Saturday, November 15, 2008

Café Sabarsky & Neue Galerie

Café Sabarsky (inside Neue Galerie)
1048 5th Ave., corner of 86th St.
Mon/Wed 9-6; Thu/Fri/Sat/Sun 9-9; closed Tue

The Café, which bears the name of Neue Galerie co-founder Serge Sabarsky, draws its inspiration from the great Viennese cafés that served as important centers of intellectual and artistic life at the turn of the twentieth century. It is outfitted with period objects, including lighting fixtures by Josef Hoffmann, furniture by Adolf Loos, and banquettes that are upholstered with a 1912 Otto Wagner fabric. A grand piano, which graces one corner of the Café, is used for cabaret, chamber, and classical music performances.

It’s the real deal, where patrons down Stiegl beer (from Salzburg) while perusing the pages of Die Presse and Der Standard. Others tackle a slice of Sachertorte with a melange on the side (all coffee orders are served authentically with a beaker of water). Heartier appetites are satisfied by goulash and spätzle.

Photo: Sachertorte mit Schlag

The building that houses the Neue Galerie museum and Café Sabarsky was completed in 1914 by Carrère & Hastings, also architects of the New York Public Library. It has been designated a landmark by the New York Landmarks Commission and is generally considered one of the most distinguished buildings ever erected on Fifth Avenue. Commissioned by industrialist William Starr Miller, it was later occupied by society doyenne Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III (Grace Graham Wilson). The family of Cornelius Vanderbilt III (universally known as Neily) was so against their marriage, that his father punished him with a paltry $500,000 inheritance, which his brother helped rectify by tossing in another $6 million after their father's death in 1899. This mansion was so much smaller than Grace and Neily's former mid-town 5th Avenue residence (77 rooms at 640 Fifth Ave., since demolished), that Grace referred to it as "the gardener's cottage." She lived in this "cottage" until her death in 1953. It was later purchased by Ronald S. Lauder (son of Estée Lauder) and Serge Sabarsky in 1994.

The glory of the museum’s collection of Austrian and German fine and decorative arts is Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) oil, silver and gold on canvas. In 2006, Lauder purchased Klimt's painting from Maria Altmann on behalf of the Neue Galerie for $135 million, at the time the most expensive painting ever sold. It has been on display at the museum since July 2006. The portrait, of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Jewish sugar industrialist and the hostess of a prominent Vienna salon, is considered one of the artist’s masterpieces. For years, it was the focus of a restitution battle between the Austrian government and a niece of Mrs. Bloch-Bauer, who argued that it was seized along with four other Klimt paintings by the Nazis during World War II. In January, 2006, all five paintings were awarded to the niece, Maria Altmann, then 90, who was living in Los Angeles at the time.

Neue Galerie – 212.628.6200
Hours: 11-6; Fridays until 9; Closed Tue/Wed
Museum admission: $15 incl. audio guide (students and seniors $10)

In the drawing room of her Fifth Ave. mansion at 52nd St., Grace (Mrs. Cornelius) Vanderbilt entertained en masse while her estranged husband sailed the world on his yacht; one year she hosted 30,000 guests. By the 1940s, however, the big house at 640 5th Ave. was sold, and Mrs. Vanderbilt moved to what she referred to as “the gardener’s cottage,” a 28-room mansion at 1048 Fifth at 86th Street (now the Neue Galerie/Café Sabarsky). With a staff of 18, she continued to entertain in large numbers until her death in 1953. Interesting and attractive men were, in her opinion, the key to a successful party. She kept a list of 138 eligible men broken up into categories like: “men who will dance,” “men who can lunch,” and “men who will go to the theatre but not the opera.”

Photo below: The Vanderbilt mansion photographed back in its heyday, when it served as the residence of William Starr Miller, years before Mrs. Vanderbilt lived here. The house was sold subsequently sold to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which completed important studies on the Yiddish language. Cash strapped, this organization sold the air rights above the mansion to the Adams Hotel next door on 86th Street, which was being redeveloped as a residential property, assuring some of the future owners an unobstructed view of Central Park. Ron Lauder and Serge Sabarsky bought the building in 1994.

Below: An archive photo of the room facing Fifth Avenue that now serves as the Café Sabarsky. Note the card catalog on the rear wall to the right of the fireplace and the library tables, a clear indication of the research that went on here during its days as home to the YIVO Institute.

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