By Rob Arango
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alfred Vanderbilt III a few years ago for my Plaza Personality column. Mr. Vanderbilt specifically requested that we meet in the famed Oak Room. When we walked into the Oak Room, Mr. Vanderbilt pointed at the mural of the Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion and said, “That is my Great Grandfather’s home, which is now Bergdorf Goodman.” What an amazing way to start an interview. The Everett Shinn trio of murals in the Oak Room depict the Grand Army Plaza, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion (which was formerly next door to the hotel) and above the Oak Bar is a stunning mural of the entrance to the Pulitzer Fountain. It is reported that each mural is worth over a $1 million.
The man behind the strokes, Everett Shinn, was noted for his gritty scenes of city life, and he certainly didn’t disappoint any of us when he painted the three dark murals in the Oak Room. He captured the essence of the night time city light, combining it with the character and ambience of the bar. However, decades of tobacco smoke took its toll on the Oak Room and, after years of much-needed renovation, it was finally resurrected in November 2016, exclusively for private events.
The renovations brought the murals to life, lifting the gloom that surrounded them with light, warm accents. “The murals are a great treasure of New York,” says Curtis Gathje, the hotel’s official historian and author of At The Plaza. Gillian Randall, the head conservator at the Evergreen Painting Studios in Manhattan who worked on the restoration notes, “After the extensive renovation, a lot of details were revealed and the palette was so darkened by years of nicotine and surface dirt.”
I can’t think of any other bar in America that can claim such beautiful artwork among clanking glasses and dry Martinis. I’ll never forget when I walked into the Oak Bar for the first time in 1983, at 22 years old, and ordered a Dewar’s on the rocks. I never in a million years would have imagined that I would be lucky enough to come to work at The Plaza every day.