After an unfortunate five year hiatus, The Tavern on the Green threw open its doors once again on April 24th of this year, restoring some of that old New York charm to Central Park West. While the return of The Tavern on the Green is no doubt a triumphant one, the venerable restaurant, which was built eighty years ago, is not in our opinion Central Park’s most legendary restaurant, that title belongs to the long forgotten Central Park Casino.
Situated on the opposite side of the Park from where The Tavern on the Green sits today, The Casino was a rambling cottage style restaurant that bustled nightly with the sounds of upbeat jazz bands and chatter from the tuxedoed clientele. Though it was first constructed in 1864 as a rest stop for the single women who would stroll through the Park, it wasn’t until 1929 that The Casino hit its (sadly short-lived) stride.
In the time between its nineteenth century debut and the Jazz Age, The Casino had slowly been worn down from a ladies social club to what Variety Magazine described in the early twenties as “a somewhat dumpy nite-club style.” All that changed in 1926 with the inauguration of Mayor “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker. With his convivial attitude and free-spirited policies, Walker was the epitome of a roaring twenties politician and it was his eccentricity that brought him to the center of The Casino story.
In a story that seems almost like something ripped from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, Walker essentially gave The Casino (which was in the Park and therefore under the ownership of city) to his friend, hotelier Sidney Solomon as a way of thanking him for introducing Walker to his tailor. Now, Walker was quite the natty politician so this may have been a fair trade off, but regardless the deal cemented The Casino as a nightlife hotspot for years to come.
Solomon made quick work of revamping The Casino’s bruised reputation, installing a board of governors that was pulled from the upper crust of New York social life, and hiring The Metropolitan Opera’s theatrical designer Joseph Urban to revamp the interior in a dazzling modernist style. On opening night, June 4, 1929 five hundred of NYC’s most elite took to the ballroom, including Gentleman Jimmy with a showgirl at his side of course.
The Casino was an instant smash – parties rolled onto three in the morning, the parking lot was constantly packed with luxury cars, and even though prohibition would last until the end of 1933, the alcohol still flowed freely every night. The good times could not last forever though, and by the mid-thirties Walker had resigned his mayorship in disgrace (for taking bribes of course) and The Casino was on its last legs. This isn’t to say that business wasn’t good, in fact it was great, in five years the restaurant grossed three million dollars which by today’s standards is about fifty million. In fact it could be said that business was far too good at The Casino, and for this they became an easy target.
With the tides turning and the riotous days of the Jazz Age coming to a close, conservatism in every sense was sweeping across Manhattan. Now that Walker was out of the picture, City Park’s commissioner Robert Moses, who had long held a vendetta against The Casino was finally able to freely plot his attack against the Central Park nightclub. Despite the enormous profit that The Casino pulled in each year, they were still only paying the Park’s department $8,500 in yearly rent thanks to one of Walker’s signature sweetheart deals. Moses wasn’t having any of this though, and after a brutal court battle he won the right to tear down The Casino in 1936. In a gesture that was more symbolic than pragmatic, Moses built a playground in the now vacant spot and forever erased any trace of the Jazz Age’s most jumping hot stop.