THE NEW YORK PALACE HOTEL
(incorporating the VILLARD HOUSES)
451 MADISON AVENUE
(50th to 51st Streets)
Developer: Harry B. Helmsley (hotel); Henry
Villard (Villard Houses)
Architect: Emery Roth & Sons and Hardy
Holzman Pfeiffer (hotel and townhouse restoration); McKim, Mead
& White (Villard Houses)
Erected: 1977 (hotel); (1884)
By Carter B. Horsley
Controversy occasionally can be the mother
of success. This major luxury hotel project, where the developer's
wife, Leona Helmsley, ruled as queen until her conviction on tax
fraud, is one of the nation's most spectacular examples of the
adaptive re-use of a landmark.
The low-rise set of six connected townhouses,
popularly known as the Villard Houses, four of which surround
a large courtyard, were an official city landmark that were expensive
to maintain. They comprised the largest portion of the site, which
occupies almost half a full block between Madison and Park Avenues
facing the rear of St. Patrick's Cathedral (see The
City Review article) on Madison Avenue.
Most of the townhouse interiors, all different,
had been gutted and destroyed and reused for various office purposes
over the years with the exception of the truly opulent Villard
House that occupied the south side of the courtyard.
In the face of strong opposition from the city's
preservationists to demolition of the townhouse complex, which
was modeled somewhat after the Cancelleria in Rome, the developer,
Harry B. Helmsley, decided to erect a 51-story new hotel tower
behind them, but partly cantilevered it over the townhouses. That
appalled many preservationists at first, but Helmsley, then the
most powerful and most respected person in New York City real
estate, was not insensitive and undertook a very impressive preservation
project. At a cost of about $10 million, then a very considerable
sum, most of the Villard interiors in the south wing were meticulously
preserved including a large gilded, barrel-vaulted music room
with murals by John LaFarge (see an illustration
of it in another article in The City Review).
The interiors of the Villard House are among the most
sumptuous in New York. The lobby of the Villard mansion, entered
directly from the courtyard, was a highly polished beige marble
space, shown at the left, opening onto very lavish rooms and a
very formal staircase with a delicate and exquisite wall clock
by Augustus St. Gaudens.
The splendid fireplace by the same great sculptor
was removed to the balcony of the hotel's main lobby directly
facing the courtyard. Its porphyry redness is almost swamped by
the contemporary Baroque style of its much newer surroundings,
but its majestic quality not only prevails but overpowers.
The hotel's lobby spaces, shown below, are
well finished with high quality materials that are not up to the
par of craftsmanship of the Villard interiors, but respectably
close. There are entrances from the courtyard as well as from
both 50th and 51st Streets. Part of the lobby spaces have been
redone, but the general ambiance is attractive and comfortable.
The lobby has three levels all accessed off
the grand staircase. The top level has a magnificent fireplace
by Augustus St. Gaudens with flanking fish fountains, as shown
The north side of the courtyard now houses
several of the city's most prominent design organizations such
as the Municipal Art Society, the Parks Council and the Architectural
League of New York and its first floor contains major exhibition
space and the Urban Book Center, one of the most delightful bookstores
in the city.
The hotel tower itself is, of course, a major
disappointment because it is a bland, drab and pedestrian curtain-wall
that looms high over the attractively repaved and landscaped courtyard.
Of course, such an approach was almost excusable for the courtyard
and its buildings are the prize and the tower merely the economic
engine for their preservation, one might argue. A dark, sheer,
reflective-glass tower would have been better, but the overall
solution is handsome, which cannot be said of the atrocious bordello
style of the guest rooms themselves, which are comfortable with
Prior to the completion of this project, few
New Yorkers had seen the spectacular Villard interiors, which
are among the very finest in the country. (Villard's brother-in-law
was married to the sister of Charles McKim, a partner in the architectural
firm of McKim, Mead & White, but Joseph M. Wells of the same
firm is credited with most of the design of the townhouses.)
Like much Italian Renaissance architecture,
the exterior of the townhouses reveals little of the wonderful
interiors. The multi-colored courtyard and a reinstallation of
Bishop's Crook streetlamps on the sidewalk only add to the luster
of this major project.
The hotel scored a major coup in the mid-90s
when Le Cirque, the very fashionable and expensive restaurant
announced it would relocate from its Upper East Side location
into the public rooms of the Villard townhouse. The new restaurant
is known as Le Cirque 2000 and its design was extremely controversial.
Fortunately, it can be ripped out and it did not structurally
ruin the spaces. Its intrusions are garish but whimsical, proof
that expensive decor need not be tasteful, or good. On the other
hand, one must applaud the daring and admit that the design would
most likely work reasonably well in the Flatiron or SoHo districts.
The restaurant's fame as a celebrity haunt, however, has not diminished
and certainly its presence added considerable cachet to the hotel.
A spokesman for the hotel said that public
access to these great interiors would not be affected by the rather
intimidating restaurant which is frequented by the "ladies
In 1995, the hotel created a very elegant outdoor
cafe in the already handsome courtyard that is quite possibly
the finest oasis in the city.
The Helmsleys eventually lost control of the
hotel, but it remains as perhaps their greatest legacy to the
city. The Urban Center is a joy that should not be missed by anyone.