Monday, April 7, 2014

The Life & Times of Antonio Sivori (Part IV)

New York City, 

Achieving some degree of notoriety during his lifetime, Antonio Savori was best known for the balls he catered at the Academy of Music. Situated on East 14th Street and Irving Place, just one block off Union Square, this theatre was an integral part of the social life in New York until the early 1880s. Featuring a lavish white and gold interior illuminated by thousands of gaslights, the venue was used for operas, concerts, and even high society balls by removing the 4,000 crimson-velvet seats to create a large dance floor.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Life & Times of Antonio Sivori (Part III)

New York City, 

Despite the onslaught of a severe depression, Antonio Sivori got a job in early 1874 as the steward of the Union Square Hotel. The area near the park had by then become largely commercial. In 1870, the jeweler and stationer Tiffany & Co. moved to 15th Street from its old location at Broadway and Broome Street. It was also around this time that the Union Square Hotel and its adjoining theater opened on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 15th Street, occupying the site where one of the finest boarding houses in the city once stood. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Life & Times of Antonio Sivori (Part II)

New York City, 

By June 1872, Antonio Sivori was the proprietor of St. Mark’s Restaurant at 27th Street and Broadway, situated inside the striking Stevens House which was completed earlier that year. Designed by the country’s leading architect, Richard Morris Hunt, the mansard-capped Stevens House was the first apartment complex of its kind. The eight-story structure occupied the entire south side of 27th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, making it one of the largest buildings in the city, and yet it contained only eighteen luxury suites.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Life and Times of Antonio Sivori (Part I)

New York City, 

One morning last spring, while combing through a box of old menus, I stumbled across a lost chapter of American social history. There had been only a brief opportunity to examine the tattered contents of this box before purchasing it, and I was now sorting through the hodge-podge of papers more carefully, hoping to find a hidden gem, when it suddenly occurred to me that forty-five of the menus from New York might somehow be related to each other. As I separated these from the others, and arranged them in chronological order from 1869 to 1881, an intriguing narrative began to take shape, for it appeared they had once belonged to a hotel steward named Antonio Sivori. No longer remembered, Sivori was well-known in his day, catering some of the city’s most important social events.1, 2

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Wedding Banquet of Irene and Solomon R. Guggenheim

New York City, 

Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky is credited with creating the first abstract painting, perhaps as early as 1910. Thirteen years later, he painted Composition 8, a large canvas with interacting circles, triangles, and linear elements that he considered the high point of his postwar work.1 Mining magnate Solomon Guggenheim and his wife Irene purchased Composition 8 from the artist at his studio in Dessau, Germany in the spring of 1929, and hung it in their suite at the Plaza Hotel, the first of more than 150 works by Kandinsky to enter their collection. The avant-garde painter and these important patrons, all born in the 1860s, came from the same generation and would later say that their interest in art was sparked by an event in 1895. For the Guggenheims, the artistic journey began shortly after their marriage in April of that year. A menu from their wedding banquet suggests that it was a conventional, upper-class affair of the fin de siècle, the closing phase of the nineteenth century when art was running out of new things to say, and the seeds of a more daring expression had not yet taken root. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

King Kalākaua of Hawaii

 New Bedford & Honolulu,

For those of us who live on the Mainland, the words “king,” “palatial residence,” and “Hawaii” are likely to conjure up images of Elvis, Graceland, and the movie Blue Hawaii, before recalling that Hawaii once had a royal family. One of the kingdom’s last monarchs was David Kalākaua who ascended the throne in 1874. Kalākaua entered the history books again that year when he became the first foreign head of state to visit the United States. While the purpose of his trip was to sign a treaty of reciprocity, assuring Hawaii a duty-free market for its sugar and other goods, he used the opportunity to visit people and places in America that had had a long relationship with his country. Two menus dating from this period, one from a dinner with old contacts in the whaling industry, the other from a luncheon after he returned to Hawaii, reveal interesting details of his goodwill visit and daily life at home. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas, 1864


On Christmas Day in 1864, this festive dinner was prepared for 4,500 Union soldiers at Satterlee General Hospital, then the largest army hospital in the country. Comprising rows of wood-frame wards and hundreds of tents, the sprawling 15-acre facility in Philadelphia included a library, a reading room, and a printing shop that may well have produced this menu card with an illustration of the hospital on the back, as shown below. Satterlee was bounded roughly by 40th and 44th Streets, near Baltimore Avenue, in a sparsely-developed area about a half mile west of the Schuylkill River. The holiday feast was provided courtesy of Dr. and Mrs. Milton Egbert, whose farm in northwestern Pennsylvania happened to be situated at the epicenter of the nation’s first oil-producing region. In 1859, these pioneer wells yielded only a few thousand barrels, but production quickly ramped up during the Civil War, making the lucky Egberts immensely wealthy. At the time, it was said that no parcel of land in the United States of equal size had yielded a larger financial return than their farm on Oil Creek. 

 A few months after the war ended in 1865, the hospital was closed and the buildings razed. During its four-year existence, more than 50,000 wounded soldiers were treated at Satterlee, where a remarkable record was achieved in saving lives. Thirty years later, the lower portion of the grounds was turned into Clark Park, a municipal green that now hosts Philadelphia’s largest year-round farmers’ market.