Lost opportunities. Blown chances.
Once again, I’ve been cheated out of a vintage dining experience. I’d always been curious about, and wanted to take in a meal at, Brooklyn’s famous Gage & Tollner, which had been in business since 1879 and had occupied this same spot on Fulton Street, a couple of doors down from Smith, since 1892. I’d seen the reviews. I’d seen the occasional writeups in the press. But did I ever bother to round up a few associates and go in? Nah… always had something else to do.
I felt the same way about Flessel’s of College Point…but never learned my lesson. As Ray Kinsella found out in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come, but I’ve found out that if you don’t come, they’ll leave.
So when I learned that Gage & Tollner’s owner, tired of losing money on the place, was closing down its gaslamped Fulton Street restaurant, I immediately called and tried to cadge a reservation. No dice. There was only one thing left to do: grab the Forgotten NY Olympus, get down there on closing day and start firing away.
From the outside looking in, of course.
Gage and Tollner
Real estate records show that the brownstone building occupied by Gage & Tollner dates to 1875. Many old buildings survive along this stretch of Fulton Street, but most of the top floors are abandoned and in any case have not been kept in the condition this one has been. [above photo: NY Times]
Gage & Tollner had 36 gaslamps, meaning it could stay open in a blackout. Its tables were made of mahogany. Several of its waiters had been on staff for decades.
My Bible in these matters, Ellen Williams and Steve Radlauer’s The Historic Shops and Restaurants of New York, claims that the Bridge Cafe, on Dover and Water Streets in Manhattan’s Seaport area, has been a restaurant of some kind since 1794, but perhaps Gage & Tollner meant oldest restaurant under its original name.
Nose pressed against window, your webmaster gets the only glimpse he ever got of the cherrywood-framed mirrors. What a room it must have been. Gage & Tollner was known as a seafood restaurant with clams and oysters a specialty, and I’ve never been a mollusk fancier, so I would have gone for the crab cakes or the snapper.
Gage & Tollner was a bit pricey, especially for the Fulton Mall area. “Fulton Mall” has been known as such since the late 1970s, when a lane of traffic was eliminated, an Albee Square Mall building was built on the site of the old Albee Theater, and unique lighting and street signage was installed. Other than A&S, by then the grande dame of Fulton Street, the street had become a mishmash of 99¢ stores, pawn shops, and other bargain basement emporiums. Over time Gage & Tollner found it harder and harder to attract customers, despite hiring a string of acclaimed chefs. This gradual attrition made it too difficult for them to support the restaurant, it seems.
[2012 update: after a couple of failed franchise attempts to take it over, like TGI Friday’s, a jewelry store now occupies the space, which has had to keep its overhead lighting and beveled mirrors, as the interior is landmarked]
A look at a bus shelter, stoplight, fire alarm box and street sign from 1978. Fulton Mall was given a faux brick street paving, ‘street furniture’ designs and tower lighting unique to the Mall area in an effort to give it a unified look. Traffic was cut back to buses and local deliveries.
[in 2009, these items were removed and Fulton Street received a set of curving-masted, futuristic-looking lampposts, as well as updated shelters and historic signs]
Until the 70s and 80s, Fulton Street was home to a number of large department stores, A&S, Martin’s, Namm’s, Loeser’s, E.J. Korvette and many more. Most of their facades are still there, and if you look closely, their names can still be found, right there on the buildings, in many cases.
A&S was begun in 1865 as a partnership between dry-goods salesmen Joseph Wechsler and Abraham Abraham and, after they moved to Fulton Street, by then under an elevated train, in 1885, Wechsler & Abraham was believed to be the largest dry-goods store in New York State. Between 1893 and 1920, Abraham was in partnership with the Strauss family of Macy’s fame, which bequeathed the store a new moniker. In the 1990s, A&S was folded into Macy’s under the Federated Department Stores banner.
Through the decades A&S gradually took over a total of eight buildings along Fulton Street (which can be easily discerned when looking skyward at its multiform facades). A plaque denoting the present Macy’s A&S heritage can be found by the entrances on Fulton and Livingston Streets.
This terra cotta extravaganza on Fulton and Hoyt Streets, dating to 1890 (the date is featured on the building’s exterior) has been known both as the Wechsler Brothers Block and the Offerman Building. It’s reminiscent of H.H. Richardson‘s Romanesque offerings of the late 1800s, some architecture experts say. Remember, the Fulton Street El rumbled past till 1940, so the upper-floor detail was easily visible then. It makes an impressive sight when viewed on Hoyt Street from the south.
Adolph I. Namm started a dry-goods store in Manhattan in 1876 and moved to Brooklyn in 1886. Namm’s was on Fulton Street until 1957. Namm also had a wing named for him at Brooklyn Jewish (now Interfaith) Hospital. They’ve tried to remove it, but the Namm’s name is still readily visible on the facade on Fulton.
Another trace of Fulton’s department store heritage can be found in the IND Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street subway complex, where you can catch the A, C or G, but not the L, which here stood for Frederick Loeser & Company Department Store, which had a number of branches.
Loeser’s was situated in a block-wide building bounded by Elm Place, Fulton, Bond, and Livingston Streets from the late 19th Century until it was sold in 1950. May’s Department Stores is the present owner; the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce moved into office space in the building in 2004.
The Albee Square Mall, named for the long-gone Albee Square Theater (demolished 1977), has been renovated and renamed The Gallery at Fulton Street (even though it’s technically on DeKalb Avenue). Scores of theaters are named for vaudeville pioneer Edward F. Albee. The street signs still carry the name Albee Square, but that’s his only trace here now.
The ornate Albee Square Theater was just one of several movie, theater and burlesque houses dotted around the area. All are gone now; there was the Brooklyn Strand, the Brooklyn Paramount, the Loew’s Metropolitan, the Fox, the Orpheum as well. The Paramount’s ornate ceilings and pipe organ can still be found at the Long Island University basketball court.
[2012: in yet another change, the Mall was demolished in 2008 and new high-rise condominium is rising on the site]
If you think the Dime Savings Bank’s marble exterior, with its reliefs of the Brooklyn Bridge and Roman god Mercury and its numerous Ionic columns, is impressive, wait till you get inside. A towering, gilded rotunda arises under the dome, surrounded by Corinthian columns topped by giant dimes (Liberty dimes, that is; the building was completed by the firm of Mowbray and Uffinger in 1908 and expanded by Halsey, McCormack and Helmer in 1932, fresh from building a little tower we call the Williamsburgh Bank Building).
The building is now home to a Chase branch.
This impressive wraparound building on Fulton and Lawrence once had its own name, as witness the interlocking letters on its facade. The store was once known as Oppenheim Collins, hence he letters OC. Till the late 1970s, E.J. Korvettes occupied the ground floor.
The Liebmann Brothers building on Fulton and Hoyt (opposite the Offerman Building seen above) was built in 1888 by W. H. Beers. It’s crowned by a cupola and six terra cotta urns (one has been lost). Beers wouldn’t recognize the exterior now.
A painted ad unrecognizable from the street but likely readable from the Fulton Street el, which once passed by at eye level.
We’ll see the Majestic name again, but in this case it’s a long-gone hotel. Single rooms for $3 per night and doubles for $5. Check the old phone number: Majestic 5-8385.
I knew my high-school Latin would be good for something. Roughly, the sign on the left says, “Life is short; art is long” while the one on the right is actually two aphorisms: “Seize the day” and “Time flies.” In ancient Latin there was no punctuation or spaces between words, while only capital letters were used (“small” letters weren’t invented until the Middle Ages). C was always pronounced as a K, while “V” was pronounced as our “W”, so that “veni, vidi, vici” sounded like “wenny, widdy, wicki.”
The Latin can be found on the Harvey Theatre, formerly the Majestic, a converted movie theater on Fulton near Lafayette Avenue. It’s now a part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music complex. Your webmaster graduated college at BAM. You could say that I came, I saw and I left.
For the time being (April 2004), BAM itself, on Lafayette Avenue and Ashland Place, is swathed in a protective coating while its exterior is being restored and renovated. When the work is finished, its cherub-festooned terra cotta work will be fully visible again.
Fulton Street is dotted with the remains of formerly large funiture chains. Both J. Michaels and Mullins operated several large stores throughout Brooklyn. Your webmaster purchased a blue recliner in a J. Michaels on 5th Avenue in 1987 that supported his ever-expanding posterior well into the first decade of the 21st Century.
Fulton Street is very old. It originated as an Indian trail millennia ago; in the early 18th Century it was an original part of Kings Highway. Because it is so old, it predates the grid pattern in which Brooklyn was laid out and has several odd intersections on its western portion. Further east, it serves to separate the neighborhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant from Crown and Prospect Heights. Of late, there has been an effort to rename it along its entire length for Harriet Tubman, the pre-Civil war-era antislavery heroine. The street had been given its name a few years after Robert Fulton’s steamboat exploits.
Above we see one such intersection, where Fulton, Hanson Place and Greene Avenue come together. A handsome green space has been built, complete with shelter.
Who is that guy, seemingly waiting for the bus, on Fulton and Lafayette Avenue? You mean you haven’t heard of General Edward “Ned” Fowler? He led Brooklyn’s 14th Regiment in many Civil War battles. The sculpture, by Henry Baerer, was originally placed in Fort Greene Park in 1902; vandals broke off his sword hand and toppled him from his pedestal in 1966. The statue was restored and replaced in the small triangle here in 1976. Robert Fulton has a statue further down Fulton Street, in a park at Stuyvesant Avenue and Chauncey Street.
Your webmaster completed photography for this page March 20, 2004 and finished writing it April 9, 2004.
Thanks are due to Forgotten Fan Kurt Mitchell for assistance with this page.