The Magnificent Murray’s Roman Gardens, New York
The eight-storey edifice that was Murray’s Roman Gardens in New York created by John L. Murray, could be described as the first themed restaurant and certainly it became one of the city’s most famous eateries.
The Irish born John L. Murray was born in 1865 and started his restaurant business at Columbus Avenue and 104th Street, later going to Broadway and 100th and then Broadway and 34rd Street before opening his famed resort. His company was the United States Realty and Restaurant Company composed of Henry L. Erkins, Fredrick Meyer and Walter Rich and backed by JB Duke and JB Cobb of the United Tobacco Company. Murray obtained a twenty-one-year lease on a building that had been a hotel at 228 West 42nd Street and announced rather elaborate and unique plans with a vast $400,000 renovation budget for a new restaurant that opened in late 1908.
The project was part of a frenzy of activity in New York that took place from the 1890s through to 1912 as nightlife flourished along Broadway. New, luxurious restaurants such as Bustanoby’s, Churchill’s, Maxim’s, Rector’s, Reisenwebers and Murray’s, to name but a few, became known as ‘lobster palaces’ because of their elegant décor, which imitated European regal and imperial splendour, impeccable service and excellent cuisine, which favoured late-night lobster suppers.
The design for Murray’s was the vision of architect Henry L. Erkins. He remodelled and whitewashed the rather sombre two-storey façade with pillars and vine festoons in a French style reproducing the décor of the ancient hotel of Cardinal de Rohan of Paris in Caen stone.
The main restaurant on the third floor was reached by a marble stairway flanked by winged lions in marble and a black and gold mosaic foyer. For the interior décor Erkins decided to create a Romanesque vision akin to a villa in Pompeii. Indeed, it was called a ‘Pompeian Garden’ and was a vast open court with colonnades and pillars on each side, festooned with vines and floral decor. It had the illusion of being an open-air garden since the ceiling was decorated to look like a blue sky with twinkling electric lights as stars, supplemented by the effect of moving clouds and an artificial moon.
The décor was extravagant with mock Roman sculpture and statuary. There was a cobbled floor, latticework, relief sculptures, pergolas, a full-size Cleopatra barge and a 30-foot-high marble fountain crowned with a classical Roman temple designed by Stanford White for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with brilliantly colored glass mosaic tile panels of swags of fruit topped by lions’ heads.
Overlooking the garden was a mezzanine with two further rooms with elaborate three-dimensional murals with Egyptian, Libyan and Greek themed décor. On the fourth, fifth and sixth floors Murray added more private dining rooms with similar décor including a room in the Gothic style and a Dragon room that modeled itself on the Imperial Gardens in Peking. There were also 24 luxurious bachelor apartments.
The resort oozed sensuality and luxury with its exotic wall paintings featuring imagery of nude goddesses and nymphs. For example, in the foreground of a trompe l’oeil vista of the Bay of Naples, seen as if from the veranda of a great Pompeian mansion, a woman fresh from bathing stretched her glorious naked figure.
It was described as the largest eating-place in the world with seating for 5,000 diners, although one wonders where 5,000 diners could have been placed. When one of the leading observers of Broadway life heard of the restaurant to accommodate 5,000 he said ‘New Yorkers only want to go to places where they can’t get a table.’
One of the innovations of the restaurant was it that it was planned to be waiter-less. Murray had been thinking for some time of how to do away with the nuisance of having a waiter hovering while you discussed private affairs with friends. So in the new restaurant the idea was that you gave your order on entering. When seated, the courses would appear on the centre of the table from the serving room beneath. But whether this was instigated as a feature is not known and was certainly not visible in the main ‘Pompeian’ dining room.
Whatever the debate over seating the new restaurant was a huge success and the opulence of the décor greatly admired but was the cuisine any good? At first dining was the main pre-occupation, so presumably the menu was outstanding, but as the dancing craze took hold in 1912, Murray’s, like all New York restaurants, was forced to change. In April 1912 a small scale cabaret was inaugurated that featured the creation of a small dance floor, music from a 12 piece orchestra and a show with the ‘turkey trot’ dancers Andre and Hazel Murray, all continuing until 4am.
The programme was changed regularly and in the summer of 1913 Clifton Webb, who later found fame in Hollywood, began his cabaret career as partner to Bonnie Glass at Murray’s. Webb had been appearing as a musical comedy dancer and one night was spotted dancing socially at the Jardin de Danse by Bonnie Glass, who had made a name for herself as a society dancer and hostess, and snapped him up. The following year he would partner Mae Murray and Bonnie Glass took a young Rudolph Valentino as her next partner. Both Murray and Valentino would later also find fame in Hollywood.
Shows and featured artists appeared regularly and in early 1914 De Leyer a French dancer appeared dressed as a Mexican Vaquero and a Spanish Picador. It was the first time that a dancer had worn such costume rather than the obligatory evening clothes.
Sometime in 1915, Murrays decided they needed to improve their facilities and installed a 30 foot circular revolving dance floor that rotated slowly completing each rotation in one hour. It was a novel innovation that may have been captured on film when Cosmos films used the restaurant as a location in Fine Feathers starring Janet Beecher, released in June 1915.
Following the trend for more elaborate shows in other venues, Murray’s jumped on the band wagon and in late 1916, for example there was a show staged by Pat V. Kyne with Grecian dances followed by an Egyptian Revue with a cast of 12.
When John L Murray died in late August 1917, Murray’s continued but hugely difficult times were ahead with the introduction of Prohibition in January 1920. The effect proved to be devastating to the New York entertainment and restaurant business. At first Murray’s carried on staging even bigger shows and in the summer of 1920, when cabaret entertainment was in a slump, Murray’s went ahead and staged a Nils T. Granlund show full of glamorous girls as an enticement which appeared to click. Shows in 1922 were staged by Joseph A Susskind, the manager of Blossom Heath Inn, including the Bathing Beach Revue in two parts with principals, a chorus of 7 and a $1 cover charge. Andre Sherri staged a further show in the spring of 1923 with principals and a chorus of 18 but business was failing and in May Murray’s Roman Gardens was forced to close.
At first a Chinese combo took over the resort but then Hubert’s museum took over several floors with a freak show, a penny arcade and famous flea circus. The flea circus closed around 1965, and the space was occupied by a peep show. Upstairs the private rooms became a notorious brothel of young men called the Barracks.
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Variety and Pittsburgh Press.
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