I’ve been spending some time in downtown Brooklyn recently, and as I was walking down Fulton Street last week, I was suddenly reminded of an experience from way back when I first started scouting.
Back in 2007 or so, I was in the same area searching for vacant storefronts for a movie when I happened to glance in the window of a shuttered space at 372 Fulton Street – and was completely surprised to find what appeared to be a deserted upscale, old-fashioned restaurant inside, complete with wood-paneling, marble-topped counters and brass chandeliers (picture courtesy of Flickr user warsze – mine are long gone, sadly).
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d stumbled onto the former Gage and Tollner Restaurant, founded in 1879 and once billed as New York’s oldest dining establishment.
In its heyday, Gage & Tollner was one of the fanciest restaurants in New York. Patrons like Truman Capote, Mae West and Jimmy Durante dined at mahogany tables beneath gas-fueled brass chandeliers, surrounded by mirrored walls framed in cherry-wood arches and golden paneling. The interior was designated a landmark in 1975, a rarity for New York restaurants.
Sadly, business began to diminish in the mid-1970s. After changing hands several times over the ensuing decades, the restaurant finally called it quits and closed its doors on February 14, 2004. A T.G.I. Friday’s moved in in 2007, and later an Arby’s. Neither was able to make the location work, though an Arby’s “ghost sign” still remains. Thankfully, the interior survived due to its landmark status.
I hadn’t been back to the space since that first encounter in 2007, and last week, I decided to swing by to see what had become of it. A discount jewelry/coat store had apparently taken over, but at the very least, I figured the landmark designation would have kept the interior more or less in good shape. Right?
Er, not so much.
Just from looking at the decaying exterior, it quickly became clear that the place was not being taken care of. In particular, I was saddened to see that the windows in the beautiful wooden revolving door…
…were now cracked in multiple places, haphazardly repaired with packing tape.
Still, you could see some of the original splendor in the facade’s Italianate eave (the building was once a private home):
Then I stepped inside – and stood there, confused.
Where the hell had the restaurant gone??
Then, as I looked more closely, I suddenly realized: the restaurant was still there…
The new tenants had simply covered the entire thing up using false walls held together by an overhead frame.
I couldn’t believe it. I managed to find a bit of an original archway beam exposed at the rear of the store…
…and beyond it, the beautiful embossed wall coverings, covered in classical patterns:
Sadly, nearly all of them are now hidden by the fake walls of hot pink, which are apparently preferable for selling cheap jewelry.
My favorite panels are visible in the entrance way to the store, featuring a tangle of flourishing fruit trees:
Be sure to look up for even more decoration.
Thankfully, the marble-topped bar is still visible, now being used for the front check-out counter. Amazing to think that Truman Capote might have once put his foot up on that brass rail.
Here’s another counter against one wall…
…and in the center of the store, a room divider nearly obscured from sight:
The gas lamps overhead are still hanging, though now powering electric bulbs. Strangely though, they now seem almost anemic when compared to the new makeover, and have become out of place in their own home.
Back in early 2013, the Landmark Commission investigated and was horrified at the changes. They voted unanimously to order the tenants to take down the walls, saying that “hiding something behind something is not a preservation strategy…We designated this [space] in order to be able to see it.”
Unfortunately, nothing has been changed, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure if this is an ongoing dispute with Landmarks – if anyone has any info, please let me know.
In the meantime, it’s a small consolation to know that the space still exists, waiting for a future Brooklynite to tear down the walls and uncover the treasure hidden beneath.
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