A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Café Nicholson and Its Baroque Tile Decor: the Sevillian Tile Style in New York

323 East 58th Street, Manhattan

For amost five decades from the early 1950s until it closed in 1999 the building at 323 East 58th Street, alongside the entry ramp to the 59th Street Bridge in Manhattan, housed the Café Nicholson. The Café Nicholson was first opened (at a nearby location) in 1948/49 by John Nicolson[1]
and his two partners, Edna Lewis[2], who would become a world-famous chef, and Karl Bissinger[3], a well-known, post-war photographer. 
Café Nicholson soon became a restaurant and hang-out for artists, writers, performing artists and political luminaries.

"[While...] Nicholson was the Barnum of their social set, presiding with a parrot named Lolita on his shoulder[ the café,] Bissinger, who served the cafe as an early business partner and a sometimes gardener and host, made a living curating social tableaus for magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar."(John T. Edge, "Debts of Pleasure", Oxford American, Issue 82, September 16, 2013;

[In 2015 I met a woman who was a recent owner of 323 East 58th Street. She showed me some interior photos of the Café Nicholson, which had been decorated with mirrors and tile panels in baroque splendor by Nicholson[4], who had a reputation as an artistic designer of department store windows, antiques dealer and interior decorator. 

Three views of the interior of Café Nicholson from the scrapbook.

Sometime in the early 2000s, a previous owner of the building destroyed the tilework in the front room of the restaurant, and trashed the tiles. The remaining tiles, however, had been saved by my new friend, who had the tiles carefully removed and cataloged by her staff and placed in storage in Queens.

From the Dominguez Catálogo de Azulejos No 1, a catalog published in 1930. The factory could create many border variations on these panels with other tiles.

Another panel from Catálogo de Azulejos No 1 that is very similar to tile panels from Café Nicholson.  

Tiles and tile panels in storage.

I was invited to view, but not photograph, the stored tiles, and I would hear from her a few times over the ensuing years until the summer of the Covid quarantine. At that time I received emails containing photos of the restaurant and stored tiles and scans of her scrapbook and research notes. Much of the information and photos in this article comes from those notes and scrapbook.]

The acquisition of the tiles, as related by filmmaker Bailey Barash--who produced a documentary about Edna Lewis, "Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie", is an interesting story. In 1958 Nicholson was invited to San Juan, Puerto Rico by the head of tourist development who wanted him to move there and relocate Café Nicholson to Old San Juan. Nicholson decided to remain in New York, but then spent time searching the island for antiques and decorative elements for some of his clients. A plumber who Nicolson met took him to an attic in an old building. "There they found hand painted drawings of different tiles that were very fashionable in the 1900s. Along with the drawings was a large shipment of pristine, exquisitely painted tiles. The bill of lading[5], which they found, said [...the tiles] were made in Seville between 1890 and 1902.  Johnnie was able to buy the tiles for ten cents a piece. He shipped them back to New York, and they became the basis of the look you see here at Café Nicholson."

The backs of a number of the tiles were marked with a "D" within a triangle within concentric circles which had raised writing: "CEDOLESA/MADE IN SPAIN". This was the company logo of Eloy Dominguez Veiga of Manises, Spain,[6] the founder of Ceramica Dominguez de Levante S.A.**  (

Another of this company's marks was a "D" within a triangle within a single circle.


[**According to Mario Baeck, doctor in de kunstwetenschappen Universiteit Gent, the tiles "marked Cedolesa date without any doubt from after 1924 when the firm took this name. So the bill referring to around 1900 cannot be correct!"]

In December 2017 I posted "The Sevillian tile style: Catalogo de Azulejos de Estilo Sevillano" on this blog. If you compare the tile designs in the catalog that is reproduced in that article with the designs in the Dominguez Catalogs Nos. 1 and 2, you will see many similarities in style: the heavy use of grutescos--consisting "of the combination of plant elements ('foliages', garlands), vessels, cornucopias, pananoplias, human and teriomorphic figures ('bichas', centaurs, satyrs, putti), fantastic animals and mythological beings ('sabandijas', 'chimeras'), mascarones, bucráneos, etc., which are capriciously related and fill [profusely] (horror vacui) in symmetrical compositions"[7]--as well as the use of bright colors, usually on cuerda seca and cuenca tiles[8].

By the early twentieth century the "Sevillian Tile Style" had become very popular and had spread to other regions of Spain. Had the tiles been made in Seville or just shipped from there? Since the tiles are marked with the Ceramica Dominguez logo, and there were no Ceramica Dominguez ceramic factories in Seville, was the bill of lading incorrect somehow or for other tiles? We'll never know.


1. "...Mr. Nicholson was born John Bulica on Sept. 5, 1916, in St. Louis to immigrant parents from Romania. He later adopted the surname of a favorite uncle. His father, Nicholas, ran a small restaurant, the Cafe Lafayette. His mother, the former Constance Cordista, was a homemaker.

"He had a troubled childhood. A constant truant, he dropped out of high school and went to work as an errand boy at the Stix, Baer & Fuller department store, picking up decorating knowledge that he applied when he opened his own design and furniture store. From time to time he visited relatives in Manhattan, where he worked during Christmastime at Lord & Taylor.
He was drafted in 1941 but was exempted from military service... .

"...Mr. Nicholson, an antiques dealer and interior designer, opened the first Café Nicholson in 1948 on 58th Street near Third Avenue, near where he and his romantic partner, the photographer Karl Bissinger, ran an antiques store. At the time, it was a neighborhood of cheap brownstones and photographers’ studios.

"Inspired by the Caffè Greco in Rome, he planned to offer coffee and pastries, but the chef Edna Lewis, a self-taught cook from Virginia and a close friend, convinced him that a full-fledged restaurant was a better idea. He offered her a place behind the stove and a 50-50 partnership in the business, giving her her first exposure in New York. She would go on to write cookbooks that made her one of America’s foremost exponents of traditional Southern cuisine.

"...'Until Café Nicholson, there were only two kinds of restaurants in New York: checked tablecloth places serving spaghetti and meatballs or velvet-banquette places like Le Pavillon,' the Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Babs Simpson told Vanity Fair in 1999. 'In a way, Johnny created the first theme park.'

"...By the end of the 1970s, Mr. Nicholson’s attention had waned. He began traveling frequently, closing the restaurant for months at a time. By this time it had been on East 58th Street for about a decade [sic], in the former sculpture studio of Jo Davidson, just off the entry ramp to the upper level of the Queensboro Bridge.

"The cafe took a bow in the Woody Allen film 'Bullets Over Broadway' in 1994. But five years later, Mr. Nicholson, who leaves no immediate survivors, closed it, putting the final punctuation mark on a vanished age.

“'You went to my restaurant because it was extraordinary, beautiful, with very good food and a very different experience,' Mr. Nicholson said in 2013 in 'The Luminous Years: Karl Bissinger and the New Bohemians,' an as-yet-unfinished documentary by Catherine Johnson. 'You went there to be with your friends.'”
(William Grimes, "Johnny Nicholson, Whose Midtown Cafe Drew the ‘New Bohemians,’ Dies at 99", The New York Times, August 8, 2016; 2016/08/09/dining/ johnny-nicholson-whose-manhattan-cafe-attracted-new-bohemian-crowd-dies-at-99.html)

 2. Edna Lewis (1916-2006)  

("A Black History Moment: Edna Lewis-The Grand Dame of Southern Cooking," she wired, February 13, 2011)
(Mary Rourke, "Edna Lewis, 89; Chef Drew on Family's History in Reviving Southern Cuisine," Los Angeles Times Obituaries, February 14, 2006.)

3. "...Mr. Bissinger was born in 1914 in Cincinnati, where he began studying art at the Cincinnati Art Museum while in high school. He then moved to Manhattan and enrolled in the Art Students League, where he studied painting.

"After decorating windows for Lord & Taylor in the 1940s, he found work as a stylist for the Condé Nast photographic studios, where he worked with, and befriended, several of the staff photographers, including Irving Penn, George Hoyningen-Huene, John Rawlings and Cecil Beaton. Richard Avedon, one of several friends with whom Mr. Bissinger shared a cottage on Fire Island, encouraged him to take his own pictures, lending him cameras and his studio for his first test photographs. His first subjects were Avedon’s wife, Doe, and the writer James Baldwin.

"Lillian Bassman, the art director for Hearst magazines, gave Mr. Bissinger his first assignment, for the newly created Junior Bazaar. He soon began doing portraits and the occasional fashion shoot for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Theater Arts and Town & Country, gravitating toward painters, poets and writers as subjects.

“'I was drawn to portraits of artists for the obvious reason,' he said. 'Their world was more interesting to me than the fashion scene.'

"In the early 1950s Mr. Bissinger’s interests swung to politics, and he gradually abandoned photography. A onetime member of the Communist Party, he became active in several peace organizations. In the early 1960s, at a demonstration against air-raid drills, he met Judith Malina and Julian Beck, the founders of the Living Theater, and for several years took up his camera again to record their performances. As the Vietnam War heated up, however, he devoted nearly all his time to working as a draft counselor at the Greenwich Village Peace Center. Later, as a member of the War Resisters League, he crusaded for nuclear disarmament.

"Mr. Bissinger took many photographs at the Cafe Nicholson, the restaurant on East 58th Street he had created with Johnny Nicholson, a fellow window-dresser from Lord & Taylor. A favorite with artists and a launching pad for the chef Edna Lewis, it made a natural setting for a photograph illustrating an article in the first issue of Flair, 'The New Bohemians.'

“'I do not know what effect the picture has on those who now look at it, but I think it perfectly evokes an optimistic time in our history that we’re not apt to see again soon,' [Gore] Vidal wrote in Smithsonian magazine last year. 'So study this picture, and see what optimistic people looked like as they began what they thought would be lifelong careers, and in some cases indeed lasted as we lost more and more of a country that is no country without Karl Bissinger to make art of it.'” (William Grimes, "Karl Bissinger, Portraitist, Dies at 94", The New York Times, Nov. 25, 2008;

4. In a review of the newly opened "Nicholson" Restaurant at 323 E. 58th Street in 2000, New York Times columnist, William Grimes, described the interior of Café Nicholson:

"In a New York restaurant scene defined by cozy neighborhood joints and imposing temples of haute cuisine, Cafe Nicholson stood alone and apart, a theme restaurant whose only theme was its owner's idiosyncratic style.

"[...]Nicholson occupies a peculiar spot, perched at the edge of the entrance to the upper roadway of the Queensboro Bridge. It looks like a guardhouse, and it's not much larger. You enter through a narrow, open-air passageway, walk down five steps, and enter what feels like a private home. Past a tiny bar and a lounge, the dining room awaits.

"It is a very distinctive room. Mr. Nicholson's decor was once described as Spanish-Portuguese belle epoque, and under the new owner and chef, Patrick Woodside, working with the architect Alexander Gorlin, things have become only more complex. The cane-work settees with their silk throw pillows remain. So do the brightly colored Spanish wall tiles with a satyr motif, the pastel panels filled with cupids, and the stenciled ceiling border depicting lily pads and lizards."

(William Grimes, "RESTAURANTS; Curiouser And Curiouser, Chapter 2", The New York Times, June 21, 2000;

5. The bill of lading has since disappeared.

La Guardia (Galicia) 00.00.1985
Catoira (Pontevedra), 00.00.1959
Creator of the modern tile school.
A Galician who industrialized this manufacturing.

[Eloy Domínguez Veiga] was born in La Guardia (Galicia) in 1885. His biographer, Juan Manuel González Luengo, says that this man, born into the humble class, was stubborn, but with that stubbornness of those who create, think and work by way of conscience and the vision of the future.

At the age of fifteen, little Eloy, carrying his inner voices as luggage, dreaming distant and unknown roads, and lands to contemplate with his small and deep eyes, gets on a ship and goes to America.

I arrive in Santo Domingo and he is the messenger of a store. He doesn't like that. He believes he can succeed in his homeland, and after two years he returns to Galicia. Relatives place him in a lumber mill. He even manages and creates, but the steam boiler explodes and the factory is destroyed.

He leaves his village again and this time goes to Valencia.

Together with their brother Manuel and Celestino Trigo Pérez, they form a Regular Collective Society. He works for the first time in the rough manufacture of ceramic crafts and at the same time in canned vegetables, but difficulties arise everywhere. This time the economic disaster is due to the collapse of foreign trade.

Young Domínguez sets out for England. There he sells preserves and oranges, but precisely there, in the blonde Albión, as his biographer González Luengo (from which we gather these data) says, he observes the construction and thinks of the tile as an appropriate element to be included in the buildings.

In 1912 I returned to Valencia, and two years later I saw his dreams come true: I worked alone and took the broad cause of his industrial visions. That ceramic factory that only offers handicraft precariousness and reduced limits for exports, turns it into an industry with more production, with a majority realization, with a progressive escalation in exports and in a change from those Moorish kilns to continuous passage kilns. . It begins to open factories in order to comply with the demands of Cuba, Mexico, Florida and California.

It is the first to manufacture decorated tile. Create a factory in Onda and another in Alicante to make thick ceramics, flat tiles, etc.

A disease held him for 8 years in Madrid, but 1936 came and the war held him in his hometown, La Guardia. The factories are in the opposite zone and he is without money. This misfortune does not make a dent in the dynamic Eloy. With the collection of some debts he sets up a factory in Catoria (Pontevedra), until the end of the war, which again takes over his Valencian factories.

He continues his work of creating, and thus the factories of Alcudia de Crespins (Valencia), Inmeca in Madrid and Cedolesa in Barcelona leave. In 1959, says his biographer, when he was preparing to receive a group of collaborators, Eloy Domínguez Veiga died in Catoria.

This is, broadly speaking, the life of this potter who in his tile industries trained those legions of workers and specialists, where other captains arose, who, in turn, created factories and continue, within the norm of the forerunner, the new industry norm, the tile industry.

José Mª Marticorena-Ruiz
Levante, December 3, 1982.

7. A translation of https://es.wikipedia. org/wiki/Grutesco

Examples of grutescos from the Wikipedia article above.

8. “The CUENCA technique required the design to be pressed into the green clay with a mould that left a raised outline, delimiting the areas to be glazed. The tile was then biscuit fired, after which the hollows were filled with coloured glazes and refired.” 

“CUERDA SECA was a technique developed in the Middle East and introduced to Spain in the 15th century in an attempt to solve the problem of combining several colors on a single tile without the glazes bleeding into each other… . CUERDA SECA...may be considered as the negative version of CUENCA. It consists of engraving the design into the clay [while] it is wet, and filling the furrows with a compound of grease and iron oxide. Different colored glazes were them applied. During the firing the greasy lines kept the colours apart and at the same time produced the effect of a relief.” 

(Garry Cruikshank & Eduardo Gonzalez, “A History of Tiles in Spain, Part II, Paradise Lost”, Tile Today, May-July, 1998, p. 74).