Pragmatic preservation and the Vanderbilt Hotel
By Alodie LarsonAs Grand Central Terminal celebrates its centennial this year, I have found myself admiring other accomplishments of the firm responsible for a significant part of its design, Warren & Wetmore. In my first days in the New York office of Oxford University Press, I noticed an imposing cadre of busts from the southeast windows of the building. These dour fellows crown Warren & Wetmore’s remarkable design for 4 Park Avenue, originally built as the Vanderbilt Hotel. The hotel has impressive origins, but it’s also worth considering its history in the ensuing decades. Grand Central famously avoided demolition thanks to hardworking preservationists and the outspoken support of people like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but how did an averagely outstanding structure like the Vanderbilt Hotel fare over a century amid New York City’s tumultuous architectural landscape?
When the Vanderbilt Hotel first opened in January of 1912, it was praised for its agreeable mix of flair and restraint, reflecting the combined influences of Mr. Warren’s study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the refined Adam style of 18th century England. The hotel was particularly subtle compared to some of Warren & Wetmore’s other commissions, like the maritime-festive New York Yacht Club (1901). The smooth planes and subtle relief in the midsection of the Vanderbilt Hotel offset the intricate terracotta detailing and ornamental brickwork on the upper and lower floors. The elegant façade at street level featured dramatic fluted fan arches, and the simple parapet was originally outlined in electric lights, illuminating the distinctive crown of enormous busts (speculated to be Bacchus and Hermes) who sport wry expressions and garlands of fruit.
The interior also showed unusual minimalism for hotels of the time, favoring smooth lines of Caen stone in bright, vaulted spaces, accented by carved stone friezes. (Well, imitation Caen stone, as the building’s plasterer Davis Brown noted rather bluntly in an advertisement for his services in the volume of The New York Architect dedicated to the hotel; this budget-friendly cement alternative was also used in Grand Central Terminal.) The furniture, too, was muted; The New York Architect noted that “quite a bit of black appears in the furniture” (and in a particularly New York postscript, added that this was “one of the few fads that has a sound basis of good taste”). Because the Vanderbilt Hotel catered to permanent residents, the architects could depart from the routine velvet and gold baroque ostentation of contemporary hotel style. The New York Architect commented that “the dignity and reserve of the building, free from the rather vulgar splendor of the typical American hotel, sounded a new note.”
The building was commissioned by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and the head of the family in his time. The 22-story hotel was his first building project, and he lived on the top two floors with his family. A man seemingly fated to perish at sea, Vanderbilt had escaped tragedy by cancelling plans to travel on the Titanic, only to die aboard the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by the Germans off the coast of Ireland in 1915.
Architectural critics of the time managed to find all manner of stylistic elements in this Rorschach blot of a building. The American Architect noted, “There is an Oriental flavor and a Renaissance grace to be seen everywhere.” The Brickbuilder couldn’t be nailed down, gushing: “It is not enough to say that it is Oriental in spirit, that much of the detail and composition is doubtless due to the enthusiasm of the Moors whose conceptions of classical ideals are to-day to be seen in Renaissance Spain and the northern portion of Italy, because into this composition a whole host of other things appear.” One thing that could be agreed, however, was that the hotel represented the foremost in modern convenience and innovation. In addition to being fireproof, the building featured a pneumatic-tube message delivery system and one of the first hotel air-conditioning systems. The Brickbuilder ruled unequivocally: “Perhaps more than any other semi-public building in New York does this remarkable hotel stand for modernity in the realm of architecture.”
The hotel was one of the most fashionable hotels in its first few decades of operation. It survived foreclosure during the Great Depression, but business had declined by the 1960s and the hotel closed shortly after the New York World’s Fair. In 1967, the firm of Schuman, Lichtenstein & Claman converted the hotel into apartments, with offices occupying the first four stories. The architects completely stripped the façade from the hotel’s lower floors, replacing the delicate Adam-style design with a stark, utilitarian grid of travertine and glass. Most of the interior was gutted. They also removed almost a third of the distinctive busts crowning the parapet in order to improve the views from the newly added penthouse apartments. In a particularly profane move, a demolition crew removed the sculptures with jackhammers. The source of this depressing detail, the 1994 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, also noted that one of the supervising architects took possession of a number of the busts for personal use.
This brutal refitting is the reason it took me several weeks to recognize the bland commercial frontage I often pass along Park Avenue as the handsome building seen from the OUP office. It would seem, then, that the fate of New York’s run-of-the-mill architectural masterpieces falls far from the preservation success story of Grand Central.
But the greater truth for the Vanderbilt Hotel, like many architectural gems of New York, is compromise. The building has been forced to change, but not all is lost. Two of those manhandled busts now rest in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. And in addition to the majority of the beautiful façade, another jewel of this structure has been preserved.
The original Vanderbilt Hotel featured a remarkable Grill Room and adjacent bar, occupying the lower floors of the hotel and separate from the formal dining room. This iconic space was frequented by characters like Rudy Valentino and Diamond Jim Brady, but more importantly, it was an outstanding example of Guastavino tile vaulting. This method of construction uses thin-shell terracotta tiles in an interlocking pattern to form load-bearing arches and vaults; the elegant technique uses its decorative form to accomplish its engineering function. Rafael Guastavino Moreno pioneered this design based on centuries-old Mediterranean techniques, and together with his son Rafael Guastavino Exposito, he designed tile vaults in hundreds of buildings around the world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Vanderbilt Hotel’s Grill Room and Della Robbia Bar (aptly named after the Renaissance family of artists) featured spectacular Guastavino vaulted ceilings with polychrome ceramic tile and terracotta detailing, including also the work of the Rookwood Pottery Company.
The Della Robbia Bar and two adjacent bays of the upper part of the Grill Room have been preserved and remain today as Wolfgang’s Steakhouse (now the restaurant’s front and rear dining room, respectively). Although incomplete, the space is one of the most intricate surviving examples of the Guastavinos’ work, and it was designated an interior landmark in 1994. Earlier this year, MIT and the Boston Public Library launched the first major exhibition covering the Guastavino family and this unique vaulting, found also in the Ellis Island Registry Hall, the Boston Public Library, and the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. Currently at the National Building Museum, it will move to the Museum of the City of New York in early 2014.
The hotel’s preservation is imperfect, but perhaps fitting in a city of people adept at compromise. (As evidence of this competency, I offer the 2010 census calculation averaging more than 27,000 people per square mile in NYC.) Just as a diverse population coexists in New York, commercial and preservation priorities have managed to reconcile in the Vanderbilt Hotel’s present form. The fate of an ordinary magnificent building in New York reflects the pragmatism of the city itself.
Alodie Larson is the Editor of Grove Art and Oxford Art Online. Before joining Oxford, she studied the architecture of Georgian England at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and worked for Random House and JSTOR.
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Image credits: All photographs taken by the author; public domain sources noted where appropriate.