on the steps of the palace

Spain’s grandiose Palacio Real quite obviously had designs on being heralded as an Iberian Versailles. The 2,800 room Italianate baroque colossus built by Felipe V never quite managed to challenge its European counterparts, but its soaring white facade is pretty magnificent – as are the fifty rooms open to the public; the highlights of which are the Royal Pharmacy, Royal Armory, the Porcelain Room, and the Throne Room with its Tiepolo ceiling and crimson velvet walls. Perhaps embarrassed by the imperial extravagance of it all, Spain’s current ruling family lives in more republican digs, dropping by the family manse only when duty calls. And while we’re on the subject of duty: all this pomp’s got me thinking I’m forgetting something royally important today …


on the steps of the palace

The only surviving Portuguese palace which can be traced to the Middle Ages, the National Palace of Sintra is smack in the heart of the historic town. It’s two distinctively over-sized funnel chimneys distinguish an otherwise unprepossessing exterior.  (At first glance I mistook the building for another, wondering why a handful of tourists were lined up in front of the local power plant.) It’s provenance can be traced to the time of Islamic domination thanks to a historical reference by an Arab geographer in the 10th century. Unlike the Moorish castle up the hill which was used for defensive purposes – not Pena Palace but another one called Castle of the Moors; Sintra, didn’t I tell you?, is coming down with palace castles – the National Palace was built as the official residence for the governors of Lisbon, hence it’s demure exterior. When Lisbon was reconquered in 1147, Sintra surrendered and the Palace became the property and residence of the Kings of Portugal, who built and rebuilt for 800 years, adding towers and extensions up until the monarchy was dumped in the early 20th century. It’s a hodgepodge, to be sure; but a beautiful one, with jewel box interiors that belie its simple facade. The painted vaults of the Swan’s Room are a perfect example of the Portuguese baroque, or Manueline, style.  Off the central patio is the theatrical Bath Grotto, a sort of cold room that was later decorated with tile panels and rocaille stucco that holds an ingenious system of water spouts hidden in the grouting seams. The Coast of Arms room is one of the most important heraldic rooms in Europe:  the peak of the eight-sided vault is a clear allegory of King Manuel’s power, showing the Portuguese coat of arms surmounted by a winged dragon and flanked by the arms of seventy-two families of Portuguese nobility.  Tradition has it that fleets setting out or returning from Africa, Brazil or India could be seen from this room, which has a westerly view over the Atlantic. On the lower level is the 13th century Palace Chapel, one of the first additions made by the returning Kings. The ceiling is a magnificent combination of tile paving and frescoes.  As was customary in attempting to avoid the risk of fire, the kitchen was at a safe remove from the other rooms.  Some six hundred years later those funnel chimneys are still up to code, moreover, and the kitchen continues to be used for official banquets.


a mansion restored, a palace born

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.


a bed with a view

Waking up at The Palace the next morning I was greeted with this view of the Chrysler building from my bed – which made it that much harder to get out of bed and start the day.


playing the palace

As part of a larger story and long-term book project I am working on, I have from time to time over the past few months been  privileged to stay in some of New York City’s more interesting hotel rooms.  Recently I spent the night at the former Helmsley flagship, The New York Palace, in one of their four signature penthouse Triplex Suites.  It’s now a part of the fashionable Dorchester Collection of hotels and let me tell you this:  it doesn’t suck.

With a vertical design reflecting the nautical essence and stylized architecture of 1920’s  and 30’s Art Deco glamor – think SS Normandie – these suites spread out across 5,000 square-feet and three levels, sporting panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline from every angle.  Beyond the marble foyer is an expansive double-height living room with floor to ceiling windows and plush Deco furnishings and design accents.  Adjacent is a formal dining room and fully equipped-kitchen – just in case your entourage includes staff.

Up the circular staircase – or hop in the private in-suite elevator, natch – the second floor holds the Master Suite and guest bedroom.   For scale purposes I asked the bellboy and a pair of housekeepers to disrobe and curl up in the king-sized bed.  Adjoining the sleeping quarters, a sizable living area features a walk-in closet that’s larger than many a New York apartment.  And then there’s the guest bedroom across the hall: equally impressive with a pink marble bathroom and large portholes overlooking the downstairs living room   In fact,  I ended up sleeping in the guestroom because the view was too good to pass up – but more on that later.

The third – and final – floor is accessible exclusively via the in-suite elevator and boasts a true rarity: 1,500 square-feet of private rooftop terrace and no escape from the views:  to the south are the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, to the east is the Seagram Building, Queensboro Bridge, and East River.  It’s the kind of space that makes you want to shout something embarrassing about being on top of the world.  Because after all, you are.

Spectacular and addictive in its own right is the view once the sun finally sets and the lights of New York City come alive.  It’s priceless.  Well, not really; the rack rate for this private palace in the sky is a cool $20,000 per night.


game, set, tea?

This time last year I was donning my white flannels and taking the District line out to Wimbledon for strawberries and cream – in addition to the tennis, of course.  Stranded stateside this year, it looks like I’ll have to make do with Breakfast at Wimbledon.

Still, it puts me in a veddy British frame of mind.  And even though it is positively sweltering here right now, I am craving a full-on tea. What could be more British than tea?  Taking a proper cuppa with the Queen, of course.  And at Buckingham Palace, too.

This summer, from July 27 to September 29, as part of The Queen’s Year exhibition, visitors to London’s royal residence can have their cakes and eat them, too – almost – with tea on the terrace overlooking Buckingham Palace’s famous lawn and lake.  But don’t expect to see Her Majesty dropping by – the royal family takes up residence at Balmoral Castle in Scotland for the summer.


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