Building of the Day: 372 Fulton Street

372 Fulton St. SB, PS, 2007

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former Gage & Tollner Restaurant
Address: 372 Fulton Street
Cross Streets: Smith Street and Red Hook Lane
Neighborhood: Downtown Brooklyn
Year Built: 1875
Architectural Style: Italianate, storefront is Neo-Grec
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: Yes, doubly. Building individual landmark (1974), dining room landmarked (1975)

The story: As Brooklyn spread out away from the Heights and the harbors, the area we now call Downtown Brooklyn began to be developed. At first, it was residential, with the oldest houses surrounding the old Duffield farm, now centered at Duffield Street. Many homes and churches were established in the area taken up now by MetroTech. By the 1870s, brownstone houses began to be built on Fulton Street, taking advantage of the proximity to City Hall, as well as the business life on Court and Montague Street.

At the same time, the Brooklyn Bridge was in the planning stages, so that by the time 372 Fulton Street was built, as a private home, businesses and homes were already being displaced by the access roads and workspace for the bridge. These businesses began relocating on Fulton St. In the space of only a few years, this house found itself surrounded by theaters, stores, and other retail businesses. Soon, entire blocks were taken up by huge department stores, the elevated train connecting the bridge to the rest of Brooklyn ran down the middle of the street, and this area’s days as a residential neighborhood were over.

Charles Gage opened his first restaurant in 1879, up the block at 302 Fulton Street. The very next year, Eugene Tollner joined him in business. In 1892, they bought this house and transformed it into Brooklyn’s premiere restaurant, Gage & Tollner. It was probably they who put in the very attractive storefront, with its large windows and door. The upper floors remained for many years pretty much as they were when the building was a house. They transformed the ground floor into the “Gaslight era” wonder that helped make them famous.

The restaurant soon became known for quality, service and good food, especially chops and oysters, late 19th century favorites, and it didn’t take long for it to become the power restaurant of its day. All of Brooklyn’s elite came here, including politicians, wealthy businessmen and celebrities, and the restaurant was a favorite of Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Schroeder, the last mayor of the City of Brooklyn, and Diamond Jim Brady. G&T was also a Manhattan favorite, perhaps Brooklyn’s first foodie destination spot.

Of course, it’s the restaurant’s interior that we all remember. The heavy sunburst patterned Lincrusta-Walton wall covering everywhere, the mirrored walls which made the space look much bigger than it actually was, velvet draperies and wall coverings, and the woodwork that tied it all together, all dark and woody, like an expensive men’s club. The crowning glory of the restaurant was always the gleaming brass gas and electric lights. These fixtures were installed in 1888; widely spaced fixtures with long arms. They were arranged to run down the center of the space, illuminating the restaurant with gas-lit upright cut glass bowls. In addition, the fixtures also had incandescent electric light bulbs coming from tendriled arms that pointed down. Originally, these light bulbs were bare, but later had flower shaped glass bowls.

The restaurant was also famous for closing in the summer, a tradition they maintained for many years. In 1911, Mr. Gage and Mr. Tollner retired, selling the restaurant to A.H. Cunningham and Alexander Ingalls, with the provision that they not change anything. In 1919, they in turn, sold the restaurant to Seth Bradford Dewey, a man whose family had extensive restaurant experience. The stipulation that the restaurant continue to be called Gage & Tollner was continued, as well as the provision to not change the interior. The Dewey’s bought the entire bu1lding in 1923, and continued to own the restaurant and building until 1985.

The end of Gage & Tollner began in 1976, when Fulton Street became a pedestrian mall. The area had become downtrodden and scary to patrons who could no longer be dropped at the door, and they stopped coming. In 1985, Ed Dewey, the grandson of Seth Dewey, sold the restaurant to Peter Aschkenasy, the Manhattan restaurateur who had owned Lüchow’s, another famous century old restaurant. He brought in famed African American chef Edna Lewis to bring customers back, but even though G & T gained excellent reviews, with customers coming from as far away as Europe, there still wasn’t enough local business to keep it open. He filed for bankruptcy, and in 1995, Italian restaurateur Joe Chirico bought Gage & Tollner, for $653,000, from the bank. He tried valet parking, but he too, failed.

The building then passed to a new owner, Joe Jemal, who contracted with TGI Friday’s. One would have thought they would make it, but they did not. Gone in 2007. Next was Arby’s. After long negotiations with Landmarks, they opened in 1910 and closed eight months later. Now the storefront is leased to a cheap costume jewelry place that has covered up the walls with bright pink panels. They got in trouble with landmarks for making alterations first, then telling the LPC about it, asking for a retroactive permit. The LPC was not happy, and issued a series of violations. Gage & Tollner’s interior is but one of a handful of landmarked interiors in the entire city.

The fate of Gage & Tollner is up in the air. Peter Aschkenasy and Joe Chirico still own the name, but not the building. Rumor has it that many of the original gaslights have been stolen. Everyone who cares about this space also hopes that the original cherry woodwork, the Lincrusta and the mirrors are still underneath the pink walls, waiting until Brooklyn is once again ready for Gage &Tollner, or perhaps better yet, someplace new, yet as old as the restaurant Diamond Jim Brady once called home. GMAP

(2007 photo: Scott Bintner for PropertyShark)

Postcard, probably 1940s or 50s.

Postcard, probably 1940s or 50s.

Photo: Lostnewyorkblogspot.com

Photo: Lostnewyorkblogspot.com

Photo: Lostnewyorkblogspot.com

Photo: Lostnewyorkblogspot.com

7 Comment

  • minard

    The place was still the place to lunch (along with Foffe’s in Brooklyn Heights) for the elite, especially the politicians and fixers and attorneys who worked around Borough Hall. The last time I was there for lunch was 1998 and across from me was the bishop of the Brooklyn Diocese with his entourage of lawyers, at another table was the Borough President, and at another, various judges. It was still a place to go and network.

    The owner told me shortly thereafter that the death knell came when the Marriott Hotel opened its dining room for lunch and offered complimentary cocktails and lots of parking. Everyone flocked over there and both Foffe’s and Cage and Tollner closed shortly thereafter.

  • I dined there last in the early 90s when Edna Lewis was still chef. It was a wonderful experience that I will never forget. It pains me every time I walk by and see that horrible jewelry shop, not to mention the litany of cheap chain restaurants before it. I could never understand why nobody has rented it for a restaurant again; Brooklyn is so full of foodies who will go anywhere – even the Fulton Mall. I still hope that it comes back, i’d be their first customer!

  • Thank you MM, for the sentimental journey.

    I have fond memories of shopping on Fulton St. with my mother, as a very young girl in the late 60′s – early 70′s. Downtown Brooklyn had a sophisticated flair which contrasted our southern Brooklyn neighborhood. My, it was almost Manhattan!

    A&S was the primary attraction for us. After a morning of shopping, we would tire, and I would be rewarded to a ‘ladies lunch’ with Mom. Most often we would go to Junior’s or to the restaurant at A&S.

    I was aware of Gage & Tollner. It was famous. Mom would often tell me about why it was so special and expensive and fancy. We would walk past it and I would try to peer inside. I was fascinated with it for years and secretly hoped I’d get to go sometime, but Mom would explain that it was far out of our budget and that mostly business men lunched there.

    Then at the age of ten or eleven, with a mastery of appropriate table manners and the maturity to remember the experience, Mom invited me to lunch with her at G&T. It was sublime!

  • The site of my brother’s bachelor party.

    MM, you are missing a (non) chapter: For a year or more a soul food restaurant based in Harlem, I forget the name, planned to open a branch here. In the end, the original and any other locations all went belly up. Soul food might have made it here.