Monday, August 22, 2011

It Didn't Have to End This Way

Villard Houses, Closed, 2011

About a year and a half ago I wrote about the sale of New York’s Duane Reade drug store chain to Walgreen’s. Duane Reade stores are nothing special. But they’re one of those elements of New York City that you come to expect. Like Starbucks, they’re everywhere. My only connection with Duane Reade is that they’ve bailed me out a few times when I found myself in New York without shaving cream or deodorant, two things it’s unwise to ever be without in New York.
But I learned to live with the Duane Reade sale, and am even a bit amazed that as of at least this past weekend the Walgreen’s people haven’t even changed the name of the Duane Read stores.
The Villard Houses are another of those New York fixtures that you don’t expect to change. And yet they’ve really gone and done it!
Yesterday morning while out for an early morning walk I made a pilgrimage to the Villard Houses. Regular readers will recall that this is one of my favorite places in New York. I’ve written about them several times, most recently last fall.
The Villard Houses have survived a lot. In 1882 railroad tycoon Henry Villard had McKim, Mead and White design six attached neo-Italian Renaissance brownstone residences around a courtyard. Later the Archdiocese of New York owned them. Then they became commercial spaces, housing, among others, the founding headquarters of Random House publishers and its Modern Library.
There was a period when it looked like the Villard Houses might be knocked down and replaced with office buildings. Their location on Madison Avenue right behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral must make developers salivate. Prominent preservationists got involved, though, and managed to attach sufficient landmark status to the property to prevent their demolition. But the deal with the devil was that the Helmsley Hotel chain would be allowed to build a modern glass and steel hotel tower immediately behind the Villard Houses and incorporate some the houses into the hotel’s public spaces.
For a while things have seemed pretty safe. The New York Preservation Society occupied the North wing. Restaurants have generally occupied the South wing. The middle section served as a gateway to the hotel. The courtyard facing Madison Avenue, according to what I’m told was the original landmark agreement, remained open to the public. That means people like me who like to sit on the doorsteps of one or the other wings and have a few moments of peace in an otherwise noisy city.
Yesterday morning, though, I had a real shock to the system. For one thing, as I approached the Villard Houses, I noticed that the basement windows are now covered with ads. You could have knocked me over when I saw the first one. This is like hanging an advertising banner for American Apparel across the front of Mount Vernon!
In Manhattan, advertising is all about capturing eyeballs and maximizing revenues therefrom. The Villard House basement windows are at eye level on at least two sides. So it doesn’t take a very imaginative person to wonder how much money could be made selling that space to advertisers. Certainly the hotel’s current owner, The Sultan of Brunei, has people who think about this kind of stuff. But most creative people would have enough taste to realize, too, just how tacky that would be.
But there they are. Ads, I mean, covering the basement windows. I take some modest comfort in knowing that the ads I saw are for the hotel itself. But if they’ll do this for themselves, how long can it be before they’ll sell that space to Mercedes, K Mart or Glenn Beck?
 Villard Houses Ad, 2011
As for the courtyard, that former oasis of peace, it’s now an outdoor cocktail and dining area arranged around a giant Jeff Koons-like dog.
And worse yet, despite a sign that states otherwise, the whole courtyard was locked up tight for all but hotel guests.
I can get over the sale and even the renaming of a drug store. But when they start selling ads on the side of the Villard Houses, I start feeling every day of my cranky age.

1 comment:

  1. This kind of thing reinforces my belief that other nations are looking at the US as a declining empire, and it's only a matter of time before New York joins the ranks of great cities of the past; Havana, Saigon, Beirut....hopefully without the fire fights.