Summer Wine: New York City and the Birth of the Rooftop Bacchanal
Welcome back to out of the Archives and into the Streets, the Archive on Parade Blog.
Today's post honors a summer tradition born and bred in New York City: the rooftop bar. Even before New York was a city of skyscrapers, citizens of Gotham liked to take their experiences to vertical extremes. And when it comes to partying, New Yorkers have been conquering new heights, drink in hand, since 1883.
That year, impresario Rudolf Aronson debuted a roof-garden on the top of his newly build Casino Theater on 39th and Broadway. The rooftop garden was soon a Gilded Age phenomenon, mixing vaudeville and vice, pleasure and performance, for well heeled bon-vivants who liked to spend their summers high above the sweltering streets. You can find a fine collection of images and ephemera from New York's earliest rooftop watering holes online via the collections portal of the Museum of the City of New York, and you can learn more wild and wonderful tales of summer in the city on August 30, at this month's Talks and Turntables lecture-series-turned-dance-party.
In June 1905, The New York Times reported a summer scene that might feel familiar to current city-dwellers:
"Far above the street level last night the bands played while toes twinkled and cool glasses clinked. Down below, the wayfarers, pausing for a moment, caught fleeting sounds of merriment above, and familiar sounds of the summer night were wafted from the roofs."
But New York's Gilded Age theater Roof Gardens packed more of a punch when it come to opulence and spectacle than anything you're likely to see today.
The Ancestral home of the rooftop bar, The Casino Theater, was one of the finest examples of Moorish architecture in the nation, and it was the first theater to be entirely lit by electric light. The building's international flair sparked a trend in outdoor entertainment. A survey of New York's roof gardens yields a veritable world-tour above the streets of Manhattan: the roof of the Belasco Theater featured a working dutch farm, pond and windmill; The Paradise Garden atop Hammerstein's Victoria theater was modeled on the Grand Promenades of Monte Carlo; The roof of Stanford White's Madison Square Garden transported guests to the Italian Renaissance, and the New York Theater's "Jardin de Paris," where Florenz Ziegfeld debuted his Follies, had an obvious inspiration.
These enticing spaces were made possible by new technology and new money. Elevators made rooftops accessible and desirable, and a growing middle class with cash to spend, but not enough to get out of town for the summer, was looking for entertainment. And trust New York to put on a show.
Hammerstein, Ziegfeld and other titans of entertainment spared no expense for opening night. According to the Times, for the opening of the 1905 Summer Season, "Oscar Hammerstein's Paradise Roof Gardens had thrown open their gates and were giving the first comers of the roof season a merry welcome. Everything had been dressed up for the occasion in a new garb, the auditorium was dazzling in white paint and countless incandescents, the old mill and little cluster of buildings were gay in festive colors, and there were new ducks, a new monkey, a new goat and a new cow."
They also provided entertainment to match the sumptuous surroundings. For example, The Follies of 1907 provided "twenty musical numbers and many vaudeville acts" every evening at the Jardin de Paris. And yes, beautiful and talented women in elaborate costumes dancing to original scores by Irving Berlin and George Gershwin is lots of fun...but then as now, New York had one thing on its mind. The Daily Graphic observed in 1889, "There is a good deal of flirting going on in this 'castle in the air,' for the surroundings seem conducive to love-making."
Sex. Drinks. Vaudeville. The Great Outdoors. Obviously, New York had a winning combo on its hands. In fact, the Times reported in 1920, ""Every New Yorker and every stranger in New York who can possibly make it is trying to get on some roof somewhere, somehow." How true.