The restored and new public interiors — those that opened over the weekend — at the Plaza Hotel are an unqualified success. Right now, for the first time in the living memory of most New Yorkers, we can appreciate the Palm Court restored to more or less the way Henry J. Hardenbergh, the architect behind the French Renaissance-style building and its interiors, designed it back in the early part of the 20th century.
The Fifth Avenue lobby, which has also reopened, dates from 1919–21, when additions and renovations were made to the hotel by Warren & Wetmore, one of New York’s greatest architectural firms. A brand new public space, combining a new check-in lobby as well as the spacious Champagne Bar, rounds out the currently accessible spaces.
Entered from Grand Army Plaza, the Warren & Wetmore lobby is both familiar and unfamiliar. Its true palette has been restored, whiter and creamier than one remembers.
It’s an outstanding example of Gatsby-era classicism, a light-as-a-feather style — Elsie de Wolfe worked in the same vein — employing cream, beige, large mirrors, French windows, crystal, terrazzo, and simple, stylized floral motifs in moldings and iron railings. Though the era hardly shied from gilt, there’s no Gilded Age encrustation… Just a free-floating feeling that goes with drinking one martini too many and taking a dip in the Pulitzer Fountain. Before the Plaza closed for renovations in 2005, I’d never really gotten that out of this space before. Now it’s the keynote.
Warren & Wetmore had a sideline in channeling Henry Hardenbergh’s design intentions. Shortly after the Plaza opened, Hardenbergh designed a headquarters for the Consolidated Gas (later Consolidated Edison) Company on 15th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue. It was a complicated project carried out in stages. Following Hardenbergh’s death in 1918, Warren & Wetmore came in to finish the project, extending it to 14th Street in keeping with the original design and, at the northeast corner of 14th Street and Irving Place, creating the complex’s superb signature clock-tower, thus wonderfully unifying what was becoming an oozing mass of a headquarters.
Just as we now see the Plaza’s Fifth Avenue lobby more clearly than before, so do we now more clearly see how Warren & Wetmore took their cues from Hardenbergh, whose Palm Court lies directly west of the lobby. I’d always found the Palm Court uninspiring. Now I find it breathtaking. Its large mirrors, palm trees, marble columns and pilasters with gilded capitals, gilded grillwork, and crystal all evoke much the same feeling as the Fifth Avenue lobby. Two things stand out. First, a set of four caryatids — columns or piers bearing the human form — along the far wall, the work of the Gilded Age decorators Pottier & Stymus, are all the lovelier for the way the room is overall loftier and freer in feeling than what we think of as a Gilded Age interior. Second, there’s the skylight! This was a part of Hardenbergh’s original design, but it was removed during the Conrad Hilton years (1943–53). It’s been restored via a painstaking process, mainly involving replicating what can be seen in old photos. And it’s wonderful: a simple, geometric design that serves to further lend sparkle to the space.
We’re a few months away from the reopening of the fabled Oak Room and Oak Bar, and the Edwardian Room. The old 59th Street check-in lobby, though a designated landmark interior, is now part of the condominium portion of the building, and is off-limits to the public. Hardenbergh designed the Oak Room, the Edwardian Room, and the 59th Street lobby; Schultze & Weaver designed the Grand Ballroom, reopened in January, and Frederick P. Platt & Brother (or so New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission surmises) designed the Oak Bar in the 1940s.
Elad Properties retained Gal Nauer Architects to devise the master plan for the overall renovation of the building, and to work with other firms, including Costas Kondylis & Partners (specialists in residential and hotel design) and Walter B. Melvin Architects (specialists in historic preservation). Immediately to the south of the Fifth Avenue lobby, a new Champagne Bar, in the former Rose Room (not a designated landmark interior), offers lobby-lounge seating (such as the old Plaza lacked) for drinks (with, alas, Champagnes from the extensive selection starting at $25 a glass). The Champagne Bar, a rich and lofty space that carries over themes from the Warren & Wetmore lobby, has white and beige marble floors, willowy iron railings of early-1920s style, recessed ceiling panels with simple ornamentation and corners articulated by beige cartouches, and large windows overlooking 58th Street and Grand Army Plaza.
I have to admit I didn’t get as exercised as many people I know when Elad closed down the Plaza in 2005 and the fate of the old public interiors was as yet unsettled. I’d found them kind of blah, and would have been happy to see the outside of the building get a nice restoration. How wrong I was. These interiors are splendid, and it’s a good day in New York to see them sparkle.
By FRANCIS MORRONE | March 6, 2008 For New York Sun