How To Cover Up A 100-Year-Old Brooklyn Landmark

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.

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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).

Gage and Tollner

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Er, not so much.

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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…

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…were now cracked in multiple places, haphazardly repaired with packing tape.

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Still, you could see some of the original splendor in the facade’s Italianate eave (the building was once a private home):

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Then I stepped inside – and stood there, confused.

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Where the hell had the restaurant gone??

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Then, as I looked more closely, I suddenly realized: the restaurant was still there…

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The new tenants had simply covered the entire thing up using false walls held together by an overhead frame.

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I couldn’t believe it. I managed to find a bit of an original archway beam exposed at the rear of the store…

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…and beyond it, the beautiful embossed wall coverings, covered in classical patterns:

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Sadly, nearly all of them are now hidden by the fake walls of hot pink, which are apparently preferable for selling cheap jewelry.

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My favorite panels are visible in the entrance way to the store, featuring a tangle of flourishing fruit trees:

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Be sure to look up for even more decoration.

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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.

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Here’s another counter against one wall…

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…and in the center of the store, a room divider nearly obscured from sight:

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A close-up:

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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.

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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.

-SCOUT

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18 comments

  1. “hiding something behind something is not a preservation strategy”

    Taking the long view, I actually think that it is. Its all still waiting there for somebody to restore it and use it again. We just have to ensure that the current exposed fixtures are taken care of, such as that front door.

    • I agree. Sun Records–where Elvis and countless other legends were first recorded–was preserved in this very same way. The owner covered up the entire interior by building a new, perhaps tackier, inner-interior. I remember walking past Gage and Tollner when I first moved here and being disappointed too, to find it closed. But don’t worry, someone will come along and gentrify this strip of Brooklyn, too, and make food or product that is unaffordable for the people shopping at this cute boutique.

      • “Cute boutique?” Hahahaha.

        Yes, let’s lament the loss of a tacky, bargain store with bullshit merch constantly on sale because gentrification = automatically bad.

        Go fuck the high horse you rode in on.

        • ^ Well said. This building was designed to be an elegant restaurant I don’t see the travesty in allowing gentrification to return the place to its former grandeur.

  2. i also felt reassured that at least it’s still there.. maybe covering it up means it’s less prone to people damaging it while purchasing cheap goods.

  3. Yeah I agree with Brandon. It kind of reminds me of that previous post of yours about the swimming pool. In the future, it still has a chance of getting restored….

  4. I’m with everyone else on this one, if its covered up it means they aren’t destroying it with their garish colour scheme and tchotchkes. It may not be on display but that’s not always such a bad thing judging by the way they’ve treated the visible parts, like the broken glass just being taped up.

  5. Loved this one (except for the destruction and obliviousness to the value of the property and all that). That attention to detail is just such a vestige of a bygone era; lovely to see it still.

  6. I ate there many times in the early 1970s, in the restaurant’s declining years. The place was beautiful but often almost empty of patrons at night. It was kind of sad. It really was a step back in time to the late 1800s. The gaslight was still working. The manager lived right above the restaurant, I think his name was Dooley. The waiters all wore sort of a uniform jacket with service bars on the sleeves for how many years they had been there. It was one of my father’s favorite restaurants, he ate there and at Peter Luger for 5 decades.

  7. Heartbreaking. Used to go to G&T with my dad when we were little kids, +50 years ago. It was elegant and the food was delicious. The waiters wore uniforms that showed their tenure at the restaurant using a system of hashmarks. Some of these men had been with the place for over 25 years. I loved it there. Thank God the inside is landmarked and these idiots have covered it over instead of destroying it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone put a lovely not-so-expensive neighborhood joint in there. Unlikely but here’s hoping.

    • Altho I never ate there as a kid I remember the rep the place had back in the day. We can only hope the next tenant treats the old girl with the respect she deserves.

  8. Rode by there today and they had a “store closing sale” sign. We can only hope!

  9. As much as it saddens me to see the beauty in that landmarked building hidden, at least it has been preserved. The problem is this is the wrong kind of store for the site. But the law does not cover who can use the space, only that the space is preserved. And, as long as the landmarked items are not destroyed, they can be restored. This is much better than what happened many years ago, when the great theaters of the golden age of movies were gutted, and others destroyed – like the Roxy.

  10. We can only hope that because this neighborhood is changing, once again there will be a need for a much appreciated land marked restaurant, now that Juniors is gone there is nowhere else to go. I hope that the condo developers find a way tp preserve the Juniors site.

  11. Last time I ate there, Edna Lewis was the chef. On September 26, the Post Office is releasing commemorative stamps honoring chefs, including her.

  12. If the property owners were smart — quit laughing — they’d reach out to entrepreneurs in the nearby Fort Greene / BAM neighborhood and get this place rented to Brooklyn hipsters who would open a food/brew destination. Hard to believe a beautiful spot like this couldn’t turn a profit as a restaurant in that $$ neighborhood — even though Fulton Mall has a baked-in preference for cheap t-shirt shacks and sneaker stores. Gentrification? Bring it!

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