Thursday, September 10, 2009

Love of Architecture Dept.

Villard Houses, 2007

I don’t know when I first fell in love with the Villard Houses, located on Madison Avenue in New York. I think I first read about them in an autobiography by publisher and witty raconteur Bennett Cerf, who in the 1920s set up shop there for what would become The Modern Library and, later on, the Random House publishing company.

I wouldn’t have known about Bennett Cerf had I not grown up in a house where one of the few television shows I was allowed to watch as a kid was What’s My Line? If you’re too young to remember it, What’s My Line?, a guessing game which at various times featured a panel that might include any three of Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen, Steve Allen, Fred Allen and even Soupy Sales, was the 1950s’ and 1960s’ version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Only on What’s My Line? the game progressed, if memory serves me right, in $5 increments.

The Houses were designed by McKim, Mead & White and built in 1882 for railroad magnate Henry Villard. Villard wasn’t able to hold onto the property very long, nor were many of its subsequent owners. With each sale the property was allowed to fall deeper and deeper into disrepair until, in the 1960s, there was serious concern that the Houses might be razed altogether.

The unlikely savior in this story was developer Harry Helmsley, who, in return for restoring the Villard Houses, was allowed to build and attach to the houses a most undistinguished 51-story hotel. You may recall stories of Helmsley’s wife Leona, the so-called “queen of mean,” who starred in the Helmsley Palace Hotel ads.

In the years since, portions of the Villard Houses have served as meeting rooms for the hotel and as home to both the Municipal Art Society and, for a while, the famous restaurant Le Cirque.

I try to go by the Villard Houses whenever I’m in New York. McKim, Mead & White knew how to create pleasing proportions in the structures they designed. The Madison Avenue courtyard is large, but still very human in scale. The interior spaces—visitors are welcome at the Municipal Art Society’s bookstore—are also large, but very approachable and comfortable. (If you go, avoid the passage to the hotel. It’s an awkward bit of architecture decorated by people who apparently believed you can never use too much gold.)


  1. God, I haven't thought about that program in ages, and Soupy Sales!!! I definitely haven't thought about him for a long, long time! Your photo is wonderful. I'm trying to remember if I've ever seen that building in person--thanks for sharing it here!

  2. It's so cool to hear the background to these photos.