Friday the 13th of September, 1935, seemed like an ordinary day at the Higbee department store in Cleveland’s Public Square. Marzipan bon bons were on sale at the store’s first floor candy counter. On the fifth floor women modeled hand-knitted costumes while the ninth-floor employment office interviewed men for part-time furniture and rug sales.
In the Silver Grille on the tenth floor, diners sat down to lunch. Yet, the specials on the 60c luncheon menu that day were a bit dull. The featured dishes didn’t sound especially delicious, but even stranger, there was no listing of the kind of things the Silver Grille usually spotlighted, namely desserts.
Perhaps the unexciting menu had nothing to do with it but it was not, in fact, an ordinary day.
The store’s future hung in the balance. It had just been announced around the country that on September 30 J. P. Morgan would put the Higbee Company on the auction block along with the rest of the railroad and real estate empire of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen brothers. In addition to over 28,000 miles of railroad, the properties to be auctioned were the 52-story Terminal Tower and its associated buildings which included the store as well as the Medical Arts Building, the Midland Bank Building, and the Cleveland Hotel.
Ironically 1935 was Higbee’s 75th anniversary, its diamond jubilee. In retrospect, the drawing that announced the jubilee year in the Plain Dealer on January 1, 1935, looks ominous in the way it yokes the store, one side blacked out, to the Terminal Tower.
Higbee’s was an old Cleveland business that was bought out by the “Vans” in 1930 after they failed to attract other stores to move into their “city within a city” complex then under construction. Exactly who they asked is unknown, except for one outstanding store that turned them down, Marshall Field in Chicago. The new Higbee store opened in September of 1931. Its crown jewel on the top floor was the art deco Silver Grille, designed by local architect Philip L. Small and a prominent Cleveland decorating and interior design firm, the Rorimer-Brooks Studios.
A 1931 Higbee advertisement described the Silver Grille as “modern” and “gracious.” In the center of the room was a rather austere fountain of red Rojo alicante marble, the same red reflected in the room’s columns and carpeting. Grillwork punctuated the walls which were shades of green with silver leaves. From the ceiling hung specially designed light fixtures of bronze. Designers with Louis Rorimer’s studio created the aluminum tables and chairs shown in the photograph at the top of the page taken a few weeks after the store opened.
The tea room’s early, possibly first, manager was Mrs. Kenneth McKay (whose unusual first name was often erroneously taken to be her husband’s). In the 1920s she had been a supervisor for Schrafft’s restaurants in New York and had taught restaurant management at Columbia University. She retired in the 1950s, having established the Silver Grille tradition of serving homey food with occasional exotic touches such as a curried dish or a salad of Puerto Rican mangoes, avocados, and dates.
Miraculously, Higbee’s survived the Depression in fairly good shape. In 1937 the store was rescued by two executives affiliated with the Van Sweringen empire who bought it from a holding company created by the then-deceased brothers. The new owners announced they would keep the store local and under the direction of Asa Shiverick, Higbee’s president since 1913. In another stroke of bad luck Shiverick died three days after the announcement, leaving the new owners to take over.
Things settled down then and the Silver Grille grew in popularity, boosted by added attractions such as frequent fashion shows to the music of a resident orchestra. One of its most popular customs was delivering children’s meals in little tin stoves, later replaced with cardboard stoves, as well as cardboard trucks, teepees, and space capsules.
On May 12, 1938, the store presented a summer fashion show and luncheon on a newly constructed runway in the Silver Grille, with a short but sweet menu costing 5 cents more than usual.
Although patrons enjoyed the Silver Grille’s food – and still seek its recipes — it was equally known for its art deco design, which also underwent ups and downs over the decades. Once the Depression ended, the decor fell out of favor. Higbee’s tried to soften the original look by adding banquettes, painting over German silver grilles along the ceiling and floor, and placing a decorative gazebo over the fountain. A 1962 makeover adopted a hideous-sounding color scheme of pink, green, and red.
In 1982 some of the room’s original art deco elements were restored. The grilles were polished and the fountain was repaired and restocked with goldfish. However the gazebo remained and the dining chairs were reupholstered with multi-colored patterned fabric, either an Ikat design or stripes. Gone were the original black marble tabletops, re-topped with what looks in photographs like a white laminate. (Possibly the tables were not original at all or had been altered, as the diagonal struts underneath are also different.) Recessed lighting had replaced the hanging fixtures, either at this time or earlier.
A change of a different sort, one that I think took place in the 1970s, was the addition of wine and cocktails to the menu. Traditionally, alcoholic drinks did not appear on the menus of department store “tea rooms” for women, but Higbee’s was not the only store to adapt to modern conditions around this time.
Despite declining business at Higbee’s, the Silver Grille stayed afloat until after Christmas in 1989 when the store was downsized and the upper floors closed off.
© Jan Whitaker, 2017
23 responses to “Higbee’s Silver Grille”
The Silver Grille is one of my best childhood memories. In the late 50s and early 60s my mom would take us there for lunch when she went downtown to shop, and the children’s menu featured chicken pot pie served in a little china dish shaped like a hen. What a treat it was to go there!
I too have that memory! It was such a treat to eat there with my mom and my aunt!!! I’ve told my friends and family about it and they are in awe as nothing like this is around now!!
I have to say that that was one enjoyable article. I’ve spent a good deal of time over the years on the subject of The Higbee Company and just want to say thank you, thank you. thank you! All the best to you!
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How I loved going downtown on the city bus to Higbees from Fairview Park with my girlfriend Karen. My Dad was the Woman’s Better Shoe Buyer at Higbees so, once we arrived at the terminal tower and made our way upstairs to his floor, we had the run of the store. Of course, we ate at the Silver Grill and had our chicken salad sandwich. After shopping for hours, Dad walked us across the street to catch the bus home. During his working days at Higbees, I was priviledged to attend Charm School at the store. I still have the scrapbook from the classes, and I am 72 years old. Thank you for bringing back wonderful memories.
Oh my heck! I forgot about the charm school!! I did go for a short time… it was when I was 6 I believe… so around 1958-59
I remember Higbee’s and am delighted to read this. I was a child in the 30’s and 40’s and my Mother, sister and I would take a bus from our home on Euclid Avenue in Willoughby to Public Square to shop. We often ate in the Silver Grille.
I agree with Carmella (above), I would like to see something about the English Oak Room under the Terminal Tower. I had my first lunch date with my later to be wife there in 1973.
OH I remember it well. My very first job was at Higbees in the wrapping/shipping department when I was 16, during Christmas season of 1958. We actually gift wrapped the items before putting them in shipping boxes. It was such a thrill to work downtown. I especially liked the Santas workshop. When Christmas was over and I was layed off, I actually cried. I love how you give a visual of your subjects in your writing. Cleveland is so rich in history and you truly do it justice in your articles. Thank you.
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Such memories! When we lived with the grandparents in Cleveland around 1955, our visits to Higbee’s included the goldfish (to look at, not to eat) and a children’s lunch with (dishes and utensils?) brought out in a wooden cabinet with sometimes tilting (unlit) candles on top. One dish, no doubt chicken, came in a small covered casserole, a white glass fowl with red details. And for dessert there was a ball of vanilla ice cream rolled in coconut. To a kindergarten kid it was glamorous, though it might have been improved with a treasure chest like the one at Clifton’s. But when my sister was taken to Higbee’s as, let’s say, a seven-year-old in 1966, the big build-up for the Silver Grille collapsed when her meal was brought in a paper spaceship like the one in your last figure.
Dear Jan, Fascinating and fun! Thanks.BTW I’m connecting with some of our elementary classmates soon. I’ll let them know of your research. Terry and I were just in Cleveland for a state music ed conference. He was invited to give a two-hour keynote and it was great. I just sat back and enjoyed it. I’m still trying to complete my Loretto paper. I’m held back by Chicago style!! I’d like to send you my power-point, if you’re interested. Our local public TV just had a special on an interesting St Louis historical restaurant called Al’s, all in the family of three generations of women.
Glad you’re doing so well! PEACE. Maryt
Thanks, Mary! Al’s sounds familiar. Please do send your powerpoint!
Jan, Have you ever done an article on the Oak Room? Another great dining experience.
Not yet. My to-do list is endless!
I do not go back as far as 1935, but I do remember Higbee’s Silver Grille well. It was part of my childhood and I still miss it! Thank you for this history.
Is that a table tent? Does the flap come up to show specials?
No, it’s a three-dimensional box. Children’s orders were placed inside one of the boxes and then delivered to the table.
Note that Mrs. Kenneth McKay’s first name was unlikely Kenneth. That was most likely her husband’s first name. Properly and especially before the 1980’s, a married woman for official purposes was known by her husband’s name. Jackie Kennedy was also known as Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy and never Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy! Not taking a stand on this just explaining why one sees this.
I’m quite certain her name was Kenneth. She was a widow when she worked at Higbee’s and her deceased husband’s name was Lloyd.
I absolutely love your articles, they are always the first emails I look at. Thank you so much for a fantastic, well researched job. Department store restaurants and tea rooms are among my favorites and I sure do miss them. Again, thank you.