There we sat, right in the middle of an elegant room with dark oak paneling and a row of tall windows overlooking Frederic Law Olmsted’s legendary park. To our left, a Phoebe Neidhardt lookalike in a black dress arranged and rearranged the silk scarf she had draped around her arms while she sipped a cup of Harney and Sons “Vienna 1900” tea. Behind us, a pair in sparkling cocktail dresses and fascinators split a piece of Sachertorte. To our right, a ponytailed lady in a fur vest, a red cashmere turtleneck and patterned leggings tucked into the plate of roasted bratwurst, Riesling sauerkraut and roasted potatoes that we also had ordered. Bags of house-made chocolate-covered almonds and nougat-covered hazelnuts stood ready beside a Bösendorfer grand piano and a marble fireplace mantel. Lighting fixtures by Josef Hoffmann, tables by Adolf Loos, and banquettes upholstered with fabric by Otto Wagner provided the finishing touches to this memorable scene. After years of anticipation, we were finally having dinner at Café Sabarsky, a Viennese-style coffeehouse on the Upper East Side of New York City.
Café Sabarsky is located in the former dining room of the Beaux-Arts mansion at 1048 Fifth Avenue that was designed by Carrère & Hastings, the architects of the New York Public Library, for William Starr and Edith Warren Miller in 1913. Situated on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 86th Street, opposite Central Park, the Millers’ Parisian-style townhouse was in a very prestigious location.
Large iron-and-glass doors open from the street into a vestibule that leads to a hall with black-and-white marble floors and a curving marble staircase with elegant French Renaissance-style iron railings, lit by an oval glass skylight with wrought-iron bands.
Carved oak paneling and doors, mirrors framed by marble pilasters, cornices with gilded acanthus leaves and garland-holding putti, and a geometric patterned oak floor made the house’s second-floor entertaining rooms a grand, but smaller, version of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It was the perfect setting for the Millers’ collection of French furniture and decorative objects.
Grace Vanderbilt, wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt III, the great-grandson of the founder of the New York Central Railroad, purchased the house in 1944. In 1955, the house became the home of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which studied and preserved the history and culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe. Then, in 1993, it became the perfect place to house the Neue Galerie, a museum established by Ronald Lauder, the son of Estée Lauder who served as United States Ambassador to Austria under President Reagan, and his friend, Serge Sabarsky. The museum collects, preserves, researches and exhibits the fine and decorative arts of early-20th century Germany and Austria, most memorably created by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and other artists associated with the Bauhaus and the Wiener Werkstätte, a community of artists who applied sound design principles to the beautiful furniture, jewelry, and other objects they created for daily use. Examples on display include Josef Hoffman’s Sitzmaschine, an iconic chair from 1908, and brooches displayed in a case Koloman Moser designed in 1904 for Schwestern Flöge (Flöge Sisters), a haute-couture Viennese fashion house.
While the Neue Galerie has the most extensive collection of Klimt paintings and drawings in the United States, it is best known as the home of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Klimt’s 1907 painting of the prominent Viennese socialite that became the center of a famous art restitution case between Austria’s Belvedere Gallery and the Bloch-Bauer family. This exquisite portrait with its golden swirls, displayed in a frame designed by Josef Hoffman, positively shimmers. Neue Galerie visitors are invited to strike a creative pose with a reproduction of the painting that hangs on a wall papered with a contemporary version of “Blueberry,” designed by Josef Hoffman in 1904.
Special exhibitions like Berlin Metropolis 1918-1933, on view during my visit, explore how other paintings, drawings, sculptures, photos, decorative arts, music, architecture, fashion, novels and films from the period have influenced modern culture. Think of Alfred Döblin’s novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz; Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis; and the musical theater of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and you’ll understand what I mean. German Advertising Posters of the Early 20th Century, another special exhibition I saw at the Neue Galerie, introduced me to Lucian Bernhard, the German graphic designer whose 1905 poster for Priester matches introduced a new style of adverting known as the Sachplakat, where simple imagery and a minimum of text combined to create straightforward, persuasive posters that made a quick impression on people as they passed by. In addition to his trendsetting poster designs, Bernhard created the iconic trademark for Cat’s Paw rubber heels and developed typefaces like Book Antiqua.
Small rectangular signs flanking the museum’s entrance were created in Vienna by Lilly Brecher, a traditional Viennese sign-painter. With their gold lettering on black backgrounds, they are reminiscent of those used by the Wiener Werkstätte.
The Millers’ former library and telephone room have been transformed into a book store and a design shop selling reproductions of Austrian and German decorative arts. I took home Klimt Musik, a compact disc of recordings of the works of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Franz Lehár and other composers popular during Gustav Klimt’s era, but I was tempted by playing cards; a loden dog coat lined with a Josef Hoffman textile design; stems of hand-glazed porcelain flowers with hand-painted copper stems and leaves, including fritillary, alpine forget-me-not and cornflower; replicas of a circa-1903 Klimt painting smock and Sigmund Freud’s Kapritzpolsterl, a traditional Viennese neck pillow; a Steiff teddy bear; and “Blue Angel” and “Berlin 1920” woolen berets, mufflers and gloves hand-knit by Katie Mawson in the English Lake District. See what I mean in the Neue Galerie Design Shop’s Holiday Gift Guide.
Aerin Lauder, Ronald Lauder’s daughter, has also created limited-edition lipsticks in custom boxes for the Neue Galerie. “Berlin Nights” was inspired by the bright-red lipstick favored by the Neue Frau of Weimar-era Berlin; “Berlin Red” was based on Otto Dix’s portrait of Anita Berber; and “Liebling” and “Sequin” evoke the golden shimmer of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.
For more on the Neue Galerie, see Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna: Recipes from Wallsé, Café Sabarsky and Blaue Gans, by Kurt Gutenbrunner, Jane Sigal and Ellen Silverman; 1048 Fifth Avenue: From Mansion to Museum, by Andrew Dolkart; watch a recording of a related presentation Dolkart gave at the Neue Galerie here.
To learn more about the exhibitions of German and Viennese art that the Neue Galerie has hosted, read Berlin Metropolis 1918-1933, edited by Olaf Peters; Birth of the Modern: Style and Identity in Vienna 1900, edited by Jill Lloyd and Christian Witt-Dörring; Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte: A Catalogue Raisonné: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection, edited by Elisabeth Schmuttermeier and Christian Witt-Dörring; Wiener Werkstätte Jewelry; Josef Hoffmann: Interiors 1902-1913 and Josef Hoffmann: Interiors 1902-1913: The Making of an Exhibition, both edited by Christian Witt-Dörring; Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907, edited by Christian Witt-Dörring; and New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1890-1940, edited by Renée Price.
To discover the story behind Adele Bloch-Bauer I, read Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections, edited by Renée Price, with contributions by Ronald S. Lauder; Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, by Sophie Lillie and Georg Gaugusch; The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, by Anne-Marie O’Connor; Woman in Gold, the 2015 film starring Helen Mirren; Klimt and His Cat, by Berenice Capatti; and Adorable Adele: A Modern Fairy Tale, by Peter Stephan Jungk and John Martinez.