Friday, 18 May 2012

Remembering Harvey's Chelsea House

Back in the early '90s, when I was a non-blogging, budding sentimentalist, I worked for a time at a horrible theatre trade magazine in the Flatiron District. (It wasn't called that at the time.) In my attempts to distance myself from my boss and duties, I would use my lunch hour to range as far from my office as possible.

I remember frequently passing an old restaurant at 108 W. 18th Street which has a grand, vertical, three-story sign that said "Harvey's." Peering in, I saw a long bar, high ceilings, tile floors, beveled glass and a dining room in the back. It was one of my first impressions of what was meant by the term Olde New York.

I didn't know much about the place, and soon thereafter it closed for good. I have been obsessed with the joint every sense. Recently I decided to find out more about the restaurant that still haunts my memory. It was worth the inquiry. 

When Harvey's Chelsea House closed in December 1991, it was 102 years old. A man named Dick Harvey had owned it for its final 16 years of its existence. He told the New York Times that taxes, insurance and utility costs, compounded by a bad economy, had forced him to close. 

Harvey's Chelsea House opened in 1889 as a kind of dark-wooded, manly eatery that was prevalent and popular at that time. It was finely appointed. It had a 40-foot bar of red, burled, Honduras mahogany, crystal cabinetwork, a brass clock and rear cabinets of bevelled glass. I'm not sure what it was called back then—it seems to have been called the Old Chelsea Restaurant at some point—but certainly not Harvey's Chelsea House. Dick Harvey took over the location in 1977. He, at the time, also managed 0'Neal's Balloon, had reopened the Landmark Tavern, and had a reputation as "the fastest bartender who has ever worked New York," according to The New Yorker. Harvey refinished the mahogany and added five chandeliers and an historic display of bar-and-res-taurant glassware. (That means that the "old" sign outside I admire so much was no older than 14 years when I saw it.)

After Harvey gave up the fight, the place remained closed for a while, then was reopened as Tonic by one Steve Tzolis, the principal owner of Il Cantinori, Periyali and Aureole, all restaurants in Manhattan. 

A newspaper described the new incarnation thusly: "I figured the owners would simply rip it apart and sell the fixtures and that if it ever reopened, it would be painted white. So it was a wonderful surprise to walk in on a recent night to find the place looking much as I remembered, only better. (It has been spruced up and is now a warm red.) It is also a scene. Young executives in pinstriped business suits, guys in white T-shirts and bikers’ jackets, lithe young women in jeans or black dresses were packed several deep at the bar, and they weren’t all just waiting for tables. The maĆ®tre d’ led me away from this merry throng into the room next door, which, although full and lively, seemed quiet by comparison. It was like being sent to sit with the grown-ups. My friends were already at the table."

Tonic didn't take. The building was torn down in 2006. What became of the beautiful bar, the mahogany, the cast iron, the glass, the brass? Junked or broken up and sold.

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