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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

I taught high school chemistry, biology, and physics for eight years. Inspired by a course at Columbia Teachers’ College on Piaget, I conducted workshops during the summer on how elementary school teachers could engage students more with simple classroom science materials. I founded a Teachers’ Center that featured these workshops as well as the New Math. The New Math has to do with using colored sticks of various sizes, called Cuisenaire Rods. However, the new Teachers’ Center needed a home.

I was able to rent a narrow, 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 a chandelier and other things purchased at a Doyle Gallery auction and some Bloomingdale’s furniture on sale. 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 youth. 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 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, I figured I could do that. I poured over all these books to learn how to cook, eventually being taught by top chefs too. 

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

Running Three Venues

The catering movement is stronger than ever. The three venues that I manage can satisfy the aesthetic and level of service that any client could dream up. Manhattan Penthouse caters for up to 200 guests, Alger House and Sassy are designed for 15 to 75 guests. Smaller corporate or family gatherings oftentimes are difficult to compensate in terms of excellent yet reasonably-priced space. However, the range of private, extraordinary, affordable venues can host any number of guests.

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