There are restaurants, and then there are restaurants—those fine-dining spots one goes to celebrate special occasions and family milestones. In New York City, one such icon for the past 80 years has been Tavern on the Green. Located in Central Park at West 67th Street, this past April, the restaurant experienced a rebirth after a top-to-bottom multiyear renovation that restores the restaurant back to its glory days as the “Jewel of Central Park.”
The restaurant’s history is a rich and storied one. The main building, a brick structure in the Gothic Revival architectural style, was originally designed by architect Calvert Vaux in 1870 to house sheep who grazed in the nearby sheep meadow. In 1934, the former sheepfold was converted into a restaurant as part of Robert Moses’s park improvements. (The sheep were relocated to Prospect Park in Brooklyn.) In the 1940s and 1950s, the restaurant’s footprint was increased with a large outdoor terrace and the Elm Tree Room.
Then in 1976, New York businessman Warner LeRoy took ownership of the restaurant and transformed it into the destination spot many remember today. He owned several notable restaurants, such as the Russian Tea Room and Maxwell’s Plum, and his family ties to the film industry made all of his restaurants, including Tavern on the Green, a popular spot with celebrities.
Under LeRoy, a series of building additions—one of the most notable being the conservatory-style Crystal Room—were made that increased the building’s footprint to 31,000 square feet. After his death in 2001, the restaurant changed hands several times and encountered financial and legal difficulties. It closed in 2009, but the following year, the City of New York, wanting to find a way to reclaim this important city landmark, opened the space as a visitor’s center. It then functioned in this capacity until 2012.
During this period (2010–2012), the New York City Department of Design and Construction called upon Swanke Hayden Connell Architects (SHCA) to conduct a conditions assessment of the facility to determine if the landmark could be brought back to life to once again serve as home for fine dining. SHCA’s analysis determined that many of the more contemporary building additions were not structurally sound and that it would be more cost effective to demolish them instead of renovate them. With this, the restaurant’s footprint was cut in half to 14,436 square feet. As described by Elizabeth Moss, associate principal and director of historic preservation at SHCA, the original Vaux-designed building underwent a complete gut that included replacement of all the doors and windows, new mechanical systems, brick repointing, the reconstruction of two missing dormers that had been removed during previous additions, a new roof, and the construction of a new glass pavilion in a part of the space where the Crystal Room once stood.
Lighting was key to the restaurant’s success in the past, and to ensure that the new restaurant would have a similar sense of atmosphere and spectacle, the new owners, the Emerald Green Group (the restaurant group selected by the city to run the facility), brought on Focus Lighting to oversee the lighting redesign. Working alongside Focus was Broadway lighting designer Ken Billington, who had originally lit the terrace’s London Plane trees 20 years before, wrapping them in Christmas lights.
From the start, Focus Lighting knew this was going to be a challenging project because of the iconic nature of the place. “The lighting was really important. It had to do all the normal things restaurant lighting does, but it couldn’t just be okay,” says Paul Gregory, founder and president of Focus Lighting. “It had to be unique and special because it was going to be compared to the last space.”
Christine Hope, senior designer at Focus Lighting, furthers the point: “We wanted our lighting to take a more authentic and classic approach, one that related to the aesthetic of the restored building.”
Focus embarked on a lengthy process of determining just the right nuanced effect for the exterior lighting and the interior dining areas, which entailed referencing historic photos, making an extensive series of mock-ups, and evaluating different light sources and the way in which they interacted with the material palette, finishes, people, and the food. Throughout the interiors, the lighting designers used a combination of LED and MR16 sources at a color temperature of 2700K to emulate the warm glow of candlelight.
But perhaps the boldest lighting moves take place in the courtyard, which proved one of the greatest challenges. First, there was the iconic imagery—the illuminated trees. Second, these trees no longer existed—they had been at the end of their life and removed. And third, the Central Park Conservancy set conditions that none of the newly planted trees could be pierced in any way by lighting elements that would prematurely age them.
The new courtyard lighting, a series of miniature chandeliers strung to mimic the silhouette of a circus tent’s roof, creates a canopy of light against the sky every bit as effective and evocative as the illuminated trees that once were there. To provide additional lighting, Hope designed a pole-mounted custom glass lantern. At the top of the poles, floodlights and projectors create a dappled moonlight effect on the roof.
At the new Tavern on the Green, nature is once again wrapped in light and sets the stage for the daily dining performance.
Project Tavern on the Green, New York
Client/Owner Emerald Green Group
Architects Richard H. Lewis; John Lee Beatty (Broadway set designer); Swanke Hayden Connell Architects (core and shell building restoration)
Lighting Designer Focus Lighting, New York; Ken Billington, KB Associates, New York
Landscape Architect Robin Key Landscape Architecture, New York
Project Size Building footprint was originally 31,000 square feet, reduced to 14,436 square feet during the renovation
Project Cost Withheld
Code Compliance Set to receive LEED Silver designation
Watts per Square Foot 1.7 (overall); 1W (exterior); 3.5W (interior) Manufacturers
BK Lighting Stem-mounted adjustable 8W LED MR16 courtyard pathlights and stake mounted adjustable 8W LED MR16 bullet fixtures at courtyard
Canopy Designs Crystal chandelier pendants at courtyard
Dabmar 16W PAR38 LED floodlight with blue color filter for roof facing courtyard
HK Lighting 70W 4200K metal halide pattern projector for courtyard roof dapple
Lumid Custom blown-glass and metal-ribbed exterior lanterns at courtyard light poles with Philips 60W Halogena lamps
Eaton’s Cooper Lighting/Lumiere Inground adjustable 8W LED MR16 accent lights at building façade
Luminii Surface-mounted flexible LED striplight
Primus Lighting Custom-configured suspended 2400K LED festoon lighting for courtyard canopy
Visual Lighting Technologies LED fiber optic illuminator at courtyard planters
Vision Quest Lighting Custom point of light for courtyard light poles
U.S. Architectural and Sun Valley Lighting Light poles at courtyard
Boca Flasher LED lightstrip at ceiling truss beams and dining room coves
Cree Recessed LED downlights at open kitchen
Juno Lighting Mini LED recessed adjustable accent lights at entry arch
Lucifer Lighting 50W MR16 recessed downlights
Philips Lightolier 50W MR16 adjustable track-mounted accent lighting at bar trusses
Specialty Lighting 50W MR16 recessed accent lighting in center dining room
Tech Lighting 50W MR16 track-mounted adjustable accent lighting in glass dining room
Tokistar LED lightstrip at bar fascia, banquettes, liquor riser, and wall panels