravagant fashions, jewelry, and decorative arts. Although often derided for its excess, the Gilded Age was also notable for its national aspirations in the arts and design. During these years, the United States—and its cultural capital, New York City—achieved a new level of sophistication in painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts, enabling the nation to compete for the first time on a world stage and giving rise to a golden age that was worthy of the name “American Renaissance.”
Overview of the Exhibition
Fashionable outfits and accessories were a highly visible marker of wealth as changing styles demanded frequent and vast expenditures of funds to stay abreast of current trends. Paris couturier Charles Frederick Worth, whose “Electric Light” fancy dress gown was worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II to the Vanderbilt Ball, was in great demand among New York’s leading families. Worth’s stunning scarlet silk damask evening dress in chrysanthemum pattern, also showcased in the exhibition, is another example of the trend towards a glamorous look. Meanwhile, Manhattan shops provided a wealth of Parisian-inspired goods, including extraordinary ostrich, and eagle feather fans; a cigarette case adorned with sapphires; and a gold-and-diamond card case, which were the mainstays of an upper-class lady’s public costume and will be included in the exhibition. With the advent of what became known as “Ladies’ Mile,” fashion-conscious elite and middle class women were drawn to an expanse of densely packed department stores in Manhattan, delimited by 14th Street and 23rd Street on the north and south axis, and between Broadway and Sixth Avenue along the east and west. This well-lit shopping district enabled women to walk on the street unaccompanied by chaperones, where they could study and purchase the latest designs displayed behind modern, plate-glass windows.
Complementing the increasing opulence in fashion, jewelry design reached new and dazzling heights during the Gilded Age. For decades, Americans on their European Grand Tours had purchased archeological-style jewelry popularized by designers like Italian Fortunato Pio Castellani and his son, Alessandro, but by the 1890s, they began to turn toward talented French jewelers like Cartier and others who exhibited at Paris’s international expositions. In New York City, the rise of Tiffany & Co., which sold splendid jewels such as the platinum, diamond, and seed pearl choker on view, helped to make the city an attractive and growing center for luxury jewelry. The fine craftsmanship of jewelers like Marcus & Co., evident in their multi-strand arts and crafts necklace composed of gold, demantoid garnets, natural pearls, and plique-à-jour enamel, contributed to this trend. Other New York jewelers whose work will be seen include those by the firm of Theodore B. Starr as well as Dreicer & Co., whose brilliant platinum, pearl, and diamond necklace is also on display.
Decorative Arts and Paintings
Wealthy New Yorkers traveled to Europe and returned with luxurious mementos that attested to their experiences abroad. Some of the items they collected were modern reinterpretations of ancient techniques, Italy being a major source of these purchases. They shipped quantities of Venetian glass—such as those in the exhibition—including drinking glasses, wine goblets and glass blown decanters. Women adorned themselves with archeological-style jewelry, popular since the 1850s, which included gold earrings and bracelets with depictions of landscapes, doves, and other subjects depicted in micromosaic settings, also on display.
Whether bought at home or abroad, decorative objects in silver and gold were key attributes of a well-appointed life. Large and elaborate flatware services included specialized forms designed for culinary delights ranging from oysters to ice cream. Some services reached astonishing sizes, as in the case of a silver-gilt set ordered by William K. Vanderbilt from Tiffany & Co. that numbered more than 900 pieces, and from which a five-piece place setting will be on view. Silver presentation pieces marking important sporting and civic events such as yacht races – as in the handsome 1889 Goelet Prize for Sloops that is adorned with seaweed-draped mermaids – grew in size and grandeur as the century progressed. Silver and gold were also the preferred materials for personal gifts as in the case of the vessel and salver (or stand) designed by Crichton Brothers of London and New York as a golden anniversary gift from J. P. Morgan to the parents of Joseph Hodges Choate, New York lawyer and Ambassador to the Court of Saint James.
Stylish interiors also included fine furniture by Herter Brothers such as inlaid and gilded side chairs and jewelry cabinets such as those in this exhibition. New York area ceramics manufacturers also developed artistic wares that could rival those of Europe. And indeed, many of these manufacturers displayed their artistic wares at international fairs as well as in New York at luxury shops. Luxury tableware in porcelain included such items as oyster plates then growing in popularity, and seen in the exhibition. Some firms benefitted from the talents of foreign-born decorators like Edward Lycett, who in his designs for the Faience Manufacturing Company of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, imparted a richly colored and patterned style based on the exotic shapes and colors of the Near and Far East.
During this time, New York and the United States also achieved a level of sophistication in painting and sculpture that elicited comparisons to the European Renaissance and was therefore frequently characterized as the “American Renaissance.” This is evident from painted portraits of society figure Eleanor Iselin Kane (Mrs. DeLancey Astor Kane) and her son DeLancey Iselin Kane, both by Thomas Dewing, and the bronze bust of New York financier August Belmont by John Quincy Adams Ward.
Digital Photography Displays of Social Events and Architecture
Turn-of-the-century New York was marked by the sudden rise of industrial and corporate wealth, amassed by such titans and their socially ambitious wives as Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt and Caroline and William Backhouse Astor Jr. who were eager to display their wealth and express their high status through extravagant fashions, exquisite jewelry, and no-cost-spared art and design showcased at lavish balls and other social events. Originally these parties had been limited to existing members of the old guard, but as “new money” infiltrated the city, confusion arose over who was “in” and who was “out.” The excessive quality of these functions is evident in the photograph titled “Billings Horseback Dinner at Sherry’s, 1903,” where New York’s prominent gentlemen are having dinner at a restaurant while remaining on horseback. Wealth was also displayed by the grand residences along Fifth Avenue as well as the high-end shops where women went shopping along known as “Ladies’ Mile. Photographs of these glamorous social events as well as the extraordinary residences and interiors of the era will be displayed on digital monitors outside the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery.
All of these achievements contributed to the city’s coming of age. For the first time, New Yorkers consciously asserted themselves as international tastemakers and their city as a world capital, endowed with an ambition that has made—and remade—the city ever since. Gilded New York is organized by Donald Albrecht, the City Museum’s Curator of Architecture and Design; Jeannine Falino, an independent curator; and Phyllis Magidson, the City Museum’s Curator of Costumes and Textiles. The accompanying book Gilded New York is edited by Donald Albrecht and Jeannine Falino, with essays by them, as well as Phyllis Magidson, Susan Gail Johnson, and Thomas Mellins. It is co-published with The Monacelli Press.
About the Tiffany & Co. Foundation
Since its inception in 1837, Tiffany & Co. has been guided by the belief that a successful company has a responsibility to the greater community. The Tiffany & Co. Foundation was established in 2000 to focus the company’s philanthropic endeavors. Please visit http://www.tiffanyandcofoundation.org to learn more about The Tiffany & Co. Foundation’s work.
About the Museum of the City of New York
Founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation, the Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. The Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City, and serves the people of the city as well as visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections. Visit http://www.mcny.org to learn more.
I haven’t already noticed, I have a particular fondness for slang. Though the phrase “23 Skidoo” was popularized in the 1890s, it is indelibly associated with the strong draft of wind that whistles around the corner of the Flatiron Building (or Fuller Building) at 23rd Street. Meaning to scram, to get away, to hightail it out of there, its association with this particular corner is characterized in this account by Sir Phillip Burne-Jones, in Dollars and Democracy, his travelogue of the United States in the early 1900s:
One vast horror, facing Madison Square, is distinctly responsible for a new form of hurricane, which meets unsuspecting pedestrians as they reach the corner, causing them extreme discomfort. I suppose the wind is in some way intercepted by the towering height of the building, and forced down with fury into an unaccustomed channel. When its effects first became noticeable, a little rude crowd of loafers and street arabs used to congregate upon the curb to jeer at and gloat over the distress of ladies whose skirts were blown into their eyes as they rounded the treacherous corner. Hanging about this particular spot soon became a recognised and punishable offence, and any one loitering there more than a few moments is now promptly “moved on” by the police. A lawsuit is also at this moment pending against the owner of this building, brought by a neighbouring tradesman whose shop-window has twice been blown in by the newly created whirlwind.
This video from October 1903 shows how strong the winds were!