50 East 46th Street

(The full block between 45th and 46th Streets and Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues)

Developer: The New York Central Rail Road

Architect: George B. Post

Erected: 1924

Roosevelt Hotel seen from the south on Madison Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

The last remaining unaltered hotel of the original "Terminal City" complex centered around Grand Central Terminal (see The City Review article), the Roosevelt Hotel provides a good example, because it was never planned as luxury facility, of the high quality of architecture design in pre-Depression New York that envisioned an ever improving, ever more stately urbanity.

The only other well-preserved remnant of the "Terminal City," apart from the terminal itself, is the Helmsley Building (see The City Review article), formerly the New York Central and then the New York General Building, straddling the avenue at 46th Street.

The other hotels in the complex, mostly designed by Warren & Wetmore, included the Biltmore, which was gutted and rebuilt as the Bank of America Plaza Building between Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues and 43rd and 44th Streets, the Commodore, which was gutted and rebuilt as the New York Grand Hyatt, on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, and the Ritz Carlton on the west side of Madison Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets and the 23-story Belmont on the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 42nd Street, which were demolished to make way for commercial buildings. Most of them shared similar designs of indented light courts above a low-rise base and dark red and brown brick facades and underground connections directly to the terminal.

The 16-story Ritz Carlton, whose chef for a while was Escoffier, was the most luxurious, followed by the Biltmore, then the Roosevelt and finally the Commodore, which was the largest with about 2,000 rooms.

The hotels and the former New York Central Building, which is an office building, set the stage for a remarkably consistent flourishing of high-rise masonry construction that included such highly compatible buildings as the former Bowery Savings Bank at 110 West 42nd Street and the Pershing Office Building at 100 West 42nd Street, as well as the similarly designed Brooks Brothers Building at 342 Madison Avenue at 43rd Street and the former Abercrombie & Fitch Company Building at 360 Madison Avenue at 45th Street. Several other very fine masonry buildings such as 270, 292 and 310 Madison Avenue and 41, 50 and 52 East 42nd Street.

Exceptions to the consistent Adamesque style, of course, were the 55-story Lincoln Building at 60 East 42nd Street, the 56-story Chanin Building at 122 West 42nd Street and the 77-story Chrysler Building (see The City Review article) at 405 Lexington Avenue at 42nd Street, but they at least used brick facades and their wonderful designs enhanced the area without breaking the mold entirely. The former Socony Building at 200 West 42nd Street did break the mold with its embossed stainless steel facade, but it was already somewhat removed.

What ruined the ambiance was the rebuilding of the Commodore Hotel into the New York Grand Hyatt by Donald Trump and Hyatt Hotels. Its reflective-glass facade broke the teeth of the complex's smile (and its indented form did not lend itself well to such a treatment apart from the context). The smaller Abercrombie & Fitch Company Building, which was more attractive than the Brooks Brothers Building, suffered a similar face subsequently when it too was clad in reflective glass. The former Biltmore Hotel was at least clad in polished red granite.

Despite my own nomination to the Landmarks Preservation Commission of a special Grand Central Masonry Preservation District, no action has been taken to preserve the remaining examples.

The 1,100-room Roosevelt Hotel was the first large hotel to be built under the city's new zoning regulations of 1916 and was named after President Theodore Roosevelt. According to Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins in their book, "New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between The Two World Wars," published in 1987 by Rizzoli, the Roosevelt was the first new New York hotel to include ground floor stores to offset a lack of revenues caused by Prohibition.

Interestingly, while the Madison Avenue frontage has three bays, the Vanderbilt Avenue frontage has only two.

The Roosevelt was acquired by Pakistani interests in the 1980's and its future is some doubt because it is on a receiving site for transfer of Grand Central Terminal's unused air rights. The hotel's base is particularly attractive in its excellent articulation and modulation.

North facade of hotel faces site of new Bear Stearns building

The hotel's north facade will face the new headquarters building of Bear, Stearns & Co., Inc., as shown in the photograph above.

The original "Terminal City" complex by Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem was elegant and stately in its details, its organization was brilliant and its scale was enormous. Rockefeller Center, two decades later, may have achieved more renown, but Terminal City was a far greater and much more important achievement, the greatest in the nation's planning history. What is truly remarkable was that its visionaries accomplished so much of their dream.

What is truly outrageous is that Terminal City was bastardized and raped after World War II when nouveau riche Americans, including not a few New York real estate developers, politicians and civic activists and socialites, had either no taste whatsoever or total contempt for civilization, which has a lot to do with cities. So patronize the Roosevelt, visit it, remember that it was not even top-of-the-line Terminal City and implant in your minds that the very essence of Park Avenue was the architecture of Terminal City's "station hotels" and that George B. Post honored very well the elegant dream of Warren & Wetmore's Terminal City.

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