Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hot-House Tomatoes

Holland House
New York City, 1897

Today the Café Au Bon Goût, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 30th Street, has an enormous International buffet that is open 24/7. If you step inside and look up, you will see a beautifully molded ceiling. Although you would never guess from its appearance, the buffet is situated in the old dining room of the Holland House, one of New York’s grandest hotels when it opened in 1891.

This luxury hotel was known for its aristocratic tone.1 Modeled after the celebrated Lords Holland’s mansion in London, the ten-story building was built of white Indiana limestone in the Italian Renaissance style. Now containing offices, it was once positioned in the most stylish part of Fifth Avenue—the dozen-block stretch of elegant shops and restaurants that catered to the wealthy of the Gilded Age. 

The Holland House was developed by two restaurateurs who owned Kinsley’s, the best restaurant in Chicago. One of the partners, Swiss-born Gustav Baumann, moved to New York to be the proprietor of the new establishment. Not surprisingly, there was careful attention to the design of the dining rooms and food service.

The main dining room was decorated in Louis Quinz, a French Rococo style also known as Louis XV.  “The ceiling, in salmon tints and gold, is supported by a row of handsome columns," reported the New York Times. "Electric lights are everywhere, borne by polished brass brackets. In spite of its size—125 by 50 feet—the dining hall seems delightfully cozy.”2 It was in the same league as the luxurious dining room of the Imperial Hotel which opened in New York two years later.

Near the reading room with its massive leather chairs, the Café shown below featured a distinctive row of columns with relief designs made of papier-mâché.

The Gilt Room, an exact reproduction of the famous room in the London mansion, was used for banquets and other social functions. Situated in the basement, the room was wainscoted with panels displaying the elaborate heraldic devices of the Earls of Holland.

Regarded as “one of the marvels of the establishment,” the wine vault shown below features an impressive stack of Chateau Lafite 1870, an exquisite vintage from this premier estate in the Médoc.3

The Holland House was not immune to the labor strife of the era. In the upstairs-downstairs world of the nineteenth century, the low pay for those working at hotels was further reduced by routine fines. In April 1893, the newly-formed International Hotel and Employees’ Society of New York decided to strike its first blow at the Holland House. Forty waiters “flung down their napkins and deserted their posts” just before dinner on a Saturday night.4 Three of the men who were later discharged said that their wages of 83 cents a day were eaten up by fines for trivial offenses. For example, the penalty for being five minutes late was 25 cents, and 50 cents for talking during a lull in the service.

The Waldorf Hotel, which opened at 33rd Street only the month before, also had problems with the new union. A waiter there could be fined a quarter for leaving a horseradish dish on the table for more than five minutes. Although the waiters earned tips, the men complained that they devoted much of their time to “answering bells,” a service for which there was no gratuity.

In addition, hotel employees had to buy their own uniforms. The standard dark blue uniform at the Holland House cost the equivalent of three weeks’ wages. (The elevator operators and hall boys wore electric blue with red and white cord trimmings; the carriage men wore full English livery.)

Responding to the union demands, Gustav Baumann finally offered the waiters two dollars a day, adding that there would no longer be any “restrictions as to whiskers.”

The Holland House operated on the European Plan, meaning that the meals were not included in the cost of the room.5 The daily menus were printed in English on one side and French on the other, then a common practice at luxury establishments. This format offered its patrons the benefit of being pretentious without the inconvenience, and possible embarrassment, of struggling with the “kitchen French,” as it was then called. Despite the French names, the dishes reflected the same English-oriented fare served at other upper-class hotels in New York.

The prices on the a la carte supper menu shown below are about a third higher than most hotels. Dated July 1, 1897, this menu features a salad of hot-house tomatoes (or hot-house cucumbers) for fifty cents, twice as much as field-ripened tomatoes would cost a few weeks later. Despite these luxuries, and a few other fancy dishes, such as the Strasbourg fat goose liver with truffles and reed birds, the menu reflects the standard fare of the era. It was primarily the high prices that differentiated this menu from the others.


Later in 1897, the 17-story Astoria Hotel opened at 34th Street. There were now three fashionable hotels operating on this stylish half-mile section of Fifth Avenue. However, the Astoria was soon connected to the 13-story Waldorf next door, making it the largest hotel in the world. Christened the Waldorf-Astoria, the new hotel's forty public rooms were used by city's rapidly-expanding upper class for various functions, such as having afternoon tea, a social custom that came into vogue in its Palm Garden, a crystalline room densely packed with tropical foliage. Although the Waldorf-Astoria eclipsed the Holland House, they both reigned as the most fashionable hotels in fin de siècle New York.

1. King’s Handbook of New York City (1892)
2. It should be noted that the ceiling is now painted white. New York Times, 6 December 1891.
3. The wine estate, awarded First Growth status in the classification of 1855, is located near the village of Pauillac in the Médoc region, northwest of Bordeaux, France. It was purchased by Baron James Mayer Rothschild in 1868, three months before his death. It became the joint property of his three sons and was eventually renamed Château Lafite Rothschild.
4. The union claimed to have 800 members, out of an estimated 3,000 hotel waiters working in New York City at the time. New York Times, 17 April 1893.
5. The cost of a room was two dollars a day, and up, when the hotel opened in 1891. Holland House, promotional brochure (1892).

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