It’s summer. The sun sets late, and a honeyed heat persists after dark. And through some dimly understood genetic imperative, a single thought invades the minds of thousands of urban-dwelling Americans every night: “I must to get to a rooftop.” Those with a more advanced genetic makeup follow this with another thought: “And have a drink.”
Rooftop bars are as integral to summer as a Gin and Tonic—with the press of an elevator button, you’re close to the sky and the summer breeze, and away from the fetid smell of the street and the guttural mating calls of free-range bros. It’s the urban version of a tepui in the Venezuelan highlands—those isolated plateaus high in the clouds, where unknown worlds beg to be explored.
We have the good fortune to be alive during a golden age of the rooftop bar. They’re abundant and nearly everywhere today. I’ve sipped a Vertigo Sunset at the Moon Bar, 61 stories above Bangkok, and a blender mojito on the second-floor terrace in the Guatemalan Highlands. Yet the formula for a perfect rooftop bar remains simple: a solid table, an icy drink, a faintly discernible breeze and welcome company.
Bars atop structures are so prevalent in New York that Manhattan in summertime essentially becomes “Rooftop Bar National Park.” Walk into any random commercial building, press the topmost elevator button, and I’d wager you’d have better than even odds of being served a decent drink. They’re so ubiquitous that there’s now an impulse to subcategorize them: Time Out New York last year published its list of “10 non-douchey rooftop bars.”
And all this seems wholly appropriate, for New York is the ancestral home of the rooftop bar. Some historians of high-altitude drinking peg the date of the dawn of rooftop drinking to 1890. That year saw the opening of a “roof garden” atop the Casino Theater, at Broadway and 39th Street. The theatre is remembered for popularizing the chorus line, but it also changed American tastes by launching a small mania for dining, dancing and drinking on high.
The original Casino roof was designed as a place where patrons “could sit for a time in the open air, drinking cooling beverages and listen to music” courtesy of a small orchestra. “The noises of the street were so far below that they blended harmoniously with the brass and strings,” wrote visitor I.D. Marshall in 1893.
Yet, there was a worm in this Eden. “All was satisfactory saving and excepting the refreshments,” Marshall wrote. “There was a clamor for something stronger than lemonade and the like.” To quell the clamor, the Casino began serving strong drink, including “the sparkling vintage of champagne and beer and whisky and all the rest.” The change met with great applause. One wine merchant reported, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, “More champagne was consumed during the first week than was ever before drank in the same time and space anywhere in the world.”
The success of the Casino caught everyone’s attention. Manhattan was land-poor but roof-rich, and rooftop complexes, many modeled after German beer gardens, bloomed from the Battery to the Bronx. Society columnists began referring to a “roof garden season.” The new Madison Square Garden, then under ￼￼construction, added its own elaborate rooftop garden, and when opened it was the grandest ever seen. The lavish space was adorned with neoclassical arches and ornaments and was large enough to accommodate 800 comfortably, “or 1,200 in a jam.” On opening night, some 5,000 eager guests sought to reach the roof, although only a minority made it; even the band hired to entertain failed to reach the top.
“Owners have grown rich with the money which tired, heat-tortured mortals have gladly given in return for the cool breezes,” noted an account in 1903. By then, the model had moved even further away from its beer-garden roots and toward more sophisticated tipples.
“On the roof gardens of New York, the Mamie Taylor and Remsen cooler are the greatest favorites,” wrote Almer C. Sanborn in 1913. “Go to any of the gardens along Broadway and you will always find someone having one of these drinks.” (The Mamie Taylor was made of lime, gin and ginger ale; the Remsen cooler was a gin and soda with an elegant, spiraling lemon peel. Both are ideal for summer sipping.)
The roof garden began its decline in the 1920s, and every obituary seems to contain one phrase: “air-conditioning.” The first theater in Times Square chilled out in 1925, and others soon fell into line. Combine that with the rise of the talking picture, and Americans suddenly felt less compelled to head to the roof to sip while listening to an orchestra under balmy skies. En masse, America moved from the expansive, open and summery, to the claustrophobic, dank and chilly.
So remember that tonight as you head to a roof to sip something delicious while admiring the lights pinholing the sky. You’re not just closer to heaven—you’re closer to a vital urban past, when tout le monde found the perfect way to escape the tyranny of heat and the dreariness of the street.