Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Standard (hotel)

848 Washington Street at 13th St.
Rooms from $195; 212.645.4646

The Standard Hotel on the High Line is now open. The hotel is a rare bit of concrete construction in NYC, perched up on stilts directly above the High Line, a strip of abandoned elevated railroad track being converted into a park running through the Meatpacking District and West Village. The hotel’s architecture and interior decoration have a strong 1960s retro vibe. Rooms feature floor to ceiling glass windows and bathrooms with glass walls looking into the guest rooms, many of which have stunning views of the Hudson River. Note: Bear in mind that there is no way to eliminate the direct view from the bathroom into the guest room (only the toilets are screened off); this will be considered problematic for some, sexy as hell for others. Each room has a sofa, flat screen TV and free WiFi. Premium-priced corner rooms and suites are especially coveted.

The full length of the High Line park will be open by mid June, 2009. The result will be similar to the popular Promenade Plantée in Paris, a park also constructed on disused elevated railroad tracks.

The runway-like entry path, flanked by yellow plastic picnic tables, continues through the revolving door and into lobby.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Helmsley Building at Park Avenue

The Helmsley Building, designed by Warren & Wetmore, is a 35-story building positioned in the center of Park Avenue. Before being dwarfed by the 1960s Pan Am Building (now the Met Life Building), it served as a visual termination point for Park Avenue at 46th Street, immediately north of Grand Central Terminal. It was the tallest element of the vast Terminal City project of hotels, offices, post office and railroad terminal that began construction in 1912. The Helmsley Building was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1987.

Built in 1929 as the headquarters for the New York Central Railroad Company (founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt), it was originally called the New York Central Building. When New York Central sold the building to real estate mogul Harry Helmsley, he renamed it the New York General Building. His wife, Leona Helmsley, infamous for her well-publicized tax evasion indictment in 1989, later renamed it the Helmsley Building. Helmsley-Spear Management owned the property until 1998, when it was sold to Max Capital for $253 million. It was sold again in 2006 for $705 million to Istithmar, an investment firm owned by the royal family of Dubai. It was subsequently sold to Goldman Sachs in 2007 for over $1 billion; in nine years the value thus increased four-fold. Stipulations require the name to remain The Helmsley Building, regardless of the owner.

The cupola-capped pyramid roof is dramatically lit at night:

Before the electrification of the New York Central Railroad in 1912-1913, the neighborhood north of Grand Central Terminal was populated with open-air railway yards and tracks used by steam locomotives. The electrification and covering of the yards enabled the continuation of Park Avenue to the north and the construction of new buildings such as this.

The middle part of the building, flanked by 15-story wings on the sides, rises as a tower to the pilastered top and the pyramidal roof, crowned by a distinctive copper-clad cupola. At night the roof and cupola are illuminated. At the base of the tower, there are two large arched portals on either side of the lobby to provide access for traffic from Park Avenue through the building, to the elevated platforms past Met Life and Grand Central Terminal, and to Park Avenue South via the Pershing Viaduct. Similarly, pedestrian traffic moves through two tunnels with connections to retail space. It is thus a unique drive-through and walk-through building.

The ornate art deco clock was erected 68-feet above street level on the cornice above the portal in 1928. Edward Francis McCartan created the piece during his three-year appointment to the New York City Art Commission. Cut in limestone, the clock features two statues four times life size. The male figure on the left is Transportation, symbolizing the spirit of speed. He rests his arm on a winged wheel of Progress and holds the staff of Mercury. On the right is a female figure, Industry, who embraces a staff in her arm, while resting on a beehive. Several other smaller symbolic figures round out the design including the Liberty Cap, crowning the clock's top. The clock, 45 feet in width and 19 feet high , has a dial with a diameter of 9 feet. Helmsley had the figures gilded, but subsequent restorations returned them to their original stone finish.

The ornate entrance lobby has lavish white travertine and marble decor replete with mirrors and chandeliers. Bronze reliefs above the elevator doors depict a winged helmet surrounding a globe, symbolizing the American empire's global reach. The elevator car ceilings are painted to represent clouds.


Mafia murder: On September 10, 1931, capo de tutti capi Salvatore Maranzano was murdered in his ninth-floor office here by hit men sent by Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, ambitious underlings whom Maranzano had ordered killed by Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll.

A view of the Helmsley Building from the Met Life building:

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Gates (Chelsea): Ghost of the Biltmore Hotel

290 Eighth Ave. (between 24th & 25th Sts.)

On May 8, Danny Kane and Rod Surut reopened one of the city’s storied and ultra-lavish spaces, the former luxury dining spot known as the Biltmore Room (the marble walls alone have been valued at $2.4 million). The venue is a super luxury restaurant/bar/lounge, called The Gates.

The marble and bronze interior was transported from the former Biltmore Hotel’s location adjacent to Grand Central Terminal to a townhouse in Chelsea (prior to the Biltmore Room restaurant, it served as a gay male club known as Rome, with staff dressed as centurions, so let’s hope the third time’s the charm!).

The hotel's iron gates and ornate, mirrored bronze door doubled as the grand entrance to the luxurious and chic Biltmore Room restaurant, which opened in 2003 with a month-long waiting list for reservations to sample the Asian fusion cuisine. In mid-2006 the restaurant closed when owner-chef Gary Robins decamped for the uptown Russian Tearoom next to Carnegie Hall.

Still intact, however, are the exquisite bronze detailing, marble floors and a ceiling glittering with crystal teardrop chandeliers. Separated from the more cavernous dining room/lounge by a pair of bronze French doors, the front bar feels intimate and inviting. Another carry-over is the former dumb-waiter that was retrofitted as a booth for cell phone calls – for those times when conversations must remain private.

Cross your fingers and stay tuned.

A corner of the restaurant/lounge shows the many types of marble used in the midtown Biltmore Hotel construction.

The New York Biltmore Hotel (1913-1981, nearly 1,000 rooms) was a landmark luxury hotel designed by the architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore, who also designed the adjoining Grand Central Terminal. Both buildings opened on the same day, February 2, 1913. The hotel was located between 43rd and 44th Streets from Vanderbilt Ave. to Madison Ave., and was one of several hotels built as part of the Terminal City project, a vast complex that included the train station, hotels, a post office and many commercial office buildings, all designed by Warren and Wetmore. The other hotels were the Commodore (now the Grand Hyatt New York) and the Roosevelt (still in operation).

Warren was a cousin of the Vanderbilts, owners of the New York Central Railway and builders of Grand Central Terminal. Warren’s partner, Charles Wetmore, was a lawyer by training. Their society connections led to commissions for clubs, private estates, hotels and terminal buildings, including the New York Central office building (now known as the Helmsley Building), The New York Yacht Club, the Chelsea docks and the Ritz-Carlton, Biltmore, Commodore, and Ambassador Hotels. The legendary Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, is their work, as well.

Unfortunately, the landmark Biltmore Hotel building was gutted in 1981, and The Bank of America Plaza Building, at 335 Madison Avenue, was built from the hotel's steel skeleton. The owner asked in extreme haste, before the Landmarks Preservation Commission could take action to stop him. With no warning the hotel shut its doors on August 14, 1981, and teams of demolition workers arrived the next day. Even so, the owner/developer established a $500,000 scholarship for the Landmarks Commission, chiefly to stave off any further action against him. The bank’s offices, which opened in 1984, still retain the hotel's piano and famous lobby clock. During that time a collector purchased the hotel’s lavish marble and bronze lobby fixtures and reinstalled them in a Chelsea residence, which later housed a restaurant called The Biltmore Room (2003-2006) and now operates as a restaurant/lounge called The Gates (290 Eighth Ave. between 24th and 25th Sts.; 212-206-8646).

For decades the Biltmore Hotel appealed to lovers. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald honeymooned there so boisterously that they were asked to leave, and the Biltmore’s solid bronze clock was a popular meeting place for amorous couples. Fitzgerald wrote a short story titled “Myra Meets His Family,” which is set at the Biltmore. An American Playhouse TV production of this story, which aired in 1986 on PBS, was called “Under the Biltmore Clock.”

The railroad arrival room under the hotel was called the kissing room, and was the meeting place of many couples who then would proceed to the Biltmore Palm Court for lunch or a drink. On the nineteenth floor the Biltmore had a restaurant with a hand-cranked sliding roof called “The Cascades,” which allowed diners the opportunity to gaze at the stars while having dinner. The circa 1920 advertisement below illustrates the placement of the live orchestra and tango dancers on the floor of the rooftop "Cascades" venue:

An innovation at the time it was built, the hotel was designed in an “H” shape, thus giving every one of its 900+ rooms an outside exposure. As well, The Biltmore boasted one of the first hotel indoor swimming pools and saunas. The Italian Garden between the Biltmore East and West Towers was an open air escape in the summer and served as an ice skating rink in winter. In the 1920s and early 1930s it had its own resident orchestra.

In J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” when Holden Caulfield showed up in the Biltmore lobby for a date, he was struck by the crowd of young women. “I was way early when I got there,” he recounted, “so I just sat down on one of those leather couches right near the clock in the lobby and watched the girls. A lot of schools were home for vacation already, and there were about a million girls sitting and standing around waiting for their dates to show up. Girls with their legs crossed, girls with their legs not crossed, girls with terrific legs, girls with lousy legs, girls that looked like swell girls.”


Located immediately west of Grand Central, the Biltmore Hotel had a convenient direct elevator and stairway to the terminal.

In 1970 feminists demonstrated to "liberate" the men's bar at New York's Biltmore Hotel. On August 10 Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill prohibiting sexual discrimination in public places.

Bert Lown’s orchestra enjoyed a long booking at the hotel. In this YouTube video his band performs “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” The accompanying slide show includes several interior and exterior images of the New York Biltmore Hotel. In a glaring error, however, the photograph of the lobby is actually an interior of the Los Angeles Millennium Biltmore, not the New York Biltmore.