(formerly the Regent Hotel)
51 East 57th Street
Developer: EIE International Corporation and
William Zeckendorf Jr.
Architect: I. M. Pei and Frank Williams
By Carter B. Horsley
As a major luxury hotel project being launched
during one of New York City's worst depressions, this development
was eagerly anticipated because of the international renown of
the Regent Hotel chain and the mighty reputation of its architect
I. M. Pei.
The Regent Hotel in Hong Kong is generally
regarded as one of the world's greatest and most deluxe hotels
where its main competitor is the Peninsula Hotel, which happened
to open its first New York hotel, with the same name, a few years
earlier in the reconstruction of the former Gotham Hotel three
blocks away on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.
Pei, who lives in a townhouse on Sutton Place,
then had three Manhattan projects - the black reflective-glass
499 Park Avenue (see The City Review article),
a white office building at 88 Pine Street, and a new wing at Mt.
Sinai Hospital on Fifth Avenue and 100th Street - that were not
milestones in his career or on the city's skyline.
The Regent Hotel chain encountered financial
difficulties, withdrew from the project before its completion
and was replaced by the Four Seasons chain, the premier corporate
luxury hotel chain in North America and the operator of the Pierre
Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 61st Street (see The
City Review article).
Pei, whose greatest designs are the highly
abstract and modern East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington,
D.C., the "pyramid" at the Louvre Museum in Paris, and
the prismatic, high-tech tower for the Bank of China in Hong Kong,
came up, surprisingly, with a Post-Modern design for this project.
According to Charles V. Bagli, who described the Four Seasons
hotel in a March 21, 1994 article in The New York Observer
as a "gigantic Temple of Dendur," a reference to the
rather prosaic Egyptian temple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Pei "insisted on dressing the building in the same French
limestone used in the architect's addition to the Museum in Paris."
Despite such uncertain beginnings, this cream-colored
building, clad in French sandstone and built at a reported cost
of more than $475 million, has not disappointed, introducing a
new standard of excellence for the well-heeled traveler to New
York and providing the city with a new skyscraper landmark that
is distinguished, if not great.
The building's setback massing on its relatively
narrow through-block site is finely proportioned, as can be seen
in the photograph below, and literally highlighted with very handsome
lanterns on its setbacks, as can be seen in the photograph above.
At night, the lanterns are extremely effective and sometimes give
the illusion of a rocket adjusting its small thrusters as it soars
The mood created in its public spaces is cool
and bright with lavish but subdued appointments in the best of
minimalist modernism. Apart from the very attractive setback lanterns,
the only major flourish is a fan-shaped canopy fashioned somewhat
after Parisian Art Nouveau models.
A project this size, however, can do with only
so much understatement and its very large main lobby, shown above,
with translucent ceiling and large balcony lounges on its east
and west sides is impressively awesome in the best traditions
of grand hotels for "power" people. A very attractive
cocktail lounge on the second floor above the 58th Street entrance
is a very delightful space that recalls the former grandeur of
the wonderful King Cole Room at the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue
and 56th Street.
The 367-room, 54-story Four Seasons Hotel's
57th Street entrance, shown below, bears a slight resemblance
to Johnson/Burgee's treatment of the pink-granite base of the
Sony Building on Madison Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets,
particularly in its employment of a large oculus as an isolated
design element. The north and south facades of the Sony Building,
which originally was the A. T. & T. Building, each have three
oculi, whose openings, unfortunately, have been closed by Sony.
Far more critical, however, is the relationship
of the Four Seasons Hotel with the Fuller Building, the superb
Art Deco skyscraper that is its immediate neighbor to the west
on the block.
Although the Four Seasons tower sets back considerably,
it overwhelms its important neighbor that had stood in splendid
isolation for decades. A squatter profile, however, would have
drastically reduced the number of guest rooms with spectacular
views and therefore most likely made the project uneconomic. Furthermore,
it would have robbed the skyline of an important new component
and removed a major enhancement to the 57th Street ambiance. Indeed,
its arrival has greatly reinforced and bolstered the street's
prestigious reputation as the upscale center of the world.
At the end of 2003, the hotel finished a
remodeling of the tower's pinnacle which added some double-height
bay windows and balconies as shown in the photograph at the top
right of this article. Although not old enough to qualify for
consideration as an official city landmark, this tower is one
of midtown's landmarks because of its height and the fact that
it is a rare Post-Modern design by I. M. Pei. The alterations
at the top were significant in that they departed substantially
from the pure and neo-classic style of the building. On the other
hand, the additions are not atrocious carbuncles. Indeed, they
are probably tasteful. They probably add to the interior allure
of the rooms affected and therefore their marketability. While
the bottom line should not be ignored, the "blister"
additions are unfortunate as they detract from the purity of Pei's
original design. (3/22/04)