A Glimpse Into The Lost Civilization of A.D. 1957
The realities of New York City’s dining world are cruel. The majority of restaurants fail. Luckily for diners, there are always more restaurants ready to take their place. The new owners of the space throw away the furniture and tear out the walls and the old fixtures. It’s a kind of archeology, peeling back the layers until you get to bare concrete and brick. And once in a while a great discovery is made.
When Tom Nolan and his partners leased a space in midtown Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center for their new AJ Maxwell’s steakhouse, all they knew was that a succession of Indian restaurants had occupied the place before. Somebody told them there might be a mural behind one of the walls. Tom Nolan decided to punch a hole through it and find out.
“We opened it up and started to see something blue inside,” he said. “And we realized it was a mosaic. And I said, ‘Can we make the hole any bigger?’”
They tore away at the Sheetrock, and the mosaic just got larger and larger. Finally they realized that it covered an entire wall.
“It was like discovering a dinosaur!” Nolan said.
The mosaic showed four groups of ancient Romans around a fountain, a column bearing the she-wolf that is the symbol of Rome, and a background of archways and Roman buildings. Word of this discovery spread in New York culinary circles, and soon somebody stopped by to identify the mosaic. The Roman scene was a relic of one of the most over-the-top and expensive restaurants the city has ever seen, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars.
The Forum was the creation of Joseph Baum and Jerome Brody, two titans of the New York restaurant world (they would later open the Four Seasons, and Baum would go on to dream up Windows on the World). In the mid-1950s they decided that the city’s executives, flush with an economic boom, needed someplace big and splashy to deplete their expense accounts. They teamed up with William Pahlmann, an interior decorator known for his “eclectic” designs. He found 12 portraits of 12 Roman emperors, and the idea for a restaurant was born.
Up front, right beside the bar, was to be the mosaic. Pahlmann drew the original design, a 1950s stylized version of imperial Rome, and gave it to the Rambusch Decorating Company to execute. One of its artists turned the design into a full-size painted “cartoon,” which was then taken to a Bronx company specializing in mosaics.
The Forum of the Twelve Caesars opened at the end of 1957 and quickly became a magnet for corporate and media leaders. Charles Baum, Joseph’s son, remembers it as the city’s first sophisticated theme restaurant. The waiters wore Roman-style jerkins; the wine buckets were centurion helmets. The menu featured such specialties as “Belgic Paté with Wild Boar, Sauce of Damascus Plums,” goose “Germanicus,” and “Pheasant of the Golden House on a Silver Shield of Gilded Plumage Roasted with an Exquisite Sauce.” Everything was oversized: the menus, the cutlery, the plates, the drinks, and even the food.
“My first time there I was having lunch with my father and James Beard,” said Charles Baum. “I was maybe 10 years old. At some point they determined that I should try my first oyster. These were the only oysters in history that required a knife and fork. [Indeed, they appeared on the menu thus: “The Oysters of Hercules, $1.65, which you with sword shall carve.”] I hoped they’d forget, but they didn’t. They watched as the mammoth thing went into my mouth. The second I lost their attention, the oyster rested comfortably in the napkin on my lap.”
The Forum of the Twelve Caesars closed in 1975, the victim of an economic downturn. Its mural, however, can again be seen in Rockefeller Center, at AJ Maxwell’s, 57 West Forty-eighth Street.
— Andrew Coe