East Orange’s Golden Age

The Hotel Suburban was once the focus of a glamorous downtown.

Hotel Suburban 1
Room at the Top: The Hotel Suburban in its heyday.

We don’t often associate East Orange with glamour. But turn back the hands of time to the prewar years and the picture changes. East Orange was an attractive middle-class community with modest, well-tended homes. Stylish department stores such as Best & Co., B. Altman and the locally owned R.H. Muir drew the well-heeled to the city’s bustling shopping districts. Central Avenue, where several of the department stores were located, was known as the Fifth Avenue of the Oranges.

“It was a glamorous era and a glamorous area,” says Goldie T. Burbage, president of the East Orange Historical Society. At the center of it all, she says, was the Hotel Suburban, “the gem that sparkled brightest.”

Built in 1926 as both a residential and a traditional short-stay hotel, the 10-story, 250-room Hotel Suburban featured restaurants; function rooms named for flowers; the Dubonnet Bar, where smartly uniformed waiters delivered drinks on silver trays; and a grand ballroom—all under the slogan, “Where living is gracious.”

“When you said you were headed to Hotel Suburban, people looked up from what they were doing,” says Burbage, a longtime resident of the Oranges. Located on South Harrison Street, just steps from the Central Avenue shopping district, the hotel was, she says, “the place to be.” (The hotel had a smaller Summit annex, now the site of the Grand Summit Hotel.)

What locals remember best was the elegance of the area. As a child, Burbage would dress in her Sunday best to stroll downtown; as an adult, her social group, the Town and Country Women’s Association, frequently gathered at the Hotel Suburban. It was always a “hat-and-gloves” affair, she says.

No wonder Spencer Tracy checked into the Suburban when he visited the Oranges in 1940 for the premiere of the movie Edison, the Man at the nearby Hollywood Cinema. “That was a big event,” recalls Burbage.
Dinner menus were written daily. A typical 1941 menu featured Long Island duckling, fresh-caught sea trout and minute steak. A four-course meal cost no more than $1.50.

In 1960, the hotel added an 11th floor for a new restaurant. Run by radio personality Dick Kollmar and his wife, newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, a regular on the celebrity quiz show What’s My Line?, the couple called their supper club Paris in the Sky.

Jeff Smith, an amateur local historian, claims Kollmar spent $25,000 “to reproduce a typical Parisian street” in the club, with mock storefronts and kiosks. The club, with its Manhattan skyline view, drew praise from the New York Times. “It [Paris in the Sky] offers musical trios and singers that are not loud, French décor, a bottle of champagne for every four persons, untouched scenic splendors, and a seven-course pheasant or sirloin steak dinner for $15.”

The nightclub’s fortunes ebbed after Kilgallen’s death in 1965. By the following decade, as the community changed, the Hotel Suburban became an office building. Eventually, it fell into disrepair and closed in the late 1990s.

The building was renovated in 2009 and soldiers on as a nondescript apartment house. The area’s grand old department stores are long gone, replaced by low-end shops, state offices and medical clinics.

Still, for locals of a certain age, the memories of Hotel Suburban linger. “It was our Paris here in East Orange,” says Burbage, “and as they say in the pictures, we’ll always have Paris.”

Marcia Worth-Baker is a freelance writer in South Orange.

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