More than a century ago in 1882, Henry Villard, one of the nation’s most prominent financiers, commissioned McKim, Mead & White, the architectural firm spearheaded by Stanford White, to create a residence of singular style. The firm designed a mansion: grand in scale, it appeared from the outside to be a cluster of brownstone townhouses in the neo-Italian Renaissance tradition, when in fact the interiors contained separate sections for several families. Conceived after the Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome, the stately structure on Madison Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets, is the only townhouse complex built for the railroad barons of the last century to have survived into the present day. The Villard Houses are an historic city landmark as well as the grand entryway into The New York Palace, the hotel I’ve posted about over the past two days. Yet for many years it was all a well kept secret, closed to the public.
In the mid-Seventies, however, the Archdiocese of New York, who owned the land, cleared the way for a hotel to be developed and enabled the famous residence to be accessible once again. To bridge the architectural gap between the landmarked buildings and the new hotel that would join it, Emery Roth & Sons designed a monolithic tower of dark bronze, reflective glass and anodized aluminum that recedes from, rather than overpowers, the rosy-hued Villard Houses and integrates with its environment as it mirrors the surrounding cityscape.
By 1980, when the hotel opened as The Helmsley Palace, the stunningly restored interiors stood as a living tribute to the Gilded Age. Recognized by architectural historians as one of the most beautiful rooms to be preserved from the period, the Stanford White-designed Madison Room is notable for its light green marble walls, pillars and huge fireplaces at both ends of the room, and the romantic murals by P.V. Galland. The dramatic, two-story Renaissance-style Gold Room is almost entirely done up in gold, with gilt ceilings, walls and wainscoting – it’s also the bar for the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant: Gilt, natch. Wall panels are richly adorned with images of musical instruments and garlands of foliage in low relief. High above the north and south arches are two John La Farge lunette paintings, entitled “Art” and “Music,” that serve as dramatic focal points in the elaborate space.
The elegant, old-world ambiance of The Drawing Room is reflected in carved-walnut, coffered ceilings and walls, accented with gold ormolu. Nineteenth-century oil portraits hang on the walls and Italian marble fireplaces flank both sides of the entrance. The original gilt chandeliers still add a sparkling accent to the room’s decor.
McKim, Mead & White created the cozy Library from two smaller rooms during extensive remodeling in 1910-11. The focal point of the book-lined, carved paneled room is a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with rosettes and shields bearing the colophons of famous publishers of the day.
The courtyard, the original Madison Avenue carriage entrance of the Villard Mansion, was redesigned during the restoration to incorporate motifs from the flooring of several 15th-century Italian cathedrals. The Renaissance designs were carried out in pink, rose and black marble set into green and rose granite. Today, pedestrians enter the courtyard through an imposing set of iron gates and find one of the more civilized spaces in midtown to enjoy an al freco drink.
Beyond the graceful arches of the cloister facade is a two-story marble lobby, which visually unites the Villard Mansion with the hotel’s tower in a manner so harmonious that it is impossible to detect the point of fusion. And how appropriate that the focal point of the upper lobby is a magnificently restored red Verona marble fireplace that was designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. One of his best-known works, it’s adorned with the carved figures of Joy, Hospitality and hold your breath: Moderation.