Updated: Nov 6, 2020
Philip Johnson may not have invented the power lunch, but he certainly was
responsible for its home; The Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. Housed within the Mies van der Rohe designed Seagram's building, it was considered the epicenter of the power lunch from its inception in 1959 until it closed its doors in 2016. When Mies passed on designing the restaurant he recommended Philip Johnson for the job. As the ultimate Mies fan boy, Johnson’s interior paid hommage to Mies' architecture with the glamorous, masculine palette of walnut, black leather and marble that has become associated with mid-century modern style to this day.
“We wanted to look at every detail, every piece of silverware, every matchbook, in a fresh way.”(1)
No expense was spared, everything was fabricated from the finest materials to last forever. (And most of it did.) Every serving dish, piece of glassware and flatware were designed and manufactured for the restaurant. The dishes and silverware were designed by power couple Ada Louise and Garth Huxtable, artist Richard Lippold installed the cloud-like sculpture of bronze tubes above the bar himself, and noted landscape architect Karl Linn was responsible for the seasonal plantings. Even the curtains were custom fabricated by Marie Nichols, from aluminumn beads that gently moved and shimmered with the movement of the heating and cooling. Perhaps its most famous feature was an enormous Picasso curtain painted for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, installed in a corridor. According to Phyllis Bronfman, the daughter of original owner Sam Bronfman, it was the “ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk” or total work or art. (2) The interior cost four and a half million dollars in 1959. FLW's Guggenheim Museum which opened the same year, cost three million dollars.
“At the tables of the Four Seasons plots were hatched, titanic projects were started or killed, and New York was either brought back from the brink of bankrupty or plunged into it.” (3)
The Epicenter of Manhattan Power Brokers
It quickly attracted a devoted following. Every power broker in New York City from Martha Stewart to Henry Kissinger had their regular table. John F. Kennedy enjoyed dinner there on his 45th birthday, just before he was serenaded by Marilyn Monroe at Madison Square Garden. Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill celebrated the publishing of their book at the restaurant. Power and status was clearly communicated to everyone, depending on your table location. Philip Johnson held court from his, while enjoying an Americano cocktail according to Robert Stern, who often dined with him there. Architect Peter Eisenman fondly recalled Henry Kissenger boasting about being given Philip's former table after his death. (4)
Battle over the Picasso In 2013 controversy erupted when Abby Rosen, the new owner of the Seagram building claimed that the Picasso curtain needed to be moved into storage because the wall behind it was badly deteriorating. The New York Landmarks Conservancy immediately inspected the location and found that there was nothing wrong with the wall. The mural however was in dire shape and could be irreparably damaged by the move. A very public fight ensued between the Landmarks Conservancy and Mr. Rosen with members of the conservation group claiming Mr. Rosen had referred to the work of art as a "schmatte".(5) Fortunately a compromise was found and the wall hanging was gifted to the New York Historical Society. Mr. Rosen paid for its removal and restoration.
Sadly the restaurant was closed in 2016 in another controversial move by real estate developer Abby Rosen, who refused to renew its lease. Its contents were auctioned off July 26, 2016 for over four million dollars. A new restaurant called Grill now occupies the space. Fortunately most of the original features remain, as the interior was granted landmark status. Richard Lippold's sculpture, the beaded curtains and Mies van der Rohe's bar stools have been refreshed and given new life as a result of a thirty mllion dollar renovation. Phyllis Lambert who not only oversaw the construction of the building and interior in 1959, but also made sure to protect the building by initiating the landmark process, celebrated her 90th birthday at the Grill. Perhaps the ultimate stamp of approval for the newly renovated space. Feeling a little thirsty after reading about this glamorous watering hole?
You're in luck-get the recipe for the ultimate classic American cocktail- the Manhattan here.
1.John Mariani, “The Four Seasons, A History of America’s Premier Restaurant” p.26) 2.Phyllis Lambert, "Building Seagram" Yale University Press p.128 3.John Mariani, “The Four Seasons, A History of America’s Premier Restaurant” p.16) 4. Peter Eisenman video "Conversations in Context" May 26, 2014
5.Suzanne Andrews for Vanity Fair, September 2014
Sometimes the best bar in town is in your home...