21 March 2014

Home of Bawdy Times Past

This somewhat impressive-looking, somewhat anonymous building on W. 26th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway holds quite a culinary past. Until 1904, it was the home of Delmonico's, the most famous restaurant New York has produced or ever will produce. After 1904, it was Cafe Martin, a super-chic dining spot favored by the well-heeled and fabulous for a decade early in the 20th century.

It was owned by Jean-Baptiste Martin, who laced the place's design with just the right tough of naughtiness to titillate the patrons. A rural by William De Leftwich depicted nude women floating through space. And ladies could dine—a rarity at the time—if accompanied by a gentleman. A few years later, the forward-thinking Martin declared that ladies could smoke in his restaurant. Martin was also a good marketer. He provided postcards to diners. If they wrote a note to a friend or relation, the cafe would post it and mail it.

Cafe Martin provided the world with plenty of scandal. Architect and libertine Stanford White dined at Cafe Martin on the night he died. He was spotted there by jealous millionaire Harry Thaw, who would shoot him later that night at Madison Square Garden in defense of the honor of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Thaw's wife, White's former lover). At a New Year's Eve party in 1909, a fire broke out when someone tossed a match near the gown of one Mrs. Charles E. Ellis. It ignited the celluloid trimmings on the dress. Mrs. Ellis ran to the window, causing the curtains to catch fire, and then the ceiling. The fire was extinguished, but the lady died.

For all its fame, Cafe Martin didn't last long. By May 11, 1914, it was closed. Martin had 11 more years on his lease, but he sold it back to the landlord, who in turn sold the parcel to another party. "The departing proprietor," wrote the New York Times of the final night, "had unearthed cases of French caps, fans, helmets, tambourines, drums, dolls, and all kinds of souvenirs, and these were distributed to the guests. The restaurant and cafe and other salons were decorated with roses, lilies, carnations, and palms, while the walls were draped in American and French flags."

I can't be sure, but based on an old map I've seen, this was Cafe Martin's former entrance on W. 26th.


Anonymous said...

According to NY Songlines (and elsewhere), 212 5th Avenue went up in 1913.

Right site, wrong building.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Ah well. Who am I to question NY Songlines? Did I mention I do this for free?

Anonymous said...

haha. Great response Brooks. Great story either way.