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Wine Bar Thwarted by Wealthy Residents Now Clashes With Preservationists

By Leslie Albrecht | February 22, 2012 7:20am
Preservationists say this mural outside 240 Columbus Ave. is an important remnant of the Upper West Side's Latino history.
Preservationists say this mural outside 240 Columbus Ave. is an important remnant of the Upper West Side's Latino history.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — Almost two years after wealthy Central Park West residents thwarted his dream of opening a wine bar in their neighborhood, would-be restaurateur Greg Hunt is battling another formidable Upper West Side foe — preservationists.

Groups including Landmark West and the Historic Districts Council are rallying against Hunt's plan to tear down a roughly 40-year-old mural at the entrance of 240 Columbus Ave., where he wants to open Cafe Tallulah.

They say the mural is an important remnant of Upper West Side history. Hunt says the artwork, which depicts a shirtless worker and two oxen in a sugarcane field, will clash with the theme of his upscale, French bistro-style wine bar.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission must OK the mural's demolition if Hunt is to move forward with his vision for Cafe Tallulah. At a Tuesday hearing, LPC members split on the issue, which means Hunt will have to come back for another try at approval.

The postponed vote marks another frustrating delay for Hunt, a lifelong Upper West Sider who's been trying for almost three years to bring a new wine bar to the neighborhood.

Hunt, who lives at 65 Central Park West, originally planned to open the cafe on the ground floor of the Century building at 25 Central Park West.

But residents there and in neighboring 15 Central Park West, where former Citigroup head Sanford Weil's apartment recently sold for a reported $88 million, hired high-priced lobbyists to defeat Hunt's vino venture in 2010.

Hunt then set his sights on 240 Columbus Ave., a dilapidated, long-vacant corner at West 71st Street that was once home to the Cuban restaurant Victor's Cafe. His plans won early approval from Community Board 7. Some board members even thanked him for breathing new life into a neglected space.

But when preservation groups and some locals caught wind of Hunt's intention to destroy the bas relief mural, they sounded the alarm about the potential loss of a piece of neighborhood history.

However, what exactly that history is depends on who you ask.

Victor's Cafe, which Cuban immigrant Victor Del Corral opened in 1963, wasn't just one of the first ethnic restaurants in the neighborhood, it was one of the first restaurants period, remembers local historian Peter Salwen, author of "Upper West Side Story."

"He was the real pioneer in revitalizing Columbus Avenue, and for a long time the only one — before him there wasn't a single restaurant on the surrounding blocks, and in fact you would hesitate to walk on many of them after dark," Salwen told DNAinfo.

Members of the Del Corral family, who still run the Victor's Cafe in midtown, could not be reached for comment on the mural's origins.

Some locals say the man in the mural, a bare-chested sugar cane cutter, was an homage to Victor himself, who died in 2006. Del Corral and his family opened the second Victor's Cafe, on West 52nd Street, in 1980. The Upper West Side location continued under the name Victor's Cafe for several years, then its name was changed to Havana.

In 1995, the Malayasian restaurant Penang moved in, remaining until 2007. The space has been empty since.

As Penang manager Morgan Humphries remembers it, Penang's owners kept the mural because the agricultural scene seemed to fit in with the restaurant's Asian theme.

"It looked like a guy working in a Malayisan field, because the oxen looked like carabao, Southeast Asian water buffalo," Humphries said. "That's why we were so happy with it. Everyone assumed we did it."

But to others, the mural is inextricably tied to Latino heritage. Landmark West, a longtime defender of the Upper West Side's architectural heritage, says the mural should be preserved because it's "emblematic of a notable moment" in Upper West Side history, when Victor's Cafe was a popular destination for local Cubans.

"I would feel heartbroken if they tore (the mural) down," said Upper West Sider Vito Echevarria, 46, who grew up on West 70th Street between Columbus and Central Park West. "It would be a darn shame.

"It's not just a reference to the restaurant itself, it's indicative of who used to live on that block. It was a Cuban block."

As Echevarria remembers it, Victor's Cafe was a little piece of Miami on the Upper West Side, a classy place that was a cut above the typical greasy spoon. "It was always geared to be an upscale place, where people would dress up," Echevarria said.

Local resident Michael Plotkin, 50, says the cafe attracted a celebrity crowd including notables like Liza Minelli. As he remembers it, Victor's Cafe was a hangout for gay men in the 1970s when the Upper West Side had several gay bars, all of which are closed now except one.

Back then, the neighborhood was home to the rock club Trax (now Columbus 72) where Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall partied. Verdi Square was known as Needle Park because it was frequented by drug users, and the swingers club Plato's Retreat operated in the basement of the famed Ansonia building.

Plotkin said he's always assumed the well-built man in the mural was a "wink and a nod" to the Upper West Side's gay scene.

"It seemed like (the mural) was cognizant of that," Plotkin said. "What was the artist thinking? Who knows. I think it's obvious. It's like the murals at Café des Artistes, which were clearly there to titillate the viewers."

Plotkin asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to preserve the mural as an artifact of both Cuban and gay culture.

A representative of the Historic Districts Council echoed that point at Tuesday's LPC hearing, calling the artwork "an important reminder of Victor’s Café and both the Cuban and gay communities who helped keep the Upper West Side a vibrant neighborhood during some of New York City’s toughest times."

But other locals disputed the idea that the mural referenced gay culture.

"You can project onto something whatever you want to see — that's the first time I've ever heard of it having any reputation as a gay hangout," said Blair Sorrel, who's lived in an apartment above the restaurant space since 1980.

Sorrel wants the mural to be saved because she considers it an "aesthetically beautiful" reference to the American Dream, she said. Sorrel said Victor's Cafe started as a modest lunch counter and transformed itself into one of the city's most "iconic ethnic venues."

"It's a reference to when the West Side was more idiosyncratic, and there were fortunes to be made by families who persevered," Sorrel said.

"It's important to West Siders and to people who remember when the neighborhood was more affordable, and more supportive of small business, and immigrant families could get a start."

But to some, the only thing the mural symbolizes is blight. "It's an eyesore," said Community Board 7 member Marc Glazer.

"It was just awful. I guess you could say the two cows were a reference to when the Upper West Side was a cow pasture, but I don't think there's anyone alive who remembers that."

"The murals are ugly," said Barbara Adler, executive director of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, which supports Hunt's plans.

"They have no historical value whatsoever. It's been the biggest eyesore on Columbus Avenue. If he gets turned down because of this, I'm going to be very upset."

At Tuesday's LPC hearing, Hunt pleaded with commissioners for permission to demolish the mural, which has deteriorated over the years, and build a new facade. Hunt said he and two partners had poured their "hearts, souls and pocketbooks" into revamping the space so they could open a high-end eatery similar to SoHo's Balthazar.

"I guess art is subjective, but I've always felt this mural was an eyesore," Hunt told the LPC. "It's two cows and a boy. Please don't make me open a sophisticated French cafe with two cows outside my door."

But some LPC commissioners at Tuesday's hearing defended the pastoral mural, saying they didn't like the idea of carting art off to the nearest Dumpster. The LPC postponed voting on the facade plans until a future date, and asked Hunt to consider changing the facade design, or preserving the mural elsewhere.

"It's a cultural artifact and part of the history of the community," said commissioner Pablo Vengoechea of the mural.

"It's something that had become iconic, for better or worse. It's damaged, but it represents a moment in time."