A version of this article originally appeared in Bowery Boogie.
Visitors to the Museum at Eldridge Street will be treated to an extra dose of neighborhood nostalgia, now that a massive sign from the beloved Garden Cafeteria has been installed on its walls.
The East Broadway restaurant was once a Lower East Side institution and for decades served as an intellectual hub for the area. From 1941 until the restaurant’s closing in 1983, the eye-catching sign served as an icon of the Rutgers Square community. After spending decades either covered up or in storage, the sign is once again on display to the public inside the landmark synagogue on Eldridge Street.
The metal sign once wrapped around Garden Cafeteria’s corner facade. When the Chinese restaurant Wing Shoon took over the storefront, they installed their own signage directly on top and the Garden Cafeteria sign was hidden and largely forgotten. (Wu’s Wanton King occupies the spot now.) The restaurant itself, however, was decidedly not. The Garden Cafe holds a special place in the mythology of the Lower East Side, perhaps most evidently in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1971 short story (published in The New Yorker) “The Cabalist of East Broadway.” Even decades after its closing, the eatery was considered emblematic of the social and intellectual life of the neighborhood – so much so that Amy Stein-Milford, Museum at Eldridge Street’s Deputy Director in the early aughts, conceived of an entire series of literary public programs entitled “The Garden Cafe Literary Series.” So when she received a tip in 2005 that the sign had been uncovered during a facade renovation, she leapt at a chance to go see it. She and a colleague, Hanna Griff-Sleven, were delighted to find this Lower East Side relic visible again. They were able to negotiate to save the massive artifact from the landfill.
The ghost sign later became a part of the Museum’s growing collection of historic items – pieces found in the 1887 building during restoration or gifted to the Museum as increasing numbers of Jewish cultural sites disappeared from the changing neighborhood. The piece of the sign bearing the word “garden,” written vertically and originally meant for the corner of the facade, was displayed at each Garden Cafeteria Literary Series event at Eldridge Street. After that, the sign was loaned for several museum exhibitions, including one at the Yiddish Book Center and another about the Forward newspaper at the Museum of the City of New York. That iconic Yiddish-language daily operated just a few doors down from the corner restaurant.
In 2016, the Museum designed a small gallery space on the lower level of the building to complement its permanent exhibition space that had been installed two years earlier. It hosts rotating art exhibitions and it has been one of the most dynamic initiatives in the Museum’s long history. The eclectic exhibitions have covered everything from paper ephemera of Eastern European synagogues to large-scale sculptures by Kiki Smith (who also collaborated on a design for the Museum’s monumental stained glass window in 2010). In addition to the small gallery space, art exhibitions now often stretch throughout the whole building, with art lining the walls of the main sanctuary or even hanging from the ceiling of the women’s balcony.
The Museum’s next exhibition, which will open on October 23, is called Pressed: Images from the Jewish Daily Forward. It will focus on photographs and printing artifacts from the Forward newspaper and has been planned in collaboration with the iconic newspaper. This, and our expanding view of the Museum as art space has led to a very creative solution for displaying the iconic Garden Cafeteria sign. Although we did not have traditional wall space for such a large display, the sign has a new home on walls of a stairwell, where it can be viewed much closer than when it was on the facade of its former home! Already docents and visitors are excited about this new addition, trading stories about the neighborhood haunt and their favorite things to eat there.
The sign is weather-worn and clearly showing signs of age, but a major restoration is not planned. “We want to keep the patina,” says Museum Archivist and Exhibition Curator Nancy Johnson. Showing the effect of time has always been important to the Museum. The building’s extensive historic restoration was careful to be clear about items that were original and historic and those that had to be replaced or re-fabricated. And in certain areas, showing time’s influence was paramount – the pine floor boards of the main sanctuary, warped with deep grooves from decades of men praying, were left exactly as they are. These markers of time remain a treasured element of the historic space for many.
The Museum hopes that the Garden Cafeteria sign will be another such touchstone to a bygone time. Just like the iconic building itself, the historic sign is a tangible reminder that the Lower East Side has long been home to refugees, poets, thinkers – and new Americans forming cultures of their own.