When Vera Bradley fans shopped for additions to their collection between July 1990 and January 1997, one of their pattern choices featured squirrels, rabbits, deer, roosters and unicorns scampering through a colorful bed of flowers on a black field. It was called Tavern on the Green.
My mother carried her Tavern on the Green tote bag until it gave out and she refashioned the fabric into a missal holder; my handbag and sash are still going strong. As a tribute to our favorite Vera Bradley pattern, we decided to see the real Tavern on the Green during our day in New York City.
On the western edge of Central Park, at West 67th Street, a brick-and-stone building stands that began life as a sheepfold — a shelter for the scores of grey-faced South Down sheep that grazed in the park’s Sheep Meadow from 1864 until 1934, as well as the full-time shepherd and his pack of sheepdogs who held up traffic as they attended the flock.
Built in 1870 by order of William “Boss” Tweed, New York City’s commissioner of public works, the 23,000-square-foot, U-shaped building was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould for Calvert Vaux, who partnered with fellow landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design Central Park. The fanciful building is one of the finest examples of Ruskinian Gothic architecture in the city.
Named in tribute to John Ruskin, this style of High Victorian Gothic architecture is characterized by very elaborate decorative details, such as multicolored bands of masonry and brickwork and use of various textures.
By the turn of the 20th century, Mould’s creation sat amid an unkempt Central Park. In 1934, the park was rehabilitated, the sheep moved to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the shepherd was reassigned to the Central Park Zoo’s lion house, and the sheepfold was converted into a restaurant known as the Tavern on the Green. Tables were placed beside terrazzo dance floors, while a flagstone courtyard was outfitted with 19 hitching posts and lined with London plane trees.
When the restaurant opened on October 20, 1936, it served my kind of food: shrimp cocktail, prime rib, mashed potatoes, Manhattan clam chowder, Southern-style baked ham, creamed spinach, coconut cream pie, and pineapple cheese cake. With its moderately priced menu and suppertime dancing, it became a popular part of New York City’s social scene. Ever since, famous writers, politicians, professional athletes, stage and screen actors to the city — even Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show competitors — have been regular customers. Fannie Hurst, the Hamilton, Ohio native who is best known for writing Imitation of Life, is said to have called it “the heartbeat of the asphalt city.”
In the 1970s, Tavern on the Green was purchased and renovated by Warner LeRoy, the son of film producer and director Mervyn LeRoy and the grandson of Harry Warner, one of the founders of the Warner Bros. film studio. When the restaurant reopened in 1976, it had been transformed into a beautiful, lavish showplace adorned with crystal chandeliers, stained glass, etched mirrors, antique prints and wall-to-wall cabbage-rose carpeting.
Tavern on the Green: 125 Recipes for Good Times, a 2009 book by Jennifer Oz LeRoy and Kay LeRoy that I checked out to prepare for our visit, described the restaurant in tantalizing detail.
The book said that the Crystal Room was ablaze with Baccarat and Waterford crystal chandeliers, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a hand-painted mural of flowers, castles and winged horses. The Terrace Room had a hand-carved plaster ceiling and two Waterford chandeliers. The Rafters Room, named for its eight two-foot-thick, hand-hewn girders and steep-pitched ceiling, was illuminated by crystal and mirrored sconces and four tiered, colored-crystal chandeliers. LeRoy designed stained-glass panels to decorate the wormy chestnut walls. In the Park Room, a pair of Baccarat chandeliers illuminated a 52-foot mural depicting turn-of-the-20th-century Central Park. Another mural in a room called Maximilian’s Pavilion was the artist’s rendition of what Central Park would look like if all the foliage was in full bloom, with landmarks like the park’s antique carousel and trees repositioned to show them at their best advantage.
What I couldn’t wait to see was a room with four eight-foot-high, five-tiered copper and brass chandeliers. Mirrors reflecting several copper stags depicted scenes from the 1949 version of Little Women, a Mervyn LeRoy film starring June Allyson, Margaret O’Brien, Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh — one of my favorite movies.
The restaurant was also known for its tablecloths, some custom-made from fabrics designed specifically for it. LeRoy even had suits and ties made from his favorite tablecloth fabrics.
The restaurant’s surroundings sounded equally magnificent. The trees twinkled, wrapped from the tips of their branches to the base of their trunks in more than 10 miles of tiny white lights, the LeRoys described. Its five gardens, considered to be some of the finest in New York City, changed seasonally. Summer’s colorful annuals and perennials gave way to purple, orange, ivory and gold mums, purple and white kale and purple asters in the fall, followed by cypress, holly and evergreen trees for winter. Our springtime visit promised a spectacular spring display of 9,000 daffodils and 50,000 tulips.
The book went on to describe how in 1990, LeRoy was so taken by the movie Edward Scissorhands that he commissioned the film’s greensman to create seven one-of-a-kind topiaries for Tavern on the Green, including a bear, swans, a rabbit, a horse, a stag and an elephant — the inspiration for the Vera Bradley print. A few years later, he added a 14-foot replica of King Kong, which was unveiled by Fay Wray, the star of the 1933 movie.
In Tavern on the Green’s gift shop, you could buy a bottled version of the restaurant’s popular olive-caper sauce, called Central Park Dipping Oil, the book said. I resolved to bring one home as a souvenir.
The thought of all of this in store kept us going as we braved rain and thousands of runners en route to our destination. When we arrived at this legendary place, I told the hostess that we had come all the way from Ohio to see what I had read about in such tantalizing detail.
I was crestfallen by what she told me. In 2009, the LeRoys filed for bankruptcy and Tavern on the Green was closed for almost five years. During a $38 million renovation by new owners, the Little Women scenes, the topiaries, the murals – everything we had come to see — had been auctioned off. The restaurant reopened in 2014, still lovely, but decorated very differently from the “old gaudy touches” that had brought me there. On the left, you’ll see what one of Tavern on the Green’s dining rooms looks like today.
No more Central Park Dipping Oil in the gift shop, but there were pretty decorated Easter eggs and clever logo merchandise for sale.
Lesson learned: My research for this stop led me a little astray from the fold, but it was still nice to see those South Down sheep’s swanky home.