Monday, July 16, 2018

The Bon Ton Tea Room

by Erin Doane, Curator
Bon Ton Tea Room, c. 1920s
I came across this photograph of the Bon Ton Tea Room while working on our newest exhibit, It’s Electric! I had never heard of this particular tea room, so I decided to do a quick search for information about it. There are two programs from banquets held there and one other photograph in our archive but no further info regarding its history. So, I went to newspapers.com hoping to learn more. I searched “Bon Ton Tea Room” in the Elmira Star-Gazette and got 1,800+ results! It turns out, the tea room was quite a big deal in the city.

Miss Elsie Cleveland opened the Bon Ton Tea Room sometime in 1914. By November of that year, she found it necessary to enlarge her restaurant and moved into a new space on the second floor of 323 East Water Street over Terbell-Calkins’ Drug Store. The new tea room had sixteen tables and was decorated with Japanese novelties and furnishing she had recently purchased in New York City. The restaurant was open every weekday from 11:00am until 8:00pm and offered special noon lunches for shoppers downstairs.

Advertisement for the Bon Ton Tea Room,
Elmira Star-Gazette, September 6, 1917
The Bon Ton Tea Room became a popular location for parties, wedding receptions, graduation dinners, alumnae gatherings, weekly club meetings, annual banquets, and political gatherings. The open space on the third floor of the building, also operated by Miss Cleveland as an extension of the tea room, was used for dance lessons and Christmas parties for as many as 60 children and their families.

Bon Ton Tea Room, c. 1920s
In the spring of 1915, rumors circulated that the tea room was closing. Miss Cleveland assured friends and patrons that those stories were absolutely false. The Bon Ton Tea Room did, however, close occasionally for short periods of time to be repaired, revamped, and sometimes redecorated. In late January 1918, it was announced that the tea room would be closed on Mondays for nine weeks to comply with the U.S. Fuel Administration’s order for businesses east of the Mississippi River to observe “Heatless Mondays.” This was an effort during World War I to conserve fuel. The order was abandoned on February 8 and the Bon Ton went back to regular hours on Mondays.

On November 5, 1925, an advertisement stating that the space occupied by the Bon Ton Tea Room was available to rent must have caused some concern that the popular restaurant was closing for good. Four days later, another advertisement assured the public that the tea room was not going out of business. It was, in fact, moving to a new, larger location on the second and third floors of 325-327 East Water Street.

Bon Ton Tea Room advertisement,
Elmira Star-Gazette, November 9, 1925
On January 5, 1926, the new Bon Ton Tea Room opened as the largest tea room between New York and Buffalo. The main dining room was on the second floor while the third floor provided a private dining room and banquet hall that could accommodate 200 people. There were two kitchens, one on each floor, as well as a dancing parlor. Later that year, a soda fountain was added.  

Advertisement for Bon Ton Tea Room soda
fountain, Elmira Star-Gazette, May 28, 1926
By 1928, the Bon Ton Tea Room was one of Elmira’s most popular restaurants with both locals and tourists. Other business owners actually used the tea room in their advertisements as a landmark so people could find their shops and studios. By 1931, however, business seemed to be slowing down. Advertisements for the restaurant appear more frequently, touting its delicious dinner menus and reasonable prices.

Unfortunately, in March 1932, the Bon Ton Tea Room was forced to close after 18 years because of financial difficulties. Elsie Duncan (formerly Cleveland then Marinan) had owned and run the business for all those years. Miss Ruby L. Tallent had joined her as a business partner around 1924. Plans for the future were indefinite for both the women when they closed the tea room. In May 1932, Mr. Rudolph Hertz, Sr. purchased the business and reopened the Bon Ton, but it closed again less than a year later. In 1942, the Harry B. Bentley Post of the American Legion opened its new quarters in the space.

It was great learning so much about the Bon Ton Tea Room from the newspapers. I also gathered some information about the restaurant’s owner, Miss Elsie Cleveland. Various articles and announcements provided some brief glimpses into her personal life. Born in Elmira, Elsie attended the Lady Grey School in Binghamton then graduated from the Cook Academy in Montour Falls in 1911. She worked as a pianist in Elmira after graduating, and in the summer of 1914, she was in charge of the music at Rorick’s Glen dance pavilion.

In 1919, Elsie married James H. Marinan, an employee of the Elmira Water, Light and Railroad Company. She wore a handsome gray panne velvet gown, embroidered in blue and silver, with hat to match. They had two daughters, Kathryn and Mary Ann, who died in 1926 at just 11 months old. James died at his sister’s home on December 2, 1928 after a long illness. Elsie’s name does not appear in the article about his death or in the funeral announcement.

William Young Duncan and Elsie Cleveland Marinan,
Elmira Star-Gazette, August 15, 1930
On August 14, 1930, Elsie married her second husband, Captain William Young Duncan in New York City. William was connected to the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. and had served in the Field Artillery of the U.S. Army Reserves during the Mexican Expedition and World War I. The couple lived in Elmira until the Bon Ton Tea Room closed and then moved to Binghamton. That was where Elsie died of a heart affliction on March 26, 1936.