Welcome to the Villard Mansion –the historic entranceway to the Lotte New York Palace hotel. Set across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, behind large iron gates on Madison Avenue, the Villard Mansion is one of the most unique Gilded Age buildings remaining in New York.
Constructed in 1884 by Henry Villard — an American journalist, financier, publisher of the New York Evening Post and the Nation, and president of the Northern Pacific Railway, who is known for accompanying Abraham Lincoln on his 1860 campaign — the building is actually a collection of six townhouses made to look like a unified Italian villa.
“There was a recession and he [Villard] was financially out there. So whereas this might have been one large house, or not as many as the six that it is, he was forced to take on investors, and these became townhouses under the image of a palace,” Lee Jablin, a partner at Harman Jablin Architects, told LLNYC during our tour.
The building itself was designed by architecture firm McKim, Mead and White – a young firm at the time, later known for Pennsylvania Station, the Brooklyn Museum and the main campus of Columbia University. But a lesser known figure played a large role in the project.
“The building was McKim, Mead and White, but the lead individual was a Joseph Wells,” Jablin said. “He, in fact, was not a partner [at McKim, Mead and White] but he had traveled to Italy and seen various Italian villas and that inspired him to create this collection of townhouses.”
Over the years, the houses were divided, connected, renovated and used for offices. Then in 1968, the property was landmarked by the city.
In 1980, real estate billionaire Harry Helmsley completed a 51-story hotel tower directly behind the original building — the hotel and mansion were most recently purchased by the South Korean conglomerate Lotte.
Since then the south wing of the Villard Mansion (the former home of Le Cirque) has hit the market after celebrity chef Michel Richard’s poorly-reviewed restaurant closed.
The marketing team, PD Properties, is currently looking for a single tenant at $5 million a year. Elad Dror, president of PD Properties, told LLNYC that he hopes to sign a high-end fashion tenant that can make use of the mansion’s varied architecture.
Here is a look inside:
It doesn’t get more Gilded Age than this. This is the “Gold Room,” so-named for its gold walls and ceiling. It was designed by legendary society architect Stanford White — as were most of the interiors — and was originally used as a music room. Most recently, it was used as the bar for Michel Richard’s now-defunct restaurant.
Musicians would play from the balcony and there would be listening or dancing below.
The carvings are based on works in Florence.
Now, enter the dining room. Notice the design on the door: those are thousands of decorative nails, painstakingly hammered into an incredibly intricate pattern. The same work has been done in panels on the ceiling. Talk about labor intensive.
You can imagine the formal dinner parties that filled the long narrow room. The inlay on the walls is actually a paste made of linseed oil and wood chips, rather than a true inlay like what you would see in the Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio in the Met.
The hearth is topped with a beautiful painting by Edwin Austin Abbey.
“For those of you who are financially interested, it’s worth a lot of money,” Jablin told LLNYC with chuckle.
Exiting the dining room, you are led to an interior hall with a starkly different architectural aesthetic. Both the floors and the vaulted ceilings are done in mosaic.
The hall leads on one end to a drawing room that was expanded at the height of the Gilded Age by Mrs. Elizabeth Mills Reid — the wife of Republican politician and New York Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid. Stanford White was again hired for the renovation, and he gave the room its French style.
The windows overlook Madison Avenue.
The paintings are by Pierre-Victor Galland and perhaps a tad precious by today’s standards.
Obviously, the carpet was added by the hotel or restaurant.
From here, we walked up the marble staircase to find what is perhaps the most spectacular room of all.
The library would have once had a table that ran the length of the room, according to Jablin. Here Whitelaw Reid would invite the heads of New York’s major publishing houses to discuss business. A testament to the room’s former use, the crests of publishing houses are imbedded into the ceiling.
The details are all in tact.
And it is pretty spectacular.
Finally, just down the hall is the second floor drawing room, which as you can see is currently being used for dinners.
This is one of many rooms that the land-lease holder, the Archdiocese of New York, used over the years. Most likely, the painting on the ceiling was dropped when modern lighting and air-conditioning was added.
Still, the building has retained innumerable historic details.