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New York Palace Hotel
Nestled among modern skyscrapers in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the Villard Houses symbolize the neighborhood’s past and present. The apartment houses were part of the neighborhood’s residential boom in the late nineteenth century, and they have endured as the neighborhood transformed from a residential to a commercial hub. Today, Villard’s form and its multiple functions embody the eclectic history of its Madison Avenue location.
The building was commissioned in 1882 by railroad tycoon Henry Villard, shortly before the collapse of his Northern Pacific Railway Company. Endeavoring to create an elite residential enclave, Villard selected a location just one block east of Vanderbilt Row, a stretch of 5th Avenue on which the wealthy and influential Vanderbilt family had built a string of grand brownstone houses. In fact, the 1880s saw Madison and 5th avenues, especially between 50th and 57th streets, fill up with large, single-family mansions. A few blocks north on Madison Avenue a group of houses designed by Richard Morris Hunt were under construction. Yet Madison Avenue was never as uniformly residential or as prestigious as 5th Avenue. Across the street from the Villard Houses was St. Patrick’s Cathedral (1851–1878, James Renwick Jr.), and to the south, the city’s first cooperative apartment building, the Rembrandt (1881, Philip G. Hubert), was under construction. Elegant hotels and expensive shops would soon follow.
Villard worked with the firm of McKim, Mead and White (with Joseph Morrill Wells as project architect) to create a building that would fit in with, yet differentiate itself from, its neighbors. The Villard Houses are dark, earthy brown sandstone structures, distinctive among Manhattan’s grey and white mansions. Despite the architect’s pleas for limestone, Villard insisted on the use of brown sandstone. While many mansions of the era were inspired by French chateaux, the Villard Houses were designed in a Renaissance Revival style, inspired by such Italian palazzi as the Palazzo dell Cancelleria and Palazzo Farnese in Rome. Typical for the type, the facade is broken into four horizontal sections, with rusticated lower levels giving way to smoother ones above. While Villard would occupy a portion of the building, the other five (much smaller) units would be sold individually—though Villard stipulated that all purchasers hire McKim, Mead and White to finish their interiors. Not all homeowners agreed, though Stanford White did, ultimately, design a number of lavish, classically inspired rooms.
The building’s design elegantly united the six individual residences into a single urban monument. Other large urban mansions at the time were also divided into separate units, but they were occupied by members of the same immediate family and were clearly articulated as such. Here, there was little or no indication that the plan of each of the units was different from the others. The six entries—four of which were located on the perimeter of the courtyard created by the U-shaped building, and two to the north of it on 52nd Street—were well disguised to look as if they were portals into much larger houses. While the building is strictly symmetrical in elevation and plan, this is not true of the individual units, beyond the two entered on the central axis off Madison Avenue. The remaining residences are arranged in the asymmetry typical of town houses of the era.
Although the Villard Houses were intended as exclusive residences (and remained as such through the 1920s), the building has housed a variety of institutions and functions over the years, including the Women's Military Services Club, Random House Publishers, and the Archdiocese of New York. After World War II, Madison Avenue below 59th Street was slowly taken over by office buildings, frequently housing advertising agencies. Gone, too, were the exclusive shops, replaced by banks, drycleaners, and other more quotidian institutions. By 1968, when the building had earned New York City landmark status, the transformation of Madison Avenue was complete.
The individual residences changed hands a number of times in the middle of the twentieth century, but by 1971 the Archdiocese of New York had gained complete control of the property and intended to develop it. In 1974, the developer Harry Helmsley proposed what would become the Helmsley Palace Hotel, a 51-story, glass-and-metal tower located behind the sandstone houses. His original scheme required the demolition of the rear facade and the gutting of the interiors. Preservationists opposed the scheme and were able to pressure Helmsley to alter the design to better connect the Villard Houses with the hotel. Emery Roth and Sons, along with Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, were responsible for the final design and began construction in 1977. When the hotel opened in 1980, the Municipal Art Society and its Urban Center occupied the north wing, remaining there until further renovations were begun in 2010.
Even after the shell of the building was saved, there was much debate about the loss of the highly ornamented interior spaces, especially in Villard’s own residence. Stanford White coordinated the decoration of these rooms, which were inspired by Roman or Renaissance examples, assisted by Louis C. Tiffany, John La Farge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and other New York artists and craftsmen. While much of the interior of the houses was transformed when it was integrated with the hotel, many rooms in Villard’s south wing were preserved. The original drawing room is still used as a restaurant. It sits in an interior that was recently refreshed to match the details and opulence of the original space.
The tall, contemporary tower that hovers above the Villard Houses accommodates the hotel’s guest rooms, including the private suite of its current owner, the Sultan of Brunei. The original Villard Houses contain the restaurant, shops, conference spaces, and a lobby. The two parts are more juxtaposed than integrated but at least visitors are able to glimpse the Villard House’s lavish and luxurious past. Like Madison Avenue, it houses a mix of corporate and commercial spaces that are hidden behind a hint of history.
Huxtable, Ada Louise. “Elegance Clinging To Avenue, But It Too May Pass Elegance Clinging to the Avenue.” New York Times, November 08, 1970.
Neger, Peter, C. “Italian Renaissance Revival Architecture in America: The Villard Houses, 1882–1885.” American Art Review3, no. 5 (1976): 118-128.
Shopsin, William, C. The Villard Houses: Life story of a Landmark. New York: Viking, 1980.
Stern, Robert A.M, Gregory Gilmartin, and John Montague Massengale. New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890–1915. New York: Rizzoli, 1983.
Stern, Robert A.M., Thomas Mellings, and David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. 2nd ed. New York: Monacelli, 1997.
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