Written by Mimi Sheraton, Opening Food Researcher for The Four Seasons/Restaurant Associates (1958-1959) and Former New York Times Food Critic (1976-1983). Consultant to Major Food Group (2016-2017).
Birth of a Landmark
It all began with the building, informally if never officially known as the Seagram Building. According to all reliable accounts, Mr. Samuel Bronfman, president of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, based in Canada, decided to build a stunning corporate headquarters in Manhattan at a time when his daughter, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, the apple of his eye, was living in Paris. When she learned of the architect he had chosen, Phyllis Lambert objected to a choice she considered banal and wrote to her father suggesting that he use his money to create something really new, elegant and important – a modern classic. He then offered her the project as her own if she would return to New York. Well-versed in the art of architecture , the indomitable Phyllis Lambert astutely settled on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson as liaison and overseer of both the exterior and interior, both champions of what was known as the International Style. In an interview I had with Mr. Johnson, he explained how the decision on the building’s exterior material was made. He said that he, Mr. Bronfman and Mies were walking along Park Avenue and Bronfman saw something made of bronze which he liked very much and asked if that would work. And thus was bronze chosen, never mind its costliness. “Mr. Sam held the purse strings and there were none,” Philip Johnson told me.
To be sure, this stately shaft with its mellow burnished bronze facade and the supple light reflected from its chain-windows is indeed a modern classic, and along with glassy-green Lever House and the monumental Eero Saarinen designed CBS building – aka Black Rock – represent a high point in modern architectural design in New York. Feeling somewhat competitive with Black Rock, Johnson told me Saarinen had made a mistake by having visitors step down to a plaza to enter the building, whereas at Seagram, one had to step up – thus approaching with reverence, he explained.
One controversy about the restaurant’s position in the building, was about its address. They felt strongly that it should be a number below one hundred so it would not sound “too far east,” but the U.S. Post Office officials thought differently. As many conversations as I heard about this, I never found out what it took to finally snag 99 East 52nd.
To most people in the beginning, the Pool Room seemed the most glamorous and dramatic and so the place to be. But my heart was always with the Bar. It seemed more intimate, clubby, even perhaps a bit more serious or intellectual and the supple French walnut wall paneling had a warmer glow as it picked up the light from the soaring 20-foot windows. Set off by an oak floor and more walnut, the bar itself might be considered sculpture and, as always, the action around it was cause for imagination.
In the early days after the restaurant opened, my favorite moments came around 11:40 in the morning . I would stand a few steps up the south stairway leading to the mezzanine and imagine the drama that was about to begin. Close to noon early arrivals would wander toward tables or stop at the bar for a drink; gradually the traffic increased to a quick pace between 12:30 and 12:45 and by 1:45 it began to thin out I thought about the poetic line, “the airy footsteps of the things that almost happen,” and this to me was “the airy footsteps of the things about to happen.” Restaurants are settings for many personal dramas especially when the there is a high-powered clientele. People get hired or fired; romances begin or end; influential deals are cut and friends become enemies or vice-versa. All the while, they just keep eating.
In the Lippold sculptures over Bar and Mezzanine there are 4000 rods said to be gold-dipped brass by Landmarks Preservation Commission. Each is hung by two wires, adding up to 8000 wires.
Although beauty is its own excuse for being, as the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, these blocks of hanging rods were also designed to define specific areas by visually organizing the space under them. Through the years they have had to be cleaned intermittently, always still hanging with wires being replaced as necessary. The cleaning was always done from careening ladders by Richard Lippold’s assistant, Gianni Morselli, it is now performed by Morselli’s son. Marilyn Gelfman assisted in the original hanging and complained that workmen kept looking up her skirt while she was high on the ladders.
Perhaps the most remarked design feature is the soaring window treatment throughout. The answer to a difficult challenge was the chains, substituting for curtains. The 18 to 20ft high windows had to be covered somehow, both to filter out glaring light and to instill some sense of privacy and intimacy and create a felicitous setting at night. One day while I was in Joe Baum’s office, he dropped three chains on the desk, saying “These are it!” “These are what?” I asked, “Curtains,” he said.
The idea came from the talented weaver, Marie Nichols. Made of aluminum, the chains were in three colors: a sort of silver, a yellow gold, and a bronze rose-gold. They provided a perfect answer, first because they fulfilled the requirement that they be fire-proof. But their main value remains in the surprise beauty. Hung in lacy swags to suggest Venetian shades, the chains, surprisingly, rippled upward, an unintended result of rising air currents. By day they are transparent enough to afford a filmy view of the surrounding city and filter overly bright daylight. By night, when the windows go dark, the chain curtains become opaque, lending a reassuring enclosed look to the rooms.