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June 12, 2019
How Did Manhattan Penthouse Start?
Sam Milliken
Compass Ballroom at Manhattan Penthouse on 5th Ave

The Teachers’ Center and the Beginning

For years clients have asked me how I got into the business, which was in 1973. I taught high school chemistry, biology, and physics in two top private schools uptown. Inspired by an Educational Psychology course at Columbia Teachers’ College that included studying the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, I conducted workshops with teachers during the summer on how elementary school teachers could engage students more with simple classroom science materials. Piaget studied the evolution of logical thinking in children. Asking questions about science materials tests the level at which a child can reason. The important thing is not to stress right answers but to engage students in questios and hypotheses. Which will win the race, a large ball or a small ball? Why? Piaget asked children which vessel held more water, the tall cylendar or the short beaker. The answer was they hold the same, but it didn't appear that way. Piaget called this understanding Conservation of Volume. At a certain age the child can understand. Until then the taller vessel holds more. No right answers, just fun discussing. Surprise when the water from the tall cylindar is poured into the short beaker. Has a lot to do with how to ask questions, how to listen, and how to sustain an dialogue and engagement. I founded a Teachers’ Center that featured these workshops as well as ones on the New Math. The New Math at that time had to do with using colored sticks of various sizes, Cuisenaire Rods, to represent numbers. The workshops needed a Center. 

I was able to rent a 5-story townhouse at 21 East 73rd Street in 1973 — at the bottom of the real estate market. It had elegant features, and I added elegant fixtures and other things purchased at a Doyle Gallery auction and some Bloomingdale’s furniture sales. I grew up with antiques and fine architecture in my parents’ home and at my boarding school and college, so the design aesthetic was heavily inspired by my school experiences. The idea was to make the Teachers’ Center feel like a clubhouse where teachers could relax and exchange ideas.

Renting Out the Venue and Catering 

I conducted workshops all summer, but I was completely surprised when I started getting calls from my clubs and others to rent the house for parties. When they brought in caterers to serve foods or did the catering themselves, I figured I could do that. I poured over many books to learn how to cook, eventually finding occasions to learn from top chefs . I found I had an eye for decorating foods and venues and a skill for cooking.

When my business grew, I had to concentrate on administration and to hire chefs in order to keep up with demand. I helped to jump-start the new business of renting extraordinary private homes to cater for clients.

The success of the business afforded me wonderful experiences for notable clients. I catered parties this way for Jackie Onassis, Kiss Rock Group, Woody Allen, New York Magazine, David Bowie, the Girl Scauts of America, and many others.

The Era of Mansions Catering

Back in the 70s, I helped to jumpstart a catering movement that has grown exponentially over the years. I took wedding and corporate clients on tours of mansions mainly on the Upper East Side that were available to rent for events — listening to their ideas and suggesting which venues would be perfect for them. These venues included Harkness Dance Foundation, Spanish Institute, America Society, Explorers Club, and the Otto Kahn Mansion — all locations of non-profit corporations. At that time, the name was “A Private Townhouse Affair.”

Then, owners of private mansions, townhouses, brownstones, lofts, and even condos started to call me to ask for my expertise and advice about what they could charge to rent their space for an event. For years, I operated this way under the name Mansions Catering, since I was working with so many private mansion venues. 

Now, there are many rentable venues in Manhattan, and I concentrate on my own three: Manhattan Penthouse on Fifth Avenue, Alger House in the Village, and Sassy on Seventh Avenue South, three properties: three sizes, three styles, three price ranges.

Running Three Venues

Manhattan Penthouse caters for up to 200 guests, Alger House caters for 25 to 75, and Sassy caters for 15 to 75. Smaller corporate or family gatherings oftentimes are difficult to place in terms of excellent yet reasonably-priced space. However, our range of private, extraordinary, affordable venues can host a lot of different events.

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