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Russian Tea Room, New York

I loved the Russian Tea Room in New York. But knew nothing of its origins until I read Daytonian in Manhattan. Young John Pupke left his native Germany in 1845 and worked in a coffee firm in New York. Later he became a partner in the coffee and tea importing company, Pupke & Thurber. In 1873 Pupke purchased two adjoining lots on 57th St where the then weal­thy merchant erected two new buildings. Then John Pupke needed a two-storey brick extension to the house. This was next to Carnegie Hall which opened for live music presentations in 1891.

John Pupke became president of a tea and coffee importing firm. While his family kept ownership of 150 West 57th St, they hired an architect in 1913 to make extensive renovations, including a storefront and studios. This arts-soaked neighbourhood had living spaces and studios for visual and performing artists.

Russian Tea Room, c1929
photo from the Museum of the City of New York

A large wave of Russians emigrated from 1905 on, following the first Revolution; at least 30,000 of them immigrated to the USA, mostly to the NE corner. Coffee houses run by Russian immigrants had already starting appearing before WW1. Their owners were largely pro-revolutionary ex-pats who were living on NYC’s lower East Side. But after WWI and the 1917 Russian Revol­ut­ion, a very diff­erent wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, and explicitly Russian-themed restaurants opened for business.

Alas anxiety about foreigners peaked in the USA and the immigrants' loyalties were doubt­ed. The 1924 Immigration Act restricted im­mig­rants from South­ern and Eastern Europe, particularly Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians and Slavs.

Dining room (above) and bar (below)
The bar has all drinks, but I concentrated on the vodka cocktails.

So it was even more important for the newest Russian arrivals to gather in the White Russian restaurants for warmth, familiar food and social life. The restaurants offered blini with caviar, salmon and mushrooms wrapped in flaky pastry, beef stroganoff and nouveau-Russian specialties. For my parents in Australia, the most import­ant food item was borscht, the Uk­rainian beet soup that was brought by Russians who emigrated here (and everywhere?)

Russian eating places soon opened: The Russian Inn, The Eagle, The Russian Swan, Kavkaz, Casino Russe and The Maisonette Russe. On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the Russian Bear etc. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists, balalaika music and entertainment by Cossack performers added to the atmosphere.

The Russian Tea Room was opened in New York in 1927, by former members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, as a gathering place for Russian expats. Established on West 57th St, vocalists and musicians continued to rent studios in the upper floors, making it famous as a gathering place for those in the entertainment ind­ust­ry. Included on the top two floors were soprano Carmen Rueben, and her husband Paul Schumm. This solo vocalist was well-known both on the American and European concert stage and gave vocal training in her 57th Street studio.

In 1929, the business moved across the street, to its present locat­ion. As we saw above, it was an Italianate brownstone built in 1875 by German immigrant John Pupke, the tea and coffee merchant. By 1933, the Siberian émigré Alexander Sasha Maeef was running the Russian Tea Room. The design of the bar area was modern, re­placing the soda fountain after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

During WW2, its sleek, art moderne interiors reflected the up­scale patrons coming in from Carn­eg­ie Hall concerts. After running the Tea Room since 1933, Maeef sold it in 1946.

The next owner Sidney Kaye, son of Russian emigres, became a celebrity in his own right. In 1955, Kaye turned the tea room into a full blown restaurant, and gave the interiors a bolder person­al­ity. When Sidney Kaye died at 53, he left the restaurant to his widow, Faith Stewart-Gordon.

Next to the Russian Tea Room, Carnegie Hall was threat­ened with demolition in 1955. The restaurant became the planning meeting place for the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall. Again in 1981 Harry B Macklowe, developer of the Metropolitan Tow­er, planned a large office tower that would have included his own site at the Metrop­olitan Tower AND also the restaurant's and the lot on which Carn­egie Hall Tower was erected. There was an agreement with Carnegie Hall about their lot, but during the planning of the Carnegie Hall Tow­er, on the other side of the Russian Tea Room, Stewart-Gordon dec­lined to sell its site or its air rights. The result is the nar­row 20’ gap, separating the Metropolitan and Carnegie Hall towers.

Front entrance of the Russian Tea Room
with the dancing Russian bear
Daytonian in Manhattan

The Russian Tea Room's maître d'hôtel for the first thirty years was the famous Moscovian Anatole E. Voinoff (1895-1965). To opera-goers, ballet and classical music fans, as well as the performers, he was very well known. The Russian character of the Tea Room faded somewhat as beloved Russian-speaking waiters and waitresses retired, as did the last Russian chef George Lohen, and Anatole Voinoff.

In Sept 1977 The Russian Tea Room closed for renovations, although some of the old decor survived. The renovations extended the re­staurant into half of the second floor, where a cafe was instal­led. Interestingly, the architect­ural details of the 1875 house still survived within the top floors eg the marble Victorian mantels and woodwork.

Patrons were stars of the dance world, like George Balan­ch­ine, Nat­alia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev; and Broadway and Hollywood person­al­ities. The business required a huge staff, and there was a separate bakery on the premises. Later Michael Douglas, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbara Walters, Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger went to the restaurant for their socialising.

Expressionist paintings covering the walls, leather banquettes and samovars

In 2006 the Russian Tea Room opened again, after a $19+ million makeover. The new owner was real estate developer Gerald Lieblich who, with investors, reopened the old downstairs room, adding imperial eagles on the walls, golden sam­ovars, lavish leath­er banquettes, crimson carpet and expressionist paintings. The facade was completely resurfaced, with a large bas relief of a dancing Russian bear.


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