Prominently sited at the top of Beekman Hill, The Beekman Tower (originally the Panhellenic Tower) is one of midtown Manhattan's great art deco skyscrapers. Constructed in 1927-1929 and designed by noted architect John Mead Howells, the striking modernistic building features handsome, Gothic-inspired Art Deco ornament [sic] by leading architectural sculptor Rene Chambellan. The tower is reknowned for its dramatic volumetric massing and bold verticality. The Building, a product of the 1920s women's rights movement, was built by the New York chapter of the Panhellenic Association as a clubhouse and residence for professional women affiliated with Greek-letter sororities.

— Bronze Plaque New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation 1999

At the corner of First Avenue and Mitchell Place, at the top of Manhattan's "Beekman Hill" neighborhood, stands a singular Art Deco styled gem of a building. I'd frequently passed it; a friend works at the United Nations just a few blocks south. I park my car right off of the 49th Street exit of the F.D.R. Drive, in the lot underneath the U.N. Towers Apartment Buildings. Each time I'd plod up Beekman Hill to a Thai restaurant we'd become accustomed to meeting at, I'd pass this jewel-box of a hotel; The Beekman Tower.

When I finally first ventured in to look, someone at the front desk apologized and told me that dining was only available in a handsome but unremarkable spot on the first floor of the tower. The restaurant at the top of the tower was "closed for renovations."

The room rates quoted to me were extremely low for that prime area of the City; adjacent to the U.N., just South of Sutton Place, and just East of a whole lot of prime corporate realty occupied by some of the biggest names in the country. Most rooms are one-bedroom suites, equipped with kitchenettes. At that time I was quoted just over $130 for one of these. A floor-through suite on a high floor was $500. Something just didn't seem right. So we decided against taking our meal in the hotel's first-floor restaurant that day.
 

The Best Kept Secret in New York is Back

The answer came about half a year later when a sign appeared in the window of the downstairs restaurant proclaiming that the "Top of the Tower" on the 26th floor had reopened and served breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktails. Apparently they'd renovated. So we set aside our usual Thai hangout and headed into the Beekman. The lobby had been changed. It was now a very tasteful example of Art Deco drama and spotlessly clean. I felt underdressed because I had neither sport coat nor tie on and the brass sign next to the elevator leading up to the Top of the Tower asked "proper attire, please." A bell man, when asked, said that my collared shirt would do just fine.

The building is so substantial and located in a corner away from the bustle of mid-town, one begins to feel the incredible quiet immediately. A stop at a floor before our destination revealed a lovely, carpeted hallway accented with antiques. And it was perfectly silent. Not so much as the honk of a horn could be heard, even though several of the room doors were open for cleaning. The rooms we saw were handsome, clean, and decorated in a traditional style. I guess they didn't want to over-do the Art Deco schtick.

The intriguing, dark '20s-modern decor of the Top of the Tower restaurant would be spectacular; elegant yet comfortable at the same time; in any location. What takes one's breath away is that the delightfully designed space possesses no curtains per se; the backdrop is a 360-degree view of New York City from 26 floors up. A lot of expense was spent on detail; a combination of brushed metals and rare woods combined in an understated way with lovely lighting details and simple, comfortable furniture echoed the Art Deco theme; but frankly I'd rather call it "late 1920s modern," as it's faithful to that particular style. Gorgeous original pointed-top windows with stained glass details atop tower about 15 feet up from the floor. The glass behind the bar is original cobalt blue. The whole effect, complete with baby grand piano, lighting via wall sconces, black ceiling and lovely soaring draperies makes one think they are walking into a sophisticated club. Seating near the bar is on individual sofas set up with tables. The dining room proper surrounds this room; the glasswork is new, offering a bright, lovely view of the city. So beautiful were our surroundings that I feared I'd have to mortgage my home to pay for lunch. Not so.

Our first visit we committed an error. We were seated all the way at one corner of the building, near a doorway which ostensibly opens for fair-weather dining on a patio area. It was just too cold where we were sitting. Tea and strong drink warmed us, but not enough. It turns out that on particularly cold days, the trick is to be seated either on the north or east sides of the building; there's a stairway leading to restrooms (and the kitchen) on the northwest side which is filled with a cold draft. Subsequent visits, seated on the east side overlooking the East River, have been much warmer affairs.
 

Good Food at a Great Value

Cuisine at lunch is simple, fairly-priced fare with a generous portion of the menu given to Italian cuisine. It was bad timing that on our first visit a soup course wasn't available. There was no soup on the menu and a waiter confirmed that indeed, there was no soup to be had that day. Starters were the usual salads, smoked salmon, and an interesting poached pear with goat cheese, which was delicious. A Caesar salad with an abundance of perfectly-grilled chicken breast atop was only $14. There's a variety of individual pizzas available with very creative toppings, each only about $12. Chicken Scarpariella (with peppers and hot Italian sausage) was delectable, served in a pasta bowl with plenty of delicious broth. The taste was superb; it was better than the same dish I'd had years ago at the venerable Rao's restaurant. Apparently the Gods wanted me to diet that day; no bread basket was put out nor was the dish served with the obligatory pasta. I ended up using a soup spoon to savor every bit of the delicious sauce.

Flat-Iron steak was done perfectly, sliced and served with gorgonzola whipped potatoes and asparagus tips. At $18 it was a steal. A hamburger with hand-cut fries was only $14 and was superb; using minced sirloin. We have yet to try the club sandwich ($12) but I assure you we will. A salmon steak came with vegetables, fingerling potatoes and little else, but was tasty and filling; worth every bit of the $20 charged.

A benchmark of care in a restaurant is whether or not the kitchen lets the coffee go bitter (due to a failure of removing the grounds the moment the pot is made). The Top of the Tower passed this test with flying colors. I've had meals in restaurants twice the price only to be disappointed by a bitter cup of coffee with an oil slick floating on top. The delicious coffee led to an investigation of the dessert menu. A homemade lemon tart is simplicity at its best; superbly fresh lemon curd in short pastry crust and nothing else but a half strawberry for decor and a little chocolate sauce swirled in a design around the plate. It was a bargain at $7. Sacher Torte was a sinfully delectable chocolate fantasy, as appealing to the eye as to the palate. It was a bit pricey at $11 but satisfied three of us on one visit. Other offerings are more pedestrian (pies, ice cream) but if they're made by the same pastry chef, I'm certain they're worth having.

Dinner offerings are also Italian-heavy, but again aren't priced outrageously. Reservations are a good idea for dinner, if only for the vast cocktail crowd that takes over the restaurant beginning at about 5:00; and lingers. Service in all cases is attentive without being intrusive - one gentleman remembered me from only three visits and as he cleared my plate asked if he should bring my coffee now. He didn't ask my dining companions because I'd been the only one to order coffee on the previous visits. He may, however, have had a special affection for my U.N.-employee friend, who asked where our server was from and upon discovering that he was Pakistani, engaged our server in conversation in that language; they both bantered away for a few minutes. The waiter was impressed. So was I.
 

Changes Coming

Not too long ago I met the Hotel's general manager, a very affable woman who happened to be passing by, clipboard in hand, giving instructions to the restaurant staff. I figured she was a banquet or sales manager, but no, she'd not delegated the tasks at hand to staff, she was obviously "hands-on," yet was generous with her time. She announced that her company had just recently taken over operation of the hotel, which explained a lot about the changes we'd witnessed. They are planning a multi-million dollar renovation very soon, which will result in three restaurants, not one; and a general refurbishment of the guest rooms and public spaces alike.

A look at their website, http://www.thebeekmanhotel.com/, confirmed that all of this upgrading comes with a cost. One's lucky to find a room for less than $300; and many are much more than that. A winter promotion, however, was significantly less costly. Apparently their rates fluctuate widely with demand.
 

Built By Women For Women

The building was planned in 1921 by the then 3,000-member New York Chapter of the Panhellenic Association. The purpose was to create a clubhouse to provide both temporary and permanent living accommodations for sorority women. In the 1920s, more and more women were declaring their independence from the old-fashioned "prep school then marry money" stereotype. Women were getting college degrees and entering the workforce in record numbers. (Gasp!) At the time, it was delightful that women could set out on their own, find gainful employment and break free from the pressure to marry before they'd found a career for themselves.

The Panhellenic Association raised $1,600,000, which was augmented by an investment from philanthropist Emily Easton Hepburn, who bought the property at 3 Mitchell Place in her own name. She turned the property over to the Association upon completion of the main building in 1928. The women ended up creating a building which became a classic instantly. Details like the chamfered, windowed corners of the building and the incredibly modern (for its day) swift vertical rise to the top were trendsetting. The letters of the Greek alphabet adorn tiles in the facade surrounding the main entry.

The color of the building, which could be taken for "salmon", "pink" or "flesh tone", with the added feature that the corners are chamfered (rounded off) and there are no setbacks, it rises straight for 23 of its 26 floors, gives it, well, the potential to evoke an erect penis (mind you, only in the warped minds of those given to the occasional projection of a phallus onto a big, erect, flesh-colored virtually cylindrically-shaped object). The motto that the place was built "by women for women" underscores the irony of the fact that a flesh-toned, streamlined tower which at the time of its building stood out like a futuristic space-ship among the boxy, dark, classical buildings which surrounded it is hysterically funny, in my opinion. I wonder how many of the building's residents, neighbors and guests have had a hearty chuckle over this phenomenon.

The Panhellenic Association owned the building until it was sold to boutique hotel chain Affinia Hospitality in 1964. The hotel hosted the building's 75th anniversary in spring of 2005, inviting members of the Panhellenic Association to stay at special rates.

Today, one needn't be female (nor, I'd hazard a guess, college-educated) to enjoy a delightful daytime dining experience in a unique, exciting setting. This article will be expanded as soon as renovations are complete.


SOURCES:

"Tours of the City" The Website of Justin Ferate: http://www.justinsnewyork.com/tourDetails.aspx?list=&order=past&ID=582 (Accessed 12/28/07)

"New York Skyscrapers" by E.T. Dankwa on "Greatgridlock.net" http://www.greatgridlock.net/NYC/nyc2.html (Accessed 12/28/07)

"Panhellenic Tower" at "Daniel's Manhattan Architecture" http://commkey.net/daniel/pan.htm (Accessed 12/29/07)

"Beekman Tower" at "New York Architecture Images" by Tom Fletcher http://www.nyc-architecture.com/MID/MID003.htm (Accessed 12/29/07)

Newsletter (online) of the Panhellenic Association, 2005 http://www.npcwomen.org/resources/pdf/04_ph_factor_Fall.pdf (Accessed 12/29/07)

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