The Next Page: A Park Schenley story ... with lunch at '21'
The front of Park Schenley restaurant in Oakland, from The Pittsburgh Press, March 10, 1954. Caption: "Distinctive front is modernistic in design with staggered terra cotta blocks and turquoise glass that sparkles like jewels."
Tasso Katselas in 1960, six years after the opening of the Park Schenley.
Frank Blandi, the restaurant's proprietor, in 1962. in 1962.
The lamp that signals you are at "21" Club in New York.
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Park Schenley Restaurant on Forbes Avenue in the center of Oakland was the social center of Pittsburgh in the 1950s and '60s. Frank Blandi, a premier restaurateur, had secured a lease for the ground floor and basement of the three-story Nash Building adjacent to the Schenley Theater. (Both sites were eventually purchased by the University of Pittsburgh to develop Hillman Library.)
Blandi's group of investors included Al Ward, Chef Tony More and contractor Ray Taylor. Ray and I were friends and since we had worked together, he recommended me in 1953 for the commission to design the new restaurant. I met with the group and boldly asked for a contract that gave me carte blanche in the design with the only control being budget oversight. The owners considered my limited experience, balked and sent me on my way.
I remember being slightly disappointed, but still optimistic since my wife and I had planned to go to New York where I had interviewed with the Tishman Group and was offered a position. I wrote Tishman to accept, with the caveat that I would start in 45 days since we had committed to help a friend in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, put an addition on his father's summer cabin and as a reward, get a free vacation.
En route through New York, we gathered our friend and recent Carnegie Tech architectural graduate, Harry DePolo, for the two-day drive to Maine. We had little money -- shared a single room and ordered one meal per day that the three of us shared. As I look back over that time, I remember laughter, camaraderie, freedom and anticipation. We were beginning a new life -- recently married, a promised job in New York, a pending holiday, a reliable automobile, gas card and friends. We were youthful -- naive yet confident and armed with a sense of independence that I have never forgotten.
Francis Gassner was our host in Maine. He and I graduated from Carnegie Tech architecture a few years apart and became close friends while I had returned to teach and study for a master's. My wife and I lived rent-free above him and his wife, Dolly, just off campus, in a "castle" where Francis sublet rooms to cover our costs. His father was the maitre d' at the New York Yacht Club (where we dined many years later) and had purchased a magnificent lakefront property. Our project was to help Francis build a small enclosed porch addition for outdoor dining.
I remember little work, much fishing, swimming and modest drinking -- until the phone rang.
Much to my surprise, Frank Blandi and his partners had decided to agree to my terms -- provided I adhere to their budget requirements. Work was to start at once with an anticipated opening in six months.
How arrogant I must have been -- with little experience (I had designed two or three small projects and a modest student hangout). I had demanded control and was now faced with the daunting task of not only designing, but building, the elegant 14,000-square-foot restaurant.
Since I had no office or staff, I built a plywood drafting board on site and began drawing. Ray Taylor, as general contractor, surrounded me with a team of electricians, plumbers and mechanical contractors, and together we initiated the first fast-track, design-build project in Pittsburgh.
I was able to cover my skimpy knowledge by challenging each of the disciplines to abandon the separation of architect and contractor and, instead, create a goal-oriented team with quality design and construction as our motto. We built a sensational, fresh, inviting environment -- in record time and on budget.
It was an instant, overwhelming success with superb food and drink complementing the ambience. My wife, Jane, painted a mural in the bar where a sliding partition (separating it from the dining room) transformed the space at 9 p.m. from intimate dining to an open club character. The perimeter of the dining room had flexible alcove bench seating, while the center space used the columns as pivots for larger groups. The long, curved bar, with its undulating wood ceiling, was softly lit and could expand to serve diners at peak hours. It was the "in place." Over time, we discovered that almost everyone we knew dated their spouse at the Park Schenley.
The owners and contractors initially thought my approach was risky and budget would suffer, but since I was doing all the drawings on site, and since I was also the contractors' representative, there was no wasted time as problems were answered at once.
Slowly, I won everyone over and as the space began to define itself, a level of respect emerged and my drawings and requests were embraced by the team. My work ethic was exhausting and the exhilaration of watching my forms take shape was tempered by the realization that soon all this would be over. The contractor's crew had become more than friends, we were comrades, and I tried to evoke a sense of pride in each tradesman calling them artisans or craftsmen.
As the project was nearing completion, the owner of the HVAC company doing the work invited me to lunch: "Be sure you wear a suit and tie tomorrow," he said. "We will go to an early lunch." I assumed he wanted to show his appreciation and was probably taking me to the Duquesne Club.
He surprised me the next day when at 10 a.m., his driver took us to the Allegheny County Airport. His private plane flew us to New York. And a car was waiting to take us to the "21" Club for lunch.
I was astonished. He enjoyed watching my excitement.
We entered the iron gate, flanked by jockey statuettes, went down a couple of steps where the doorman led us into the lobby. On one side was the cigar counter and check room, on the other was the reception desk. I could see a green carpeted stairway to the second floor, and immediately off the lobby, a lounge area -- gray/green with wood paneling and leather chairs and a fireplace. There was a feeling of quiet, comfortable and unexplainable wealth. This was the "21" Club.
The tuxedoed maitre d' seemed amused as he asked for our reservation. We had none and he abruptly, but politely, advised us it could be an hour wait, and began ushering us into the lounge as other patrons behind us began to press.
My host was very upset. His surprise lunch was beginning to sour -- especially after he heard me ask, "Are any of the boys here?"
"What boys?" the maitre d' asked.
"Sadie's boys. Just tell them Tasso is here."
After a brief, startled pause, the maitre d' asked, "You are Tasso?"
"I am Tasso."
"Just a minute, don't move."
By this time, my host was incredulous. He was about to ask for an explanation, when he saw the smiling maitre d' and another tuxedoed, tall man swoop us up and lead us to a corner table saying, "So you're Tasso. I'm Max and this rude guy is Peter. Sadie told us you would show up some day. What took you so long? How wonderful. Sadie has never forgotten. You made her return trip memorable."
"How is she?" I asked. "Please, perhaps I can call her before we leave?"
"William will take your order, and I will check back with you later."
We had been led into a long room with three sections, past a curved, long mahogany bar with no stools and brass, unused spittoons. We were seated at the far end at the "house table" with a full view of the entire room.
The space was really three townhouses with all partitions removed to create a series of dining rooms with high ceilings and red-and-white checked tables above which hung an array of miniature planes, trains, automobiles, boats and toys.
The place began to fill up, but despite the busy lunch hour, both Max and Peter spent time with us -- at one point, they had our waiter plug a phone at our table so I could speak with Sadie. "The boys" had moved her to Riverside Drive and she was happy I was able to meet her family.
I had suddenly become the host and, by this time, my humbled benefactor begged for an explanation. What was this all about? Who was Sadie?
In 1951, I had scraped together enough for a journey to Europe, and made my return trip on the Queen Elizabeth. I was seated with a stout, elderly woman who I quickly discovered had wit and charm.
We became fast friends. We had our meals together, walked the deck, played cards and gossiped. She hated the trip, but her sons had insisted. "You should go back to Europe. You will enjoy it. The trip will do you good."
Our favorite pastime after dinner was to take a table in the corner of the lounge, sip a drink and make up stories about our fellow passengers. I would regale her with stories of my movie house and pool room experiences. She would counter with stories about "old New York" and how it once was.
Sadie Kriendler was a big woman. Each evening, she appeared in a new dress, pearl necklace and earrings -- her hair, streaked with gray, was pulled back, framing her full, round face and sparkling eyes. She would sit back, legs crossed at the ankles, hands folded at her waist and peruse the room with amused anticipation.
She was an old-time New Yorker, having come from Poland as a young bride in 1897. She easily matched me story for story. She had four sons and four daughters. Her husband died at age 45 and she raised her children with a determination to educate. Her oldest, Jack, had died in 1949, her youngest was Bob. In between came Maxwell and Peter.
Jack Kriendler and his cousin, Charlie Berns, had founded the famous "21" Club. It evolved during prohibition from a speakeasy in Greenwich Village through a series of uptown moves to its present location on 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It became the playground of the rich and famous. Theater and movie stars, politicians, entrepreneurs, writers and artists all helped create an ambience of sophistication.
The inevitable result was a history of unusual, funny events that became legendary as they were repeated and embellished. Sadie was able to recall, with clarity, an endless stream of stories.
(Two favorites I remember: Robert Benchley entering the lobby during a rainstorm: "Get me out of this wet coat and into a dry martini." Humphrey Bogart telling an offensive paparazzo: "Why don't you go out and commit insecticide.")
Slowly, other passengers began to drift to our corner until there was a substantial cluster each evening waiting to hear Sadie or me repeat some apocryphal anecdote and punctuate it with a real-life event that with slight exaggeration carried the day. We became the focus of the evening.
As the trip ended, Sadie took me aside and said that she felt I was like a son. Europe was OK, but "the boat trip back made the whole thing worthwhile." As we hugged and kissed goodbye, she asked if I was staying in New York because she wanted to introduce me to her sons and treat me to dinner.
"Sadie, I love you, but I must decline," I said. My itinerary was focused on my future wife, Jane, who was meeting me at the dock.
With an understanding smile, she held me close and said that "the next time you are in New York, dinner is on me at '21' Club". My sons own that restaurant. And all you need to do is ask for one of 'the boys.' And say you are Tasso. Just say 'Tasso.' "
So, at "21" Club, we were treated like special guests. With "Sadie's boys," we drank Champagne at noon.
During the flight home, I remember feeling smug with a sense of superiority, having trumped my "host." He seemed subdued; his plans to impress me had backfired. I quickly learned, however, an important lesson in hubris.
Not being accustomed to midday drinking, while eating rich, excessive food and dessert, I became sick during the bumpy flight home. Embarrassed and nauseated, I lost both my lunch and my ego as I realized I was a mere mortal and that there is no such thing as a "free lunch."
First Published August 26, 2012 12:00 am