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Guide to the James W. Rhodes Collection of Villard Houses/New York Palace Hotel Project Records
 PR 296

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Susan Kriete

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on April 26, 2013
Description is in English

Biographical/Historical note

The Villard Houses were commissioned in 1882 by railroad financier Henry Villard. Villard hired prominent architects McKim, Mead & White to design a unified complex of six mansions on Madison Avenue at 51st Street. Using Rome's Palazzo della Cancelleria as its inspiration, the firm created a U-shaped Italian Renaissance palace; four of the homes opened onto the courtyard while two had entrances on 51st Street. Within the restrained, uniform exterior, each homes was uniquely and elaborately decorated. All six homes were completed in 1884.

Soon after, Villard lost his fortune and was forced to sell his new mansion, but the Villard Houses were maintained as grand residences through the 1920's. Eventually, as the owners died off, the buildings passed into business and corporate hands. In 1943, the mansion originally occupied by Villard was turned into the Women's Military Services Club, and was rented to service women for 50 cents a night. By the late 1960's, Random House owned one of the original mansions, and the Archdiocese of New York owned the rest of the complex.

In 1968, without opposition from the owners, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the complex a landmark. The following year, Random House left and in 1971, the archbishopric purchased its former quarters. Having consolidated its own operations in a less valuable building, the archbishopric sought to raise money by leasing or developing the Villard Houses.

In 1974, the developer Harry Helmsley proposed a 51-story hotel, called the Palace, for the site. The plan called for the rear of the Villard Houses to be demolished and the interiors gutted. When preservationists protested, Helmsley revised his plans, agreeing to save most of the interiors and revising the facade of the new hotel to better integrate with the landmarked mansion.

After lengthy negotiations involving the City Landmarks Commission, The City Planning Commission, Community Planning Board #5, and other groups interested in preservation, an agreement was reached which allowed the project to move forward. Helmsley commissioned architects Emery Roth & Sons to design the modern structure and integrate the 1884 houses. James W. Rhodes, a young architect who had recently supervised the restoration and adaptation of Andrew Carnegie's Fifth Avenue mansion for the Cooper-Hewitt-Smithsonian Museum of Design for Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, was hired as project manager to oversee restoration of the Villard Houses. In accordance with the negotiated preservation agreements, Rhodes was also charged with measuring, recording and documenting the houses for the Historical American Building Survey.

The architects devised an adaptive re-use plan which incorporated the face of the Villard Houses into the new hotel, while the wings of the building were given over to non-profit organizations; original tenants included the Urban Center, the Landmarks Conservancy, and the Municipal Arts Society. The project was completed in 1980.