Monday, December 20, 2010

Inside Schrafft's

Back in 2008, when they were ready to tear down 61 Fifth Avenue, I wrote here about the building's history--originally as a Schrafft's, then the Lone Star Cafe, then a down-and-out gallery for street art.

Photo by: Samuel H. Gottscho, from MCNY

Now, the MCNY digital collection offers an array of amazing interior shots of 61 Fifth when it was a Schrafft's. And it was a beauty.

You entered through a revolving door to a long cocktail bar on your left and a glass case of cookies and pastries on your right, heaped with floral arrangements, gift baskets, and boxes of chocolates.

Photo by: Samuel H. Gottscho, from MCNY

Ahead, the dining tables draped with white linens surrounded a grand staircase that swooped upward, framed with glistening art-moderne banisters, and burst through a semi-circular opening in the ceiling where second-story diners perched.

Critic Lewis Mumford hated the place. In 1938 he scrutinized this Schrafft's "screwy" curved front, calling it "the new cliche and it will soon belong in the done-to-death department." He goes on to say that the building is "a pretty sorry mishmash" with "ill-assorted windows" and a "crazy little balcony." He liked the interior better, but not enough to say anything good about it.

Photo by: Samuel H. Gottscho, from MCNY

These photos were taken in 1938. By 1969, this Schrafft's was a scene for salad-eating staff members from Women's Wear Daily, New School faculty, and "the loftmen of 14th Street," according to a wonderful description of the place in New York Magazine. At twilight, the dinner hour is filled with "L.O.L.'s"--that didn't mean laughter in 1969, but "Little Old Ladies"--"in wrappy turbans and veiled pouf hats, sherbety pastel and watercolor print dresses. They sit in a row, carving little individual loaves of raisin bread and hoisting Manhattans." (Really, read the whole review.)

This Schrafft's also had its own sex symbol, according to the article, a man who looked like Monty Woolley and dressed in "wheat-colored linen suits." Monty Woolley? They're talking about this dapper fella:

Up the stairs, with the Women's Wear Daily salad munchers, the walls were painted with floral murals and scenes from the 1890s--ladies walking little dogs, men in top hats. I imagine, at this Schrafft's, no matter what you ordered or how little you spent, you felt elegant.

Photo by: Samuel H. Gottscho, from MCNY

According to a 1972 advertisement, you could be a businessman eating steak and drinking gigantic martinis, or a secretary worrying about money and nibbling on a cheap burger special. But, by and large, Schrafft's was a place that women liked. William Grimes writes in Appetite City, "it was the official dining spot for New York women of a certain class." This woman was depicted in New Yorker cartoons as "a plump uptown matron wearing a tiny outlandish hat."

from New York Magazine

The women in Mary McCarthy's The Group go to Schrafft's, and so do Rona Jaffe's female characters in The Best of Everything--those working girls lunched daily at the place, eating "tomato surprise" and drinking strawberry soda. Some men liked Schrafft's--perhaps "confirmed bachelors" like Mr. Woolley, and W.H. Auden, too. He wrote a poem about it, entitled "In Schrafft's." Says Auden of the Schrafft's woman:

"Having finished the Blue-plate Special
And reached the coffee stage,
Stirring her cup she sat,
A somewhat shapeless figure
Of indeterminate age
In an undistinguished hat..."

By the late 1960s, Schrafft's was trying to dump its L.O.L. image. They hired Andy Warhol to make one groovy commercial about an ice-cream sundae and in another featured "a trio of shapely girls attired in miniskirts" with the tagline "Have you seen the little old ladies in Schrafft's lately?"

But it was what it was. And by the 1980s it was gone.

Today, a 10-story luxury condo building is rising on the grave of the Schrafft's at 13th and 5th. It doesn't have a curved front.


Rachel said...

Beautiful piece; thanks so much for posting. I thought the New School was building their new big campus hub at 13th and 5th?

Rachel said...

Ahh... i'm thinking now... the condo will go up on the south side of 13th. So basically a stretch of two blocks will look completely different in a couple of years.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

There also was a Schrafft's candy store on 14th Street and Avenue A (where the fire destroyed the business) but even there it was too expensive for most of the neighborhood, was used mostly by residents of the hoity-toity Stuyvesant Town. 5th Avenue was too far to walk to in those days.

Anonymous said...

Back in '84 I saw Jerry Lee Lewis there. Amazing show, until in the middle of his show and in the middle of "Great Balls of Fire", he abruptly stopped, sprinted into to the mens room and threw up. The show was over.

Ahhh good times at the Lone Star.

Jeremiah Moss said...

anyone know what "loftmen of 14th St" means?

Norn Cutson said...

What a treat!
Thank you!

flaming_mo said...

Thank you so much for posting this. My grandfather used to work for Schrafft's as a soda jerk back in the 20s and 30s (he later went on to become a NY fireman) and used to tell some pretty interesting stories about working there. Including how they substituted veal for chicken in the chicken salad because it was cheaper!

Unknown said...

thanks for the post. excellent.

Anonymous said...

Great piece! Always wondered what the inside of this place looked like. NYC used to have several L.O.L. restaurants -- Susan Prince's, the Ladies Exchange for Women's Work ..... and Ye Waverly Inn was considered one before it got a new owner. But any Schrafft's was theatre, watching a L.O.L. spend two hours with a chopped steak and several Manhattans and more cigarettes than one can afford today.

JayV said...

My aunt lived in a 4th story walk up apartment in one of the Sailors Snug Harbor brownstones on the south side of E. 9th Street, between Fifth Ave. and University Pl. On visits to her during school vacations, she used to take us to that same Schrafft's you're written about! Thanks for jigglin' my memory!

Marty Wombacher said...

A great piece with wonderful links and photos. I loved that review from New York magazine. I'd give anything to go back in time and drink a Manhattan with some of the L.O.L.'s.

L'Emmerdeur said...

Funny, the last incarnation, Mr. Fuji's Tropicana (deli doesn't count as an "incarnation" in my book) seems to have been a harbinger of things to come: noisy, brash spot hot with the in crowd, stirring up storms with the locals. FWIW, I loved the place...

But when you are one of the only spots in town doing this, it's not so horrible. Fast forward 20 years, and the whole city has become a cancer of drunken, self-obsessed noise for noise's sake.

Therein lies the rub: it's not that the city has filled up with hot mess spots, it's that it has been overrun by a deluge of folks who want to go to hot mess spots, and anything else gets washed away.

Tricia said...

Thanks for the lovely trip back in time and for revealing the true meaning of LOL! I didn't get to see the Schrafft's building until it was the Lone Star Cafe. But Schrafft's chocolates- Made in Massachusetts!-- were a family favorite when I was a kid growing up in New England.

ny edge said...

You piqued my curiosity about "loftmen of 14th St" the only references I could find were about paper mill workers (see below from 1914 Labor Dept bulletin)
There certainly weren't any paper mills on 14th St in 1969 -- maybe an obscure reference to the "rag" trade????


(Including Pullers, Hangers, Loft Helpers, Dampeners, Bay Men.)

Hangers or loftmen hang sheets of wet sized paper which are to be loft-dried over poles in the loft.

Stick boys keep boxes full of sticks for festooning surface-coated paper on racks to dry.

Pullers or baymen remove the loft-dried paper from the poles when it is dry. During the process of drying they open the bunches of paper in order that the air may get between the sheets. Dampeners is another name sometimes used for hangers and pullers.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks everyone for sharing info and memories. i wish there were more LOL restaurants today, too.

nyedge--interesting stuff. maybe the "rag trade"--but at 14th and 5th? i was thinking maybe the writer meant artists living in lofts? i really have no idea.

Anonymous said...

Tina Carignan said...

My mother Elsa Evensen was a Candy Girl at one of the Schraffts in New York City during the 1940's, she was from Norway, came to this country at 16 around 1927. She told me that one time she waited on Jane Russell. Thank you so much for your blog, just seeing the pictures of the Schraffts locations was wonderful.

Tina Carignan

JWagner said...

As a college kid I went to Schraffts with a girlfriend. We loved the place! In 1984 I saw Sly Stone play there...he was late as usual, but boy, when he played all was forgotten!
Wonderful place, wish it was still here.

These developers have absolutely no sense of history or class. They are ruining New York.

Editor said...

My mother, Lois Richards (Maiden name) was a hostess there after the war. She told stories of how they let the salesgirls eat all the chocolate they wanted. After a couple weeks they couldn't stand it. Lucille Ball used to eat there and other NY notables.


Angela Trout said...

I've been on the Smithsonian Institute's Arago website reading letters written by a WWII soldier -|sq=jack%20fogarty|sf=0 - and he mentioned receiving "Schrafts wonderful assortment" in a package. I had to look it up and find out what it was, and I was delighted to find your blog post! Thank you for sharing this. I hate to see history lost forever. It's so nice to find a kindred spirit interested in keeping the memories alive.

Benjamin Wolinsky said...

I was in there in 1997, it had become a bodega with a cheap salad bar. The upstairs balcony was still there, it was now the seating area. It had the bar, which had clearly not been used in a long time. I had no idea about the history of the place.

Stevano said...

Is there any more info on the sex symbol man who looked like Monty Woolley ? Was he a local character ?

Bogframe said...

Loftmen of 14th Street may also be a reference to the artists at the nearby Salmagundi Club. Artists took up a lot of loft space in the neighborhood.