The Central Park Casino, situated at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street, was a premier New York City restaurant and nightclub, epitomizing the era of the Jazz Age. The Casino, with its grand dining room and perfectly polished dance floor, entertained some of the most prominent names in New York, from Tammany Hall politicians to Broadway stars and even royalty. Yet this exclusive, glamorous, and somewhat dangerous, appeal that was the Casino’s trademark, led to its demise during the darkest days of America’s great financial crisis.
Becoming a Central Park Staple
The Central Park Casino first opened its doors in 1864 as the Ladies’ Refreshment Salon, a place for single women to relax and enjoy the pristine views that Central Park offered. Famed architect Calvert Vaux, who, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, designed Central Park, created the elegant Victorian stone cottage. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ladies’ Refreshment Salon had expanded into a refined restaurant that welcomed both men and women known as the Casino.
The Casino quickly became regarded as a high-class New York restaurant, boasting an extensive wine list and a costly sirloin steak. With its prime location in Central Park, guests clamored to be seated outside to impress the passers-by. But by the early 1920s, the Casino had lost much of its luster, and the wealthy patrons who had kept the restaurant afloat were now frequenting other affluent restaurants.
Throughout the city, the sounds of jazz rang out and the era of Prohibition led to the creation of around 32,000 speakeasies. Women were now sporting bobbed hairdos, wearing short skirts, and emitting bold and flirtatious attitudes. The refined Victorian restaurant that was originally intended for more conservative single women no longer had a place in society. Yet when a winsome Democrat named Jimmy Walker was elected mayor of New York City in 1925, he brought new life to the Casino.
The vivacious Walker was more than a politician. In 1905, he composed the lyrics for a hit song titled “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?,” and a few years later, he decided to try his hand at politics and entered the New York State Assembly. Walker, who never shied away from having a good time, fully embraced the Roaring Twenties. With the support of the formidable political machine, Tammany Hall, behind him, Walker was easily elected mayor of the nation’s most populated city.
New York’s Jazz Age Mayor
As mayor, Walker continued living his bon vivant lifestyle, largely leaving Tammany Hall to carry out his mayoral duties. Rarely did he appear at City Hall before midday, and he had a private “hangover room” for him to use to recover from particularly raucous nights.
Still, Walker passed legislation that allowed for sports to be played on Sundays and subway fares to remain low, leading him to enjoy a high favorability amongst New Yorkers during his first term. Shortly after taking office, Walker was introduced by a prominent hotelier named Sidney Solomon to a stellar personal tailor. Taking great pride in being one of the most well-dressed men in town, Walker agreed to do Solomon a favor in return. Seeing promise in the increasingly lifeless Casino, Solomon asked Walker if he could take the helm and turn it into a preeminent restaurant. The new mayor agreed and pulled the right strings to make it happen.
Solomon compiled a board filled with men with prominent names such as Broadway impresario Florence Ziegfield, film producer Adolph Zukor, banker Robert Lehman, and William K. Vanderbilt. When it came to making alterations to the building itself, Solomon decided to maintain much of Vaux’s original exterior, but he hired Austrian-American designer Joseph Urban to modernize the interior. After the renovations were complete, the Casino featured an illustrious black-glass Art Deco ballroom, a silver conservatory, and a vibrant tulip garden.
A Playground for the Elite
When the Casino had its grand reopening on June 25, 1929, there was not a seat left vacant in the restaurant that could hold six hundred guests. Naturally, Walker was one of the invited guests, and as soon as he entered the restaurant, the orchestra began playing his signature tune, “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?”
Instantly, the Casino became known for entertaining the cream of the crop in New York society. From Tammany Hall bigwigs to the beautiful Ziegfeld Follies showgirls and revered composers like George Gershwin, the Casino was the place to be seen. In her autobiography, Ginger Rogers remembered the “soft lights and floral and spice aromas in the air” and dancing with her future co-star Fred Astaire to Eddy Duchin and His Central Park Casino Orchestra. The New York Times wryly stated in 1929 that the Casino “had never been noted for catering to the poor,” but now it was exclusively for the elite.
To avoid the pitfalls of Prohibition, the Casino’s high-class patrons would stock up their Rolls-Royce with champagne and leave it parked outside the restaurant. Inside, when the tables began to run low on alcohol, a waiter would offer a signal to the nearby chauffeur. Then, the chauffeur would retrieve the champagne from the car and discretely present it to the waiter.
After the stock market crashed in October 1929, critics began fervently attacking the Casino, arguing that, since so many New Yorkers were struggling to feed their families, it was abominable for the wealthy to continue to pay elaborate prices to dine and dance at the Casino. New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was the chief denunciator, proclaiming that such an exclusive restaurant should not be in a public park.
However, Moses’s primary motivation in speaking out against the Casino lay in his dislike of Mayor Walker, who he had viewed as a nemesis for years. Moses found a strong ally in Representative Fiorello La Guardia, the 1929 Republican candidate for mayor who was running against Walker. La Guardia decried the Casino as a “whoopee joint” and professed that it was a source of revenue for Walker and Tammany Hall. Walker won reelection by a landslide, and the Casino’s future was temporarily secure.
The End of An Era
One night in June of 1930, federal Prohibition agents raided the Casino. Around 500 diners were in attendance to witness the arrest of ten patrons and five employees, including Solomon, for violating the Eighteenth Amendment. Among the distinguished individuals present to watch the raid unravel were Helen Astor, Princess Alice Obolensky, and representatives of the Cuban and Brazilian governments.
The renewed public interest in the Casino led Moses and La Guardia to reignite their arguments against the establishment. Moses presumed that demolishing Walker’s prized playground would lead to the erasure of his memory in the city. Instead, evidence of political corruption within his administration led to Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt removing Walker from office. The ousted mayor moved to Europe, where he resided for the next eight years, and in an instant, the Casino lost its most stalwart champion.
To appease Moses, Solomon agreed to lower prices and make the Casino more inviting to the middle class. But the Parks Commissioner could not be persuaded, and he moved forward with his plans of destroying the building and replacing it with a playground. A group of New Yorkers protested the plans, arguing that the Casino was a historically significant building that should be preserved.
Courts ruled in favor of Moses, and within one day of receiving approval, he had the wrecking balls in place. Ed Sullivan wrote in his column dated May 18, 1936, “The people who never get into Central Park Casino, the working-class, are in it now,” only they were wielding picks and shovels. Soon, all that was left of the Casino were stained-glass windows that, for a time, were housed in a nearby police station. Eventually, they too were lost to history. The year after the Casino was razed, the Rumsey Playground was dedicated, and today, the site plays host to SummerStage.
Before the Great Depression brought shanty towns to the nation’s most renowned public park, the Central Park Casino represented that carefree decade that we have come to know as the Roaring Twenties. But this majestic and historic building was much more than a lavish nightclub that catered to New York’s elite, it was a prominent symbol of an unmatched era.
Photos provided: Spotlights Shining on the Central Park Casino in the late 1920s, The Casino’s Grand Dining Room, The Casino During the Winter, ca. 1920s.