Tucked behind St. Patrick's Cathedral in the heart of Manhattan lies an architectural gem with a storied past, waiting to be discovered by a new generation.
The Villard House, a brownstone palazzo that ushered in a new age in American craftsmanship and architecture, celebrates its 130th birthday this year. The building now serves as the front porch to The New York Palace and the home of the hotel's Gilt Restaurant and Bar, but its history extends much further.
Long before the site became a luxury destination for tourists and travelers, successful railroad tycoon Henry Villard aimed to impress his international guests by hosting them at the Villard House. Thanks to the designs of New York's famous architects McKim, Mead & White, the Villard story turned out to be anything but what one might expect from a railroad baron. Henry's wisdom in selecting the City's rising architectural stars to design the house and principal rooms demonstrates his remarkable acumen.
The building was actually four houses made to look like one, and it changed American architectural development, putting U.S. homes on par with the palaces of European aristocrats and financiers. At a time when most people looked to Europe for the latest talents, the unique building put American architects on the map. European inspirations still figured prominently, however, with elements of the Villard design invoking Roman Renaissance palaces and the town houses of Frankfurt German investors.
Even with these elements involved, Villard managed to shed the show-off of his contemporaries in favor of the tasteful, while still creating a structure that was distinct from other New York homes at the time. The entertaining floor of the Villard house stood in marked contrast to that of the passé Fifth Avenue brownstones with their signature high stoops. Instead, like its Italian and German predecessors, visitors entered the Villard houses by way of a large courtyard. The open space was a visual connection to the then-green square behind the Cathedral. This greenery served as a large, verdant open space in the City, providing relief from the density of houses.
Once inside the courtyard, visitors would approach the stoop lined with thick slabs of marble, enter through the glass gem door, designed by America's father of art glass, artist John LaFarge, and into a mosaic hall triumphantly echoing the Borghese Palace. Crafted exquisitely, the tiny tesserae lined the hall, walls and ceiling. Guests were then ushered into the great double height music room before being asked to join the repast in the dining room.
The young sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, soon to be America's greatest figure in that medium, created two fireplaces for the hall and dining room and an incredibly nuanced gilded zodiac clock.
The dining room, with its wonderful English oak paneling and mottos of salutation in a host of contemporary and historical languages, has a rich and textured surface designed by Stanford White, the legendary designer at the height of his prowess in the 1880s. The dining room doors and ceiling have a permanent surface texture created by hundreds of thousands of round-headed nails arranged at a uniform surface, just like the mosaic marble pieces outside in the hall. These skilled and eternal designs were made by great artisans who flooded into the U.S. to build for American ambitions. Villard's house set a standard for quality which was rarely reached by his followers. He truly commissioned both art for the house, and a house that was art.
When it was created, the Villard mansion ushered in a new era for American artistry, architecture, and society. Guests from around the world were to dine and be entertained in the building's ornate rooms. In an era of mansion wars, when houses battled with their neighbors for the prize of the most noticeable, Villard's house was a shout to others' murmur. The transformation of the house into a hotel in 1980 was unique to New York within that epoch. There had been no new hotels in Manhattan in many years and the new Palace Hotel combined a historical retention with a glamorous new place to stay for the visitors now coming to New York then in the beginning years as a prime tourist destination.
Today, 130 years later, you may visit these splendid spaces to have a meal in the celebrated dining room GILT. This anniversary provides the opportunity to honor a cultural gem that has been preserved by The New York Palace. Visitors can sit surrounded by the gilded age or take refreshment in the triple-wide entertaining parlors with the last decorative panels made by Paris's greatest wall muralist of the age.
Revisit the New York City of over a century ago at the Villard House, in the same splendor that allowed the European aristocracy to recognize that the Americans were gaining a place at the court. The American heiress on the brink of marrying a European nobleman would have felt right at home in the rooms of this hotel. You will too.