Since it foundation, German settlers had been present in New Amsterdam (Peter Minuit was a native of Wesel am Rhein), but the significant arrival of German-speaking migrants took place towards the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1840 more than 24,000 of them had made New York their home.
In the next two decades, when large parts of the territory were plunged into deep socio-political and economic problems, another hundred thousand Germans crossed the Atlantic turning New York into the world’s third-largest German-speaking city, after Berlin and Vienna.
Established in the 1840s and peaking during the 1870s, Little Germany (Kleindeutschland) in Manhattan’s Lower East Side was one of New York’s first major ethnic enclaves. The career of one of those numerous migrants illustrates the rise and decline of an overwhelming Teutonic presence in Manhattan.
When twenty-three year old August “Gus” Lüchow decided to set sail from Hanover for America, migration had become a routine experience amongst his contemporaries. According to official figures, the Kingdom of Hanover lost 183,355 inhabitants between 1832 and 1886. Poverty was rife in rural areas that had been hit by years of harvest failure. Most of those leaving the land moved to the United States and Ohio was their preferred destination, but Lüchow was urban dweller. He planned to make the city of New York his home.
On arrival in the metropolis in 1879, he came across numerous references to his home town, not least in Manhattan’s financial district where a brownstone building at 1 Hanover Square was home to the Hanover National Bank. The suburban town of Hanover in Chautauqua County may have been somewhat out of his way, but on entering Little Germany he walked into a well-established and diversified district with hundreds of active businesses and socio-cultural institutions.
References to “German” migration into New York suggests a false image of oneness. Its religious community consisted of Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Mennonites, and Jews, but particularism – more than religion – was a real source of division. Those who escaped a patchwork of German states during the 1850s had no notion of a “national” identity. Differences in dialect, politics, cuisine and regional culture left most of them unable/unwilling to acknowledge fellow migrants.
German unification occurred in 1871, but it would take many decades for a sense of shared characteristics to emerge. New York’s German community was as diversified as the home lands themselves. Little Germany was originally broken up into various neighborhoods of Swabians, Bavarians, Hessians, Westphalians, Hanoverians and Prussians. Initially, migrants – of which Bavarians and Prussians were the largest groups – tended to marry within their own groups and organized themselves around regionally based networks and loyalties.
Living in relative close proximity with many common interests, incomers were eventually pressured into a mutual understanding from which a new type of citizen emerged, that of the German-American.
Music & Hospitality
Gus Lüchow started his career in hospitality. Having learned the skills of the trade as a waiter and bartender, he began work in 1879 in the small Von Muehlbach Restaurant located at 110 East 14th Street. Three years later he bought out his employer. His venture was made possible thanks to a loan from the piano magnate and fellow German immigrant William Steinway who ran his concert-hall and showroom across the street at Union Square. He had also been a regular at Von Muehlbach.
As the district was developing into a hub of theatrical entertainment and nightlife activities, the Academy of Music stood nearby as did the German-language Irving Place Theatre, the newly named Lüchow’s gained a reputation for its cuisine. Employing twenty-eight chefs at its peak, the restaurant not only served Little Germany, but also offered food and entertainment to visitors and revelers.
The menu promoted staples such as wiener schnitzel, knack- and bratwurst, sauerbraten and pumpernickel. An extensive dessert selection included Pfannkuchen mit Preiselbeeren and Sachertorte. The cellar was stocked with the finest European wines. The house was devoted to good living, reflecting the wealth and well-being of New York’s German immigrant population. Lüchow introduced German gemütlichkeit (geniality; friendliness) into the heart of Manhattan. Rapidly expanding by the acquisition of flanking properties, the establishment became known as the “capital of 14th Street.”
Its eclectic ambiance took on a northern European character. Running the food concession for the Tyrolean Alps Exhibit at the St Louis Fair in 1904, Lüchow purchased a huge painting, “The Potato Gatherers” by Swedish artist Auguste Hagborg. It was given a central place in the so-called Heidelberg Room in addition to numerous Dutch and Austrian pictures, a porcelain statue of Frederick the Great, and multitudes of mounted animal heads and beer steins. A huge model of the clipper Great Republic was on show in the background (the largest full-rigged ship ever built in the United States).
Music was a cultural touchstone to German-Americans. August exploited his friendship with Steinway to the full. The latter’s many clients and colleagues were his core patrons during the early years. They enjoyed many lavish meals at his tables. About to leave New York in 1906, a farewell engagement was organized for the immensely popular Polish pianist Ignaz Paderewski. The event was stretched to six hours of food, wine and musical entertainment.
Oscar Hammerstein was a regular. Bohemian composer Anton Dvorak and Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin were faithful clients. Enrico Caruso’s had a taste for pig’s knuckles, but was also often seen enjoying a plate of caviar at the house. Irving Berlin and Cole Porter liked to drop by too.
In February 1914 Dublin-born and German-raised Victor Herbert, composer of a series of successful operettas that premiered on pre-war Broadway, met eight associates at Lüchow’s in order to draft plans for the performing rights organization which became the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Lüchow’s establishment was a Manhattan institution where musicians, writers and actors mingled. With Tammany Hall nearby, scheming politicians and financiers were a continuous presence. When an emerging politician named Theodore Roosevelt arrived for dinner one day, he ordered venison and a bottle of Burgundy wine (Pommard).
Breweries & Festivities
The influx of German immigrants increased the number of beer producers in the city. By 1877, Manhattan counted seventy-eight breweries; Brooklyn had forty-three. Germans in New York congregated at beer halls with large meeting rooms that were used by singing societies, lodges or political organizations. Elaborate beer gardens were the pride of German neighborhoods.
Locally produced ale was an acceptable substitute, but memories of home brewed beer prevailed. This nostalgic longing inspired Lüchow (a beer drinker himself) to start importing lager directly from Germany. It proved to be a master stroke. The word spread; the pumps began to flow. By 1885 Gus was the sole American agent for Würzburg Hofbräu, an amber-colored Bavarian beer that would soon enjoy a cult status in New York and elsewhere. It was swilled down with such delicacies as pig’s knuckles and sauerkraut or potato dumplings.
In 1902 Harry von Tilzer composed the song “Down Where the Würzburger Flows” in honor of August and his restaurant. It became a hit that traveled from Fourteenth Street to the beer gardens of Cincinnati, St Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee and beyond.
With German beer came the celebration of traditional festivities. During the three-day Bock Beer Festival in March, a band would play a selection of old German songs whilst the guests would consume large amounts of their favorite foods: Bockwurst, liver sausage, roast ham and pheasant on wine kraut.
At Christmas a massive tree was erected. Trimmed with countless electric candles, it showed a splendid nativity village underneath (hand-carved in Oberammergau, Bavaria). The standard menu consisted of oxtail soup, boiled carp, roast goose with chestnut stuffing, pumpernickel, plum pudding with brandy sauce and ice cream. At six on Christmas Eve, the lights would be dimmed, whilst the house orchestra performed “Stille Nacht.”
In the 1890s, Germans and German-Americans began to move out of the Lower East Side to Yorkville and the Bronx, moving their businesses and institutions with them. Fourteenth Street lost its appeal as department stores and office buildings replaced cafés and theaters. Only Lüchow’s survived as a high-quality relic of the past.
Anti-German sentiment during the First World War ran high with outbreaks of nativism and xenophobia. Americans of German descent were targeted; the German-American press was censored; libraries pulled German books off the shelves; and German-American organizations were under scrutiny. In spite of all the commotion, Lüchow continued to import German beer. One lucrative shipment alone, in November 1915, contained 22,492 casks of Pilsner and Würzburger.
Following the sinking of RMS Lusitania by a German submarine on May 7th, 1915, August was forced to defend his patriotic credentials. When it was reported that some of his patrons had cheered on hearing the news of the attack, his lawyer published a letter in New-York Tribune on his behalf in which he stated that August had instructed his orchestra to refrain from playing national airs or patriotic songs. He had barred demonstrations in favor of any of the belligerents.
Before the war the umlaut had been a mark of identity and a sign of German-American distinctiveness. By the time the United States joined the battle, the symbol was re-interpreted as a token of betrayal and hostility, a statement of aggression. Animosity became so intense that by 1917 August thought it prudent to remove the umlaut of his name in all public statements.
Prohibition & Successors
Prohibition came as a blow to August Lüchow. From the outset in 1920, he was not prepared to break the law and allow patrons to consume illicit liquor. His record was impeccable. When Prohibition finally ended in May 1933 and the finest pilsners flowed again on Fourteenth Street, New York’s authorities honored the establishment with Liquor License Number One.
August himself did not survive Prohibition. On his death in 1923, ownership of the restaurant had passed to his nephew Victor Eckstein whose father was a German migrant too and once operated a restaurant in Fourth Street. During Eckstein’s stewardship the restaurant maintained its grand reputation for fine German food, until the challenge became too taxing for him. In 1950, the restaurant changed hands again. Its new owner was an intriguing figure.
Leonard Jan Mitchell was born in April 1913 in the port city of Libau (now: Liepāja), Latvia, which was then part of the Russian Empire. In 1932, while serving on a merchant marine vessel, young Mitchell jumped ship in Baltimore and headed for New York City. Despite speaking little English, he found work as a waiter at the Hotel Grand Concourse in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium (Yankee players nicknamed him the Swede) and at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Setting out on his own in 1942, he acquired the Olmsted restaurant in Washington. It prospered. He then set his sights on Lüchow’s with which he had fallen in love after eating there early in his New York years. Eckstein agreed the sale with him on condition that the restaurant’s traditional values and settings be preserved. Mitchell went further than that. In 1952 he re-introduced the umlaut that Lüchow had dropped in 1917. In 1952 Michell recorded the history of the restaurant which had become his passion in Lüchow’s German Cookbook, complete with the original recipes.
Unfortunately, the demands of “progress” were undermining the establishment. Union Square was declining rapidly and was no longer the heart of the theater district. Mitchell sold his business in 1970 (in his later years he became a noted art collector). In 1982 an “unexplained” fire destroyed the building and efforts by preservationists to gain landmark status for Lüchow’s failed.
The restaurant moved uptown to Broadway near Times Square, but revival proved impossible. It finally closed in 1986, symbolizing that a period in which the German presence in Manhattan prevailed, had come to a final conclusion.
Illustrations, from above: Lüchow’s in April 1896 (Museum of the City of New York); The Potato Gatherers, undated by August Hagborg (Private collection); an early twentieth century postcard highlighting The Potato Gatherers; original vintage match cover; Luchow’s New York World’s Fair menu, 1939; book jacket by Ludwig Bemelmans to Jan Mitchel’s German cookbook; and Lüchow’s menu for Sunday February 7th, 1954.
peter Waggitt says
I cannot really understand the desire for German food and particularly their sausages. British sausages are so much better – but a fascinating insight into German culture in the US through the history of one venue and patron.
Jim Sefcik says
I’ll take a wurst over a banger anyway personally.
John Warren says
I’d have to agree with Jim.
Jaap Harskamp says
I love a Dutch rookworst.
Lauren Maehrlein says
I ate at the original Luchow’s in 1967 with my high school German Club. It was wonderful!
James S. Kaplan says
Fabulous article as usual. Fascinating part of New York City history