The taxi pulled up to a door on 51st Street just west of Park Avenue in Manhattan. I hadn’t been to the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, 455 Madison Avenue, New York City, before, but the entrance seemed vaguely familiar. A doorman instantly appeared and whisked my suitcase inside as I settled up with the driver.
Once I entered the lobby — the lower lobby, to be precise — that sense of déjà vu returned. The sweeping staircase leading up to Madison Avenue, the gilt trim…. Yes! I had been here when it was the Helmsley Palace Hotel where the late Leona Helmsley (she who said “only the little people pay taxes”) held court.
The Lotte New York Palace began as the 1890s residence of Henry Villard, a prominent financier. The neo-Italian Renaissance mansion designed by architects McKim, Mead & White was patterned after the Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome, Italy.
Right across Madison Avenue is the back of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, so it’s only appropriate that the Archdiocese owned the land for a time. In the mid-1970s the mansion was transformed with the addition of a 55-story tower of dark bronze, reflective glass and anodized aluminum intended to recede from rather than overpower the rosy-hued stone of the Villard Mansion and in 1980 the Helmsley Palace opened. It changed hands again in 1993 and, today, is part of LOTTE Hotels & Resorts, the largest hotel group in Korea.
All of the refurbishing has been meticulous. To return the Villard Mansion to its original grandeur from its time as office space, artisans and craftsmen documented measurements and made detailed interior drawings of every room. Floorboards were individually removed and labeled to enable exact repositioning after repair. All interior sections had to be re-laid in precisely the same pattern and position to reproduce the landmark-protected interiors.
During excavation and reconstruction, carvings, railings, decorative plasterwork, paintings, chandeliers, stained glass, hardware and fragile artifacts were crated and warehoused. Castings were made of ornamental plaster on ceilings and walls.
As I walked to the check-in desk, I passed the grand staircase leading up to the Madison Avenue entrance and its iron-gated courtyard — the original carriage entrance of the Villard Mansion. It was redesigned during restoration to incorporate motifs from the flooring of several 15th-century Italian cathedrals. The Renaissance designs were carried out in pink; rose and black marble set into striated jade.
The upper lobby features a red Verona marble fireplace designed for the mansion by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that’s adorned with carved figures of Joy, Hospitality and Moderation above the mantel. Working fountains with marble dolphins are set in niches at each side. Another Saint-Gaudens work is a rectangular, zodiac clock designed as part of the marble in the mansion’s ornate staircase.
It turned out that I didn’t check in at the main reception desk. The clerk walked me across the hall and into the private lobby for the hotel’s “Towers” suites (the hotel has a total of 909 rooms and suites). Not only did I have a separate check-in desk, but private elevators behind closed doors.
And the view? My room was on the 46th floor, looking west across the top of St. Patrick’s, beyond Rockefeller Center and all the way to the Hudson River.
Once I could tear myself away from the window, I noticed that my suite had two enormous flat-screen televisions, one in the sitting room and the other in the bedroom. There was also an elegant entrance hall with its own coat closet and a rather enigmatic (and unlabeled) sculpture.
Off the bedroom was an enormous walk-in closet and bathroom with two sinks, shower, tub, bidet and (of course) toilet. The oversize amenities from Molton Brown included the expected — shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, soap, body lotion — but also the unexpected: eye care creams, face wash, mouthwash and a set of grooming implements.
There was a full-length mirror in the closet, plus terry cloth bathrobes, slippers, a safe and all sorts of hangars, including padded ones. Next to the bed was a tablet-size computer with screens that controlled not only the lights but also set a wake-up alarm and operated the window shades.
On the table in the sitting room was a plate of special treats: French macarons, artisanal chocolates and some little, round, crunchy sweets that were totally addictive.
It was the kind of room one could stay in for hours. But all of New York City was at my feet, and I had people to meet and places to be.
Here’s another view from my window, this time St. Patrick’s Cathedral at night:
(Photos by Susan McKee, who was the guest of the Lotte New York Palace Hotel)