When 200 sheep still fed on the grass in Central Park, they slept each night in the 10,000-square-foot confines of the Sheepfold, a redbrick Victorian stable by architect Jacob Wrey Mould. By the 1970s nearly a half million diners a year were herded through the Sheepfold, which by then had morphed into 31,000-square-foot catering hall called Tavern on the Green, whose Crystal Room was the go to location for Mother's Day and graduation celebrations. In 2009, the restaurant had fallen on bad times and closed. An RFP went out from the Parks Deparment that owns the property for a new concessionaire. Restauranteur Dean Poll, who also operates the Loeb Boathouse, was selected to reopen the restaurant, but a scuffle with unions squashed the deal. The debacle presented Parks and the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) with an opportunity to step back and rethink the space. The new design calls for a drastic scale back of the interior to 12,000 square feet. The Crystal Room is set to become a glass cube café that opens onto a 12,000 square foot outdoor terrace.
The new design, by Swanke Hayden Connell, addresses the core and shell of the building and a new RFP was put out last December to find a concessioner who can fit out the interior, play well with the unions, and use as many green products as possible. It cost $1.5 million to cart off the old Crystal Room. Overall, the restoration will cost the city $10 million. At a meeting a year ago on the Upper West Side, Community Board 7 made it clear to Doug Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, that they didn’t want another high-end catering hall. By last month, the same committee seemed pleased with the results that Parks and DDC brought back to them.
The concessionaire RFP specifies that the space should be accessible to “everyday visitors in the park” rather than a black tie destination. DDC's associate commissioner for achitecture Eric Boorstyne said that despite the nostalgia for the old Tavern, it was essentially an interior experience that was separated from the park. “There was key moment when it changed from being a public restaurant,” said Boorstyne. “When it became a place where you would go to make a reservation or for an event. The result was that the restaurant turned inward.” Betsy Smith, assistant commissioner for revenue and marketing at Parks said she foresees a multi-use restaurant. “To my mind it’ll be sort of an Eataly sort of place, where you can eat in or take out and sit on the terrace,” she said, referring to the successful Mario Batali emporium on 23rd Street.
After the demolition of the Crystal Room, damage from over century’s worth of alterations were laid bare. A hole was carved into a midcentury addition to make way for the Crystal Room and a horizontal support beam was added to hold up the roof of the older structure. Another twenty feet back sit elements of the original façade from 1871. The glass cube will bring the 21st Century into the mix. “There is a jumble of structure that’s not in a rational pattern, either we cover it or we try to make sense of it and expose it,” said Joe Aliotta, a principal at Swanke Hayden Connell. The glass box exposes it.
On seeing the early renderings of the glass box solution last month, architect Gabriel Palitz, co-chair of CB7’s preservation committee was critical saying, “Let’s not make it 'ye old gazebo.' Right now it feels like a glass box plugged in.” After encouraging the architects to make the box as transparent as possible, Palitz voted along with the rest of the board to approve the renovation, thus sending it off to the Landmarks Preservation Commission where more refined renderings received a positive reaction. Minor kinks are now being worked out with the Landmark’s staff, before it goes back to the Community Board for a full vote on March 6. The concessionaire proposals are due at the end of the month.