Skip to Content

Curtains

The development and decline of the Four Seasons, the high temple of restaurant design

Philip Johnson, partner to Mies van der Rohe on New York City’s Seagram Building and designer of the Four Seasons interior, in 1982, with the aluminum curtains by Marie Nichols in the background. Portrait by Neal Slavin.
 

One associates the word Gesamtkunstwerk“complete work of art”—with the wild, beautiful operas of Richard Wagner, which integrate music, theater, and imagery into spectacles that draw massive audiences a century and a half after their creation.

Could a restaurant be a Gesamtkunstwerk? One was: the Four Seasons, which opened in 1959, inside Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous Seagram Building in New York City. Its origin story is legendary. Liquor magnate Sam Bronfman, acting on the advice of his daughter Phyllis Lambert, hired Mies to design the company headquarters and wanted a restaurant for his tenants. “Mies didn’t want do it,” Lambert recalled in an interview. “Philip [Johnson, Mies’ partner on Seagram] designed the interior with lighting designer Richard Kelly, who had studied theater at Yale and provided a kind of theatrical aspect to the rooms. Mies would never have done that.”

In her 2012 book, Building Seagram, Lambert wrote: “With the Four Seasons, Philip achieved the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk, in which theatrical interior effects are locked into reciprocity with Mies’s structural language.” No one disagrees with her.

Mies created the space, with his trademark clear-span architecture—not a column in view!—that afforded Johnson an unencumbered palette for his design. Johnson turned some of the architectural challenges into flights of imagination. For instance, the restaurant’s entrance faced sideways, to 52nd Street, not forward to front onto the magnificent, granite-slabbed plaza Mies created on Park Avenue. Another oddity: The Four Seasons, and its satellite Grill Room, sat one floor above the entrance, because 52nd Street slopes downward east of Park Avenue.

From these exigencies, Johnson created famous solutions, for example an elegant “Miesian” staircase that lifted visitors up to a storied promenade. To decorate the hallway connecting the main dining area and the grill, Johnson installed a monumental, 19-foot-by-20-foot theater curtain, Le Tricorne, which Pablo Picasso had originally designed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Alighting from the staircase, the visitor encountered yet another famous work of art, the sculpture floating above the Grill Room bar. The unnamed sculpture, and its nearby twin in the Grill Room mezzanine, form two suspended layers of 8,000 gilt brass rods hanging from narrow wires. They are beautiful but also functional, lowering the 20-foot-tall ceiling to a more human proportion.

Mark Rothko agreed to contribute an original work for the mezzanine space overlooking the dining area but backed out. He later told journalist John Fischer that he accepted the assignment “with strictly malicious intentions. I hoped to paint something that would ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.”

Mies’ huge spaces presented a unique challenge, as Johnson explained to John Mariani and Alex von Bidder, authors of a 1999 book, The Four Seasons: A History of America’s Premier Restaurant. “Right from the start, I knew that the space was much too big for a restaurant. So really, I was just trying to fill the space somehow, stay true to Mies’s design for the building... There’s a lot of wasted space, you know. But there is in a great cathedral, too, isn’t there?”

David Hacin of Hacin + Associates in Boston first visited the Four Seasons when his father flew from their home in Switzerland to visit his college-age son. “It had this incredible processional,” he recalls. “You arrived at the lower level and then experienced this sense of drama and process moving through that space that was unlike any restaurant I had been to before.”

In 2016, an auction was held of the Four Seasons’ contents. A set of four china ashtrays, 4 inches diameter × 0.5 inch, sold for $6,875.
 

The main dining area is a boxy, open space—but here again, Johnson, working with interior designer William Pahlmann, devised a solution that centered the room and created an axis for the restaurant work to turn around. The designers installed a 20foot-square white Carrara marble pool smack in the middle of the room. “Lighted softly from below and set at table level, a pool would have a soothing effect on the diners,” Mariani and von Bidder wrote. A tree stood at each corner of the pool and changed foliage according to the season.

The celebration of the arts proceeded to the tables: Almost every object used by the customer or the service staff was custom-designed for the restaurant. Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable created the place settings, silver services, and the stemmed glassware, now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Johnson designed the restaurant’s banquettes. He and Mies collaborated on the Grill Room’s cantilevered barstools. Eero Saarinen designed the Tulip chairs and tables that found their way to the ladies’ lounges, which an Evergreen magazine writer likened to “palaces” in a 1959 feature article.

A pair of silver-soldered metal breadbaskets, 8.5 inches diameter × 4.5 inches high, designed by Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable, sold for $8,125.
 

The Four Seasons curtains, which shimmer down massive picture windows facing south, west, and north, are also a renowned work of art, designed by weaver Marie Nichols. “Made of aluminum, the [beaded] chains were in three colors: a sort of silver, a yellow gold, and a bronze rose-gold,” former New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton wrote in an official history of the space. “By day, they are transparent enough to afford a filmy view of the surrounding city and filter overly bright daylight. By night, when the windows go dark, the chain curtains become opaque, lending a reassuring enclosed look to the rooms.”

The last, but not the least, of the arts proffered by the Four Seasons are the cuisine and the art of hospitality. Building owner Bronfman wasn’t exactly a foodie. “All I want is to be able to get a good piece of flanken, OK?” was his famous comment to restaurant operator Jerome Brody. But Brody and his Swiss chef, Albert Stöckli, gave the world a lot more than short ribs. The Four Seasons pioneered the idea of seasonal menus featuring fresh foods. In his 1959 inaugural review, New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne singled out the fresh herbs and “several varieties of fresh mushrooms unknown in this country.”

It did not go unnoticed that almost alone among top-drawer Manhattan eateries, the Four Seasons’ menu was in English, not the customary, pretentious French. With meals priced for corporate expense accounts, the restaurant quickly became a “power lunch” venue almost before the term existed. John F. Kennedy celebrated his 45th birthday at the restaurant, before heading downtown to be serenaded by Marilyn Monroe at Madison Square Garden. The Dalai Lama, Henry Kissinger, and Mike Wallace, as well as innumerable bar mitzvah boys and teenagers clutching their admission letters from coveted schools, figured among the thousands of generally satisfied customers. The tables were never placed cheek-by-jowl, so gossip columnist and restaurant regular Liz Smith couldn’t hear Martha Stewart holding forth nearby.

Stemware by Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable of eight different forms including glasses for water, red wine, white wine, cocktails, martinis, champagne, brandy, and cordials; a service for 12 sold for $35,000. All auction photos: Courtesy Wright
 

The service, delivered by a professional waitstaff, not moonlighting actors, was old-school impeccable. “There is probably no dining establishment in New York where training for table service is more thorough,” Claiborne wrote.

“We dined there on my 30th birthday,” Hacin recalls, and they wheeled a corded telephone to my table on a rolling cart. My father was on the line; he had called to wish me happy birthday.”

“I will never forget that moment,” he says. “You think about how today everyone’s checking their iPhones at the table. It reminds me how much fine dining has changed—and not for the better.”

The inevitable change came to the Four Seasons, and brusquely. The Seagram Building’s new owner, developer Aby Rosen, announced in 2015 that the restaurant’s time “had passed,” and he petitioned New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to refurbish the space. The Commission rejected Rosen’s proposals, which Lambert, in a New York Times op-ed, called “so severe... that it verges on dereliction of duty to decide in [Rosen’s] favor.” A peeved Rosen declined to renew the restaurant’s lease.

In a dramatic gesture, the Four Seasons owners auctioned off the restaurant’s entire contents in the summer of 2016 rather than re-create the decor at a planned new location a few blocks south on Park Avenue. (As of this writing, the new Four Seasons has not yet opened.) The frenzied bidding around the bubbling Carrara marble pool confounded all expectations. The first item offered, a bronze sign with the Four Seasons logo, was listed at $5,000 to $7,000; it went for $96,000. A Huxtable stemware service for 12 sold for $35,000. (Hacin bought a Huxtable-designed serving cart for $2,800.)

Wright auctioneers expected to gross $1.3 million from the sale. In the end, they took in more than $4 million.

Pablo Picasso’s 19-foot-by-20-foot tapestry, Le Tricorne, graced the hallway between restaurant and grill. Gift of New York Landmarks Conservancy, courtesy of Vivendi © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ars) New York
 

The new operators have created two new restaurants in the old space, The Grill and The Pool, which look familiar to the old crowd because the Landmarks Preservation Commission insisted the Lippold sculptures and the Nichols curtains remain in place. The pool is still there, although the four trees at its corners have decamped. A gorgeous Emily Thompson blossom arrangement sits in the middle of the marble enclosure, but overall, there is more loss than gain. A recent weekday lunchtime visit revealed a dearth of A-listers, in fact, hardly any people at all. The Pool was practically deserted; The Grill had some customers. Staffers said business picks up at week’s end and in the evenings.

“The Pool Is Not NYC’s Next Great Seafood Restaurant,” reads the headline of a piece written by a generally disapproving Eater New York reviewer, Ryan Sutton, last October. By contrast, Sutton liked its companion, The Grill, which he called “as close as you can get to a perfect New York restaurant.” So perhaps there is hope for a second act—a Fifth Season?—after all. ■