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.


Peter Dillon said...

I found the article on The Biltmore Hotel most educational and enjoyable. It was my favorite railroad owned Realty Hotel out of the four around Grand Central City. It would be great if you could do a article on The Roosevelt Hotel which has survived the others fate and is a monument to that era.

Cycle2Worker said...

As a child growing up in Belfast N.Ireland I was a bit of a phillumenist, My fathers friend was an Airplane salesman and would bring me match boxes from all over the world. As a teenager I burnt most of these however today I found a book of matches for "The Biltmore New York" 43rd and Madison,At the grand Central terminal it says "Lets meet under the clock".So thanks to google I ended up on your site and thanks to you I now know all about The Biltmore. Great article my son is an avid reader so I think I'll give it for him because of the connections with the great american authors.

0s0-Pa said...

Very interesting. Sure looks like it was one of the nicer hotels in NYC.

Cửa Cổng Đẹp said...

Looking so beautiful, wish I was coming here once in a lifetime, hjhj.
Like most permanent form of iron gates and sharp looks something about classical culture. His collection of samples or iron gate in: lam cong sat uy tin

Unknown said...

I stayed at the Biltmore in 1972. Some friends and I traveled from Toronto for the Easter weekend. We has a wonderful time at this lovely old hotel.When I found out later it had been demolished, I was very disappointed, as I planned on returning there someday. At least I have great memories of my stay.

inpennanow said...

My parents held their wedding reception at the Biltmore New York February 23, 1957. Photos show the large palladian windows of the ballroom in the background.