Lost Restaurants of NYC: The Holland House on Fifth Avenue

Prohibition claimed many victims in New York City, among them the city’s most famous restaurant, Delmonico’s, which closed in 1923, as well as other well-known establishments of the time such as Shanley’s, Murray’s and Moquin.

But among the first to close its doors after the Eighteenth Amendment took effect on Jan. 17, 1920, was the Holland House, located on Fifth Avenue at Thirtieth Street. Opened in 1891, the Holland House closed within a month of Prohibition taking effect.

Having just finished William Grimes’ Appetite City, I am now into Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. Before reading this book, I hadn’t considered how or why Prohibition happened. Okrent tells the story well, describing movements such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, as well as the soon-to-change political realities of the 1910s that allowed such an amendment to pass then.

Okrent calls the Holland House one of the first victims of Prohibition in New York City, “its celebrated Bamboo cocktails (sherry, dry vermouth, orange bitters) gone forever.” A New York Times article quoted the Chicago merchant Marshall Field as saying, “It is the most perfectly operated hotel in the world.”

From reading old newspaper articles, it seems the reason for the closure was up for debate.

A July 21, 1920 article in the Bismarck Daily Tribune suggests that changing times, not Prohibition, led the hotel and restaurant to shut down.

“The bidding power of office seekers and not prohibition has caused many hotels in the vicinity of 42nd street to close recently, according to opinions of real estate men expressed today.

Within a relative short time of one another such old and famous hostelries as the Holland House, Sherry’s and the Fifth Avenue Hotel have closed their doors and more recently the Knickerbocker—a relatively new and imposing structure—abandoned business.

“Prohibition has done this,” cried many “wets,” but now one known hotel woman advanced the theory that the steady march of business toward the newer uptown sections was a paramount consideration of the men who decided to close their hostelries.

“A hotel doesn’t have to run behind to close,” she declared. “If the owner of the property considers it better business policy to erect an office building on the ground, he isn’t likely to let sentiment sway him. prohibition? No! Let’s say business!”

This sounded like “dry” propaganda to me, but a New York Times article from June 9, 1928, seems to back up “changing times” explanation.

“It is an old story, this change and decay and rebirth of hotels in New York. Some die of old age, like the downtown Astor House, or of obsolescence and the changing tides of residence and commerce, like the Buckingham and the Holland House. A few have been carried off, like the Knickerbocker, by the fatal seizures of prohibition; here and there a Windsor, by the hand of the destroyer.

The most interesting piece I came across while reading old articles about the Holland House was a June 3, 1926, New York Times article about former Holland House bartender Harry Craddock, who reached out to his former New York patrons during his Prohibition “exile” in London.

[He] has been mixing cocktails at the Savoy Hotel bar in London since 1920 [and] sent to former patrons in New York a list of 172 items classified as cocktails, coolers, daisies, fizzes, flips, highballs, punches, rickeys, smashes, sours, liqueurs, cordials and frappés which, he wrote, he hoped to be able to serve to his “old friends.”

Craddock, who wrote that he had been “exiled by prohibition,” said he had improved his absence by perfecting cocktails and that he was now able to give his patrons a choice of 280 mixtures. He wrote somewhat sentimentally of “home,” which, of course, was New York. Apparently his long absence has caused him to believe that cocktails could not be procured here, or were not desired, because, he said, he and other bartenders “were ready to come back when wanted.”

The article goes on to list several drinks and their prices, in shillings and pence, and then concludes,

The list was shown to a man swinging a malacca stick and wearing a blue flannel suit, a sailor straw with a blue and white band, a blue necktie and tan shoes at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets yesterday afternoon at 3:30 o’clock.

He scanned it rapidly, handed it back and said: “The prices are just about the same as in New York.”

Craddock never did return to New York, but he became a famous bartender at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel and, in 1930, he wrote The Savoy Cocktail Book. For more on his cocktails, check out this piece on Serious Eats.

Regardless of the cause, the Holland House was converted to office buildings. A recurring New York Tribune advertisement for the Childs restaurant chain suggests that the ground floor of the Holland House was converted to a Childs.

“The Old Holland House,” the advertisement read. “There’s music in the name. The old-timer fairly intones it—closing his eyes the while to picture Eulalia of Spain—now stepping daintily through its hospitable portals—now dining in state in its time-mellowed banquet room.

The ad goes on,

The Old Holland House. Where “Joe” exchanged tips on what to eat for tips on what to buy and sell on Wall Street. Where a famous Western lawyer, after the formation of a great steel company, handed “Tom” and the boys a tip of three hundred dollars.

The Old Holland House. It has not passed. but rather has kept pace with the march of commercial Progress. It is still an eating place de luxe, upholding old traditions of food goodness—old traditions of environment. Only now it is a part of the CHILDS system, with its modern innovations in food and service.

The New Holland House. There’s new magic in the name—the magic of the house of CHILDS. “Joe’s” tips on what to eat are no longer needed. Instead, a perfect galaxy of choice comestibles is spread before the eye. One makes his own selection—the appetite is the guide.

It looks as if, even then, independent New York institutions fell victim to chains.

I’m looking forward to finishing Okrent’s book. Whether or not Prohibition led to the closure of the Holland House, one thing is for certain: Prohibition devastated the New York restaurant scene.

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