The doors of New York City’s iconic 21 Club restaurant closed on March 16th, 2020, due to the COVID-19 lockdown. This weekend, news broke that those doors will remain shut indefinitely. First opened in January 1930 on West 52nd Street, the 21 Club announced it would permanently dismiss its nearly 150 employees in March 2021. This news comes on the heels of Governor Cuomo shutting down all indoor dining in New York City starting today, Monday, December 14th, to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
A representative of Belmond, the company that owns the 21 Club, told Untapped New York, “In light of the ongoing global crisis and anticipated extended recovery period for the hospitality industry, the difficult decision was made that it will not be feasible to reopen the 21 Club in its current form for the foreseeable future. The company is exploring potential opportunities that will allow 21 Club to remain a viable operation in the long term while retaining its distinctive character.”
Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns founded the 21 Club. They had previously owned Puncheon Grotto at 42 West 49th Street but had to relocate due to the construction of Rockefeller Center. Kriendler and Berns took the iron gate with them to 21 West 52nd Street and opened 21. The ornamental jockeys that line the fence, thirty-five in total, have been given to the restaurant over the years by its famous patrons. The first figurine was gifted by sportsman and entrepreneur Jan van Urk. Members of the Vanderbilt, Mellon, and Ogden Mills Phipp families carried on the tradition as the 21 Club states on its website.
Opening in the latter part of Prohibition, the club needed a clever way to hide its booze. After a raid, architect Frank Buchanan was hired to design a hidden cellar and a series of secret doors, chutes, and revolving bars that would allow illegal activity to be concealed. The basement wine cellar was actually located next door at number 19, and so technically off-premises. The 21 Club states that inside the wine cellar, there were 2,000 cases of wine. Famous figures such as President Richard Nixon, actress Elizabeth Taylor, and Aristotle Onassis kept their private collections safe inside.
The 21 Club was a place to see and be seen in Manhattan. The restaurant was frequented by politicians, celebrities, athletes, and even presidents, nearly every single president. The dining rooms and bars are filled with souvenirs from these visitors. A PT-109 torpedo boat model from President John F. Kennedy hangs in the bar room, along with a baseball bat from Willie Mays and a golf club from Jack Nicklaus. There are also original artworks from artists like Frederick Remington and Bradford Crandall and cartoons by Walt Disney, and The New Yorker’s Peter Arno.
While the 21 Club remains closed, its parent company Belmond hopes that the iconic venue may live on in some other form. “At this early stage, we are not ready to announce any final concept or timeframe, but the vision is that 21 Club will always remain an important social and cultural hub and icon of New York, one that is well-positioned to fulfill its role in the City’s exciting future when the time comes,” said a representative of the company.
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