Where the Password Is Deco


Helene Stapinski

The New York Times

The Red Room at KGB Bar

NIGHT and day, New York reveals itself as the Art Deco capital of the world. I don’t mean just the obvious treasures — the Chrysler Building, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center — but the Deco surprises that decorate just about every other block.

This seems especially so nowadays, with the growing interest in 1920s and ‘30s bar culture. Some of the detail is original, and some is hauled in from other places. But on a dark and rainy night, hurrying along under your slick black umbrella, you can move from Deco bar to Deco bar, Deco club to Deco restaurant to Deco hotel lobby, and not even realize it’s 2014.

There are the soaring facade and interior of Eleven Madison Park, by some of the same architects who designed Rockefeller Center; Employees Only, an elegant 10-year-old West Village spot with a sophisticated menu and white-jacketed mixologists; the classic New Yorker Hotel in Midtown; the Flatiron Lounge, with its cobalt-blue mirrored wall and black velvet chairs that once belonged to Liza Minnelli; and Three Diamond Door, a new bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with prosecco on tap. I’ve left out dozens.

Roberta Nusim, president of the Art Deco Society of New York, says the design from the period between the world wars appeals to generations well beyond those that experienced it.

“I think it brings you back to a period of endless possibilities,” she said. “There was the idea of speed, the idea of height, the idea of the limitless. The idea that we can soar to great heights via skyscraper or airplane. Going back to that period gives us that escape fantasy that we all need from time to time.”

Though its roots lie in 1925 Paris, Deco became a thoroughly American phenomenon — an expression of progress and forward movement.

The seeds of Ms. Nusim’s own love of Deco were planted when she was an 11-year-old at Herman Ridder Junior High School in the Bronx, a Deco gem from 1931. “I sat in those classrooms,” she said, “staring up at those chandeliers and those walls.”

Like hers, my obsession started long before I was even aware of it, inspired by the places that surrounded me growing up. I was born at the Margaret Hague Hospital, part of the Jersey City Medical Center, the stepped Art Deco ziggurat built by Boss Hague that you can still see from this side of the Hudson. (It’s now a condo development.)

But it took a particular night spot, much later, to awaken my deep love. The Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, where my husband and I became engaged nearly 20 years ago, was that place, as it has been for so many others. Opening just after Prohibition ended, it was designed by the architect Wallace K. Harrison and decorated by Elena Bachman Schmidt and Vincente Minnelli, then a set designer at Radio City.

Back in the early 1990s, we would take the elevator to the 65th floor of the Rock and pretend we were movie stars, nursing our pisco sours or martinis in the bar for as long as the rainbow-jacketed waiters would allow. The view was stunning, with the Deco wonder of the Empire State Building staring boldly back, the apartment, bodega and office lights sparkling below, and the city’s bridges stretching like diamond necklaces in the distance.

The Rainbow Room, with one of the few dozen landmark interiors in New York City, closed in 2009 but is now being refurbished and is expected to reopen this fall. Until then, my husband and I have plenty of new places to hit and lots of Deco memories to relive, each spot with a rich history much longer than our own, layer upon layer, like so much varnish stripped from an old bar top. Here are a few favorites.


The best haunts are those with a back story. In the late 1980s, when we first visited Commerce, hidden on a crooked street in the West Village, it was still the Blue Mill Tavern, a restaurant with traditional American and Portuguese specialties that had been there for 50 years, a windmill fixed to its facade. Right before it closed and became Grange Hall, I stole an ashtray with a blue drawing of the Blue Mill on it.

Many brunches and evening cocktails were consumed at Grange Hall. When it, too, closed, it briefly became the Blue Mill again, opened by the man who ran Chumley’s, the old speakeasy around the corner. But in 2007 Tony Zazula took over and started a 14-month makeover with the chef Harold Moore, formerly of Montrachet and March.

Mr. Zazula, a founder of Montrachet, also spent 10 years as vice president for sales and catering for the Rainbow Room, where he developed his own love of Deco.

“Art Deco takes its roots in sophistication, elegance and luxury,” Mr. Zazula said. “That’s what night life should be, glamorous and swanky.”


A little farther downtown is Odeon, another pearl. It opened in 1933 as the Towers Cafeteria — named for the tall stanchions supporting the elevated train lines that ran nearby — and was run by the same family for nearly half a century.

In the 1970s Lynn Wagenknecht met Keith McNally when they were working at One Fifth, a gorgeous Art Deco restaurant with porthole light fixtures and a mahogany bar pulled from the ocean liner Caronia. Ms. Wagenknecht, a waitress with a master’s in fine arts, and Mr. McNally, the maître d’hôtel at One Fifth (now Mario Batali’s Otto and no longer Deco), wanted to find their own place for a growing artist community downtown.

One day, walking around TriBeCa — well before gentrification — they looked in the window of the Towers, which was temporarily closed because of a garbage strike. The owners were dragging the garbage out themselves and started a conversation with the curious young couple. Less than a year later, Ms. Wagenknecht signed a 15-year lease for $1,500 a month.

The Odeon’s Brunswick bar was hauled in from a Long Island City warehouse. Terrazzo floors, wood paneling, porthole windows and globe lights were preserved and polished. The “cafeteria” part of the red neon is original, though the word “Towers” was replaced with “Odeon,” created by a retired sign maker in New Jersey. Ms. Wagenknecht installed it herself.

“To turn it on and have it light up was so exciting,” she said, laughing. She was the handyman for many years. For her first birthday after their opening, Mr. McNally gave her a big tool chest from Sears.

She and Mr. McNally are now divorced, but the Odeon, featured on the original cover of Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” with the twin towers looming in the background, has become a classic. Its clientele stretches from 20-somethings to people in their 80s who remember it when it was new.

When I lived in SoHo years ago, we stopped in regularly. We celebrated an anniversary there the night the ground invasion began in the first war with Iraq, hurrying home to watch the coverage on television. There was New Year’s Day brunch the morning after the Y2K scare in 2000, when my mother watched over my infant son while I enjoyed my first postpartum bloody mary. And the first visit after the neighborhood was devastated by the World Trade Center’s destruction just blocks away.

“It’s still a place that the neighborhood uses as their regular place,” said Ms. Wagenknecht, who still runs it. “We knew, working at One Fifth, that people were looking for that place.”

Edison Hotel

A 10-minute train ride uptown leads to one of the newest Art Deco rooms in the city: the stage set for “Bullets Over Broadway.” There’s a faux Deco nightclub and a stage-within-a-stage, featuring Deco statues that are actually live chorus girls.

After the show, walk through the mirrored lobby of the nearby Edison Hotel. This is where scenes from Woody Allen’s original film version were shot; it served as the penthouse lobby for the character Nick Valente. It’s also where Luca Brasi met his fate in “The Godfather.”

The hotel, circa 1931, has grown rough around the edges but it is undergoing a major rehabilitation. Its restaurant, Sofia’s, has been cleared out and will soon be replaced. But the lobby is as glorious as ever, filled with rounded velvet couches and armchairs, a starburst terrazzo floor design and brass handrails.

Hidden deep within the hotel is its grand ballroom, with marvelous Deco details. In the 1990s it was the Supper Club, a restaurant and big-band hot spot where I learned to swing dance. One of the travesties of New York night life is that this place is no longer open to the general public. It’s now used for private affairs like Super Bowl gatherings or Jennifer Lopez’s birthday party.

Zinc Bar

One of the “new” spots to hear big-band music is the Zinc Bar, a basement jazz club on West Third Street, just south of Washington Square. For 14 years, the Zinc was on Houston Street, but six years ago, Kristina Kossi, a sculptor, bought the Third Street building that then housed the Baggot Inn, an old rock club where I once played drums in a band. Back in the 1940s, it was known as the Cinderella Club, and Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk performed there. Ms. Kossi found all kinds of treasures in the basement, including period panels and a starburst mirror that she turned into a light fixture for the club. There are also sleek, nude Deco-influenced sculptures by Ms. Kossi, an etched-glass back bar and red velvet curtains hand-sewn by her mother, Ruth, a onetime seamstress for Radio City. (Ms. Kossi also runs the Flatiron Lounge, which is similarly decked out.)

Musicians like Jack Jeffers, who has played with the Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie orchestras, and Valery Ponomarev, who played trumpet with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, can be seen at the Zinc.

The place is family-run, with Ms. Kossi’s brother, Alex Kay, booking the gigs and her mother puttering around behind the bar.

When I asked Ms. Kossi to explain her affinity for Deco, she had to think for a moment and then blurted out that both her parents were once professional ice skaters at Rockefeller Center. She grew up on that ice, surrounded by the buildings’ Deco majesty.

“I spent all my days skating there,” she said. “So I guess I just spent too much time at Rockefeller Center.”

The Red Room

Another great Deco performance space is the Red Room, which opened this winter in a third-floor apartment above KGB Bar in the East Village. Denis Woychuk, who founded KGB Bar in 1993, said he needed a new project after his youngest went off to college.

“I wanted to do something where people can interact with one another,” he said. On a recent Thursday, the crowd was truly eclectic, with students, bikers and a smattering of musicians, including the pianist Cecil Taylor and Randy Jones, the cowboy from the Village People.

Resident performers include the Michael Arenella Quartet and a clown cabaret. The place has also featured the one-woman show “Garbo Dreams,” which returns on May 17. Mr. Woychuk is considering hiring a professional whistler who has performed at Carnegie Hall.

The real star is the room itself. Mr. Woychuk worked with the designers Bonnie DeWitt and Patrick Kennedy to recreate an intimate, speakeasy feel. Lucky Luciano ran an actual speakeasy called the Palm Casino on the site in 1922. If anything, the 19th-century room, with tin ceilings, had to be brought up to date to make it Deco. A large mirror is flanked by 10-foot-high brass sconces removed from a Detroit movie house. There are also newly made monochromatic, rainbow-arched panels and a sound booth, a copper bar, caramel-colored booths, an antique spy hole fixture, a copper gin tub and the red velvet curtains that give the room its name.

Long Island Bar

For more than half a century, Emma Sullivan; her husband, Buddy; and her cousins Pepita and Maruja ran the Long Island Restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, as a lunch place, serving homemade soups and burgers amid Art Deco splendor.

There were antique wooden telephone booths in which my young son loved to play; red and cream vinyl booths with coat racks attached; and, best of all, a curved wooden bar with a semicircular mirror shaped like a rainbow, one strip layered on top of the next like the back of the stage at Radio City. There was a large neon sign atop the place, but it hadn’t been lit since the early 1970s.

The restaurant closed in 2008, and the neighborhood mourned. Now and then, you’d press your face against the glass and wonder what would become of a circa 1949 bar, installed by Emma’s Spanish immigrant father, Ramon Montero.

When Toby Cecchini moved to the neighborhood from Chelsea, “like everybody else, I looked in the window a thousand times,” he said. Mr. Cecchini, who created the modern-day cosmopolitan while bartending at the Odeon in the ‘80s, ran his own bar, Passerby, in Chelsea. After that closed in 2008, he spent four years searching with his friend Joel Tompkins for a new space.

Then Mr. Cecchini met David Alperin, who runs Goose Barnacle, a men’s wear shop across the street from Long Island Restaurant. They got to talking, and Mr. Alperin asked why he didn’t consider that space.

“You must have heard the stories,” Mr. Cecchini replied. “Some crazy Spanish lady owns it and won’t talk to anybody. People leave notes under the door all the time, and she won’t even speak to them.” Mr. Tompkins, in fact, had left such a note four years earlier.

“Well, she’s not crazy really,” Mr. Alperin countered. “She’s my grandma.”

“I was like, ‘I meant crazy like a fox, like smart crazy,’ ” Mr. Cecchini backpedaled.

Mr. Alperin got the keys and took Mr. Cecchini and Mr. Tompkins over to see the restaurant. Ms. Sullivan, who is not crazy, saw the lights go on from her apartment across the street and ran over to investigate. She and Mr. Cecchini hit it off. A lease was signed.

In the course of a year and a half, Mr. Cecchini and Mr. Tompkins restored nearly every detail: the booths, the bar, the Formica-top tables, the paneled windows, the terrazzo floors, the pink and green neon, the stainless-steel beer console. The phone booths now sit in Goose Barnacle across the street and are used to hang clothes. In their place, Mr. Cecchini built matching benches. At the Atlantic Avenue end of the bar are three pink vinyl stools, each with a metal name tag, for Emma, Pepita and Maruja.

Mr. Cecchini stripped the wooden bar top himself. It was black from years of grease and smoke. He left some cigarette burns under the polyurethane for old times’ sake.

The new place, now the Long Island Bar and no longer serving lunch, opened six months ago. “Elevated bar food,” not the soups and burgers of Mrs. Sullivan’s day, is the fare. Mr. Cecchini’s new specialty drink is the Boulevardier, a Campari-colored concoction served in a coupe glass that matches the Deco pink neon atop the building. It was invented — naturally — in 1920s Paris.

The Deco Is in the Details

There isn’t exactly a consensus on what is and isn’t a Deco motif — there are so many — but look for these elements in Deco restaurants and night spots around town:

TERRAZZO FLOORS Practically required.

PORTHOLE WINDOWS Geometric forms in general.

SYMMETRY Two sconces are better than one.

STORY MURALS Colorful, inspirational, symbolic.

BRUNSWICK BARS Rich woods, polished until they gleam.

NEON Rectilinear is best.


Night spots mentioned in the article:

THE RED ROOM 85 East Fourth Street, East Village, 212-787-0155, redroomnyc.com.

ZINC BAR 82 West Third Street, Greenwich Village, 212-477-9462, zincbar.com.

COMMERCE 50 Commerce Street, West Village, 212-524-2301, commercerestaurant.com.

LONG ISLAND BAR 110 Atlantic Avenue, near Henry Street, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, 718-625-8908, thelongislandbar.com.

EDISON HOTEL, 228 West 47th Street, Manhattan, 212-840-5000, edisonhotelnyc.com.

THE ODEON 145 West Broadway, near Thomas Street, TriBeCa, 212-233-0507, theodeonrestaurant.com.

THREE DIAMOND DOOR 211 Knickerbocker Avenue, near Troutman Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn, 718-576-6136.

EMPLOYEES ONLY 510 Hudson Street, Greenwich Village, 212-242-3021, employeesonlynyc.com.

ELEVEN MADISON PARK 11 Madison Avenue, near 25th Street, 212-889-0905, elevenmadisonpark.com.

FLATIRON LOUNGE 37 West 19th Street, 212-727-7741, flatironlounge.com.

Original Article