Curtains for New York's crucible of kitsch

New Yorkers mourn the passing of the Tavern on the Green, which took bad taste to stratospheric levels
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The Independent US

If the Land of Oz were to have a restaurant, it used to be said, the Tavern on the Green would be it. Nestled at the side of Central Park, it lured generations of New Yorkers and tourists alike to dine in an opulent den dripping with crystal chandeliers, oversize statues and fanciful murals.

It was a landmark where, until his death in 2001, its wizard, Warner LeRoy, wowed patrons with his bonhomie, his showbiz tales, and a wardrobe of outlandish jackets fashioned from tablecloths picked up around the world.

So stuffed was it with curiosities – from wall-mounted copper boars' heads, through mythical scenes in stained glass, to a topiary King Kong in the garden – that it soared far beyond kitsch. But now it is over.

Those curiosities, everything from the wall panelling to the last spoon, are about to go on the auction block, in an attempt to raise a few million toward the $8m (£5m) that the restaurant's owners owe creditors.

They have been in bankruptcy since September, after New York City handed the licence to new owners, and the LeRoys served their final, champagne-fuelled dinner on New Year's Eve.

The family is heartbroken, and some 400 staff are losing their jobs, but for New Yorkers with affectionate memories of the place – or for interior designers with an eye on the enormous chandeliers or wall pieces – the auction offers a chance to snap up a piece of Central Park history.

"This is a one-off," says Carolyn Salter, the sale's co-ordinator from the Manhattan auction house Guernsey's. "The Tavern is a New York landmark to so many people, and we have had people coming to us saying that their grandparents got married here, or they went on their first date or had birthdays here. It is the emotional resonance of the place that makes this so special."

Built in 1870 to house sheep, the building first became a restaurant in the depths of the Great Depression, but it was trading as an understated rustic pub when Mr LeRoy bought it in 1974 and brought his brand of dazzle to the venue. He and his wife Kay travelled the world in search of decorations, fabrics, and even fragments of Tiffany glass which they assembled into hanging lamps now expected to fetch up to $10,000 apiece.

The Wizard of Oz comparisons are no coincidence, because Mr LeRoy's father was the son of a producer of that film and he revelled in the associations with New York's art scene and performers, who used the Tavern for opening-night parties for Broadway shows and film premieres.

Well-known figures ranging from John Lennon to Hillary Clinton have used the Tavern as a venue for birthday parties through the years, and scenes from movies including Ghostbusters and Wall Street have been filmed there.

This week, though, the bustle of the 500,000 diners who passed through annually has subsided, and Guernsey's is previewing the sale items before the three-day auction begins next Wednesday. People whom Ms Salter refers to as "hard-core New Yorkers" mingle with representatives of Middle Eastern interests, who are eyeing some of the most opulent of the 59 giant glass chandeliers.

The venue must be cleared by 8 February – no mean feat, given that the oddities include a 360-degree mural depicting Central Park, which must be disassembled panel by panel. Even taking down and cataloguing the trove of objects presented some challenges. Employees refused to mount a ladder to fetch down the carved statue of a monkey in a cavalier hat, which had sat on a rafter overlooking a dining room for decades, fearing it had voodoo powers.

Since Mr LeRoy's death, the restaurant has been managed by his daughter, Jennifer Oz LeRoy, but as the end of the family's operating licence approached, the city sought competing bids. Dean Poll, who operates the swish Boathouse restaurant overlooking the Central Park lake, won out with an offer to invest $25m in renovations. The city awarded him a 20-year license in August, citing his vision: the new Tavern will incorporate green building technology while a conservatory-style dining space will complement the original Victorian architecture.