A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Historic American Buildings Survey, Photocopy, Courtesy of New York Historical Society, Poster in the Landauer Collection. 
HABS NY, 31-NEYO,72-3 
 In a review of Justin Kaplan’s book, When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, Roger Lowenstein stated that “Though the Astors built New York's first great hotels, I would wager that few New Yorkers today associate either the Waldorf-Astoria or Astor Place with the clan that bequeathed the name. By comparison, the names Carnegie Hall and Rockefeller Center still evoke their founders. One reason is that the Astors were rather passive; after the first generation, they were less bloodsucking robber barons than men of leisure with a business hobby. ...Mr. Kaplan is mainly interested in John Jacob IV, Caroline...[Astor’s] son, born in 1864, and his older first cousin, William. Great-grandsons of the patriarch, Willy and John Jacob were bitter rivals and competed by trying to top each other's hotels. William built the Astor (the original had shuttered) on Times Square. "Meet me at the Astor" became part of the lexicon. ...John Jacob answered with the St. Regis, at 55th Street, a mere month later. ...The cousins' hotels, six in all, endured longer [than they did], but most would eventually give way to the wrecking ball. It is a sad footnote to the Astors' eclipse that the present-day Waldorf-Astoria, otherwise unrelated [to the family], bought its name for $1.”
(http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/18/business/yourmoney/18shelf.html?_r=0; Roger Lowenstein, “An Age of Splendor, and Hotel One-Upmanship”, The New York Times, June 18, 2006) The Astor was one of the hotels that did not survive "developers' progress".
“William Waldorf Astor built the 35,000 square foot hotel which was designed by the architectural firm of Clinton & Russell and was constructed by John Downey. The building proper was in the French Renaissance style, carried out in red brick and limestone with a Mansard roof made from copper and green slate. Like a Victorian parlor writ large the Hotel was chock-a-block full of curios, design features and stylistic knock-offs that ranged in theme from Chinese to German Volk, from Louis XVI to Art Nouveau, from WASP American to Native American.” (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma04/ranger/astor_collection/hotel.html)

"The...Hotel Astor was built in two stages, in 1905 and 1909-1910, by the same architects in the same style. On completion it occupied an entire city block at a reported total cost of $7 million. Architects Clinton & Russell had designed a number of Astor commissions; here they developed a very Parisian "Beaux Arts" style completed with green-copper mansard roof. Its eleven stories contained 1000 guest rooms, with two more levels underground for its extensive "backstage" functions, such as the wine cellar.
The Astor was an important element in the growth of Times Square and its character as an entertainment center. In 1904 New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs moved his newspaper's operations to a new tower on 42nd Street in the middle of Longacre Square, and Ochs persuaded Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. to build a subway station there and rename it Times Square. The theatre district would soon occupy magnificent new auditoriums along Forty-second Street, and electric lighting transformed this strip of Broadway into the "Great White Way".  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Astor_(New_York)

“Grill-rooms have been made special features of several clubs, and are...extremely popular. Few clubs have gone to the length of making the grill-room in all respects the thing that the name implies, a place where one may actually see one’s chop or steak grilled on the glowing fire before one’s eyes, but the grill-rooms of several clubs have the cozy charm associated with the name, and in the case of others the old-fashioned union of dining-room and kitchen has been accomplished.

One of the most famous of New York grill-rooms is that of the Hotel Astor at Broadway and Forty-fourth Street. This apartment occupies a large part of the basement of the hotel, It is long and low with groined ceiling and arched entrances. The decorative effect is obtained by the free use of pictures and figures having a special relation to the West of this continent. Gigantic antlered heads of moose and other wild creatures are disposed about the room, and there are large and small busts of American Indians displayed… .” (E.N. Vallandigham, “New York Grill-Rooms” in House and Garden, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 1905, pp. 265-269)

Drawing of the Indian Grill Room and Basement Floor of the Hotel Astor

“When brothers William and Frederick Muschenheim opened the Hotel Astor to New York City's elite in the fall of 1904, they offered their guests and visitors a unique experience -- the opportunity to sip drinks, sample hors d'oeuvres, and enjoy viewing the hundreds of Native American baskets, ceramics, and artwork displayed in the...'Hall of the American Indian,' which served both recreational and educational purposes, featured artifacts and photographs acquired from Alaska to Mexico by explorers, traders, and scientists. ...Although the Hall's artworks and artifacts were marketed as scientific and cultural representations, the room's primary role was to entertain. Unlike museum pieces, which would have been documented and catalogued, few records of any kind exist that might shed light on their sources and histories. Today, thousands of mysteries swirl around each object: Who made it? Why was this one chosen for display rather than another? What did it mean to the people who created it? What did it mean to the people who gazed at it from the grill room tables of a New York luxury hotel?”
From: T.J. George, “Hotel Astor”, The New York Architect, V. 3, No. 12, Dec. 1909

The ad below clearly shows part of the patterned tile floor designed and produced by the American Encaustic Tiling Company for the Indian Grill Room in 1904.

American Institute of Architects, Philadelphia Chapter, The T-Square Club Year Book and Catalogue, Fifteenth Annual Architectural Exhibition, 1909, unpaginated ad. It is not known how long this tiled floor with its Native American "luck" design existed, but it did not survive the advent of World War II.
There are a number of famous, tiled grill rooms in hotels in this and other cities that deserve mention. We have already discussed the Atlantic Terra Cotta panels designed by Fred Marsh for the Marine Grill Room (demolished in 1991) in the Hotel McAlpin. The Norse Room in the Fort Pitt Hotel in Pittsburgh (demolished in 1967) was paneled with Rookwood tile murals that illustrated a poem by Longfellow, "Skeleton in Armor".
(From: http://tileresearcharticles.omeka.net/items/show/8)
In 1914 the Dutch Grill Room opened in the New Morrison Hotel in Chicago. As you walked into the dining room, you were greeted by "...a large mural decoration of a scene near Antwerp, in blue and white tile, depicting a family of Hollanders in the fields on the shores of the ocean with a sail-boat, clouds, windmill and farmhouses in the distance. ...The grill room...wall design is completed with small panels of blue and white satin finished faience tile which depict cubist scenes in the peaceable land of windmills... . The same color scheme is to be found in the mat finish flint tiling six inches by six inches which is used in the construction of the entire floor. ...The bases of the English oak pillars are...molded Ohio flint tile...and are entirely in white." ("American Tilemakers Excel Foreign Producers", Brick and Clay Record, Vol. XLVI, No. 6, March 16, 1915, pp. 561-562) The "Ohio Flint" tiles were made by the American Encaustic Tiling Company of Zanesville, Ohio, and the Dutch-style tiles were probably made by the Rookwood Potteries in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Picture post card of the Dutch Grill Room. The murals are on the walls.
One grill room that still exists with its Rookwood tiling is the Rathskeller in the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. "The Seelbach...is equal parts historical landmark and architectural masterpiece. It began as the dream of two Bavarian brothers — Otto and Louis Seelbach — in 1869 when Louis came to Louisville to learn the hotel business. In 1903, after several years of running restaurants and gentleman's clubs, the brothers began construction of a new hotel at the corner of 4th and Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali), creating a lavish, turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts Baroque hotel. Sparing no expense, they imported marbles from all over the world, bronzes from France, hardwoods from the West Indies and Europe, linens from Ireland, and valuable Turkish and Persian Rugs.

Billed as "the only fireproof hotel in the city," the new Seelbach opened in May of 1905 by offering a 5-hour public inspection and drawing an incredible 25,000 visitors. The hotel was so popular, the Seelbach brothers began a 154-room addition in the fall of that same year.

In 1907, the expansion was completed and included the famous Bavarian-style Rathskeller, decorated with rare Rookwood Pottery. Today the Rathskeller remains the only surviving ensemble of its kind."

Part of the Rookwood tiling and faience ornamentation in the Seelbach's Rathskeller
One New York City grill room that is still partially intact-- and that part was declared a New York City landmark in 1992--is the former Della Robbia Bar, aka the "Crypt", and then the Fiori Restaurant in the former Vanderbilt Hotel at 4 Park Avenue. It was built from 1910-1913 and designed by Warren and Wetmore, architects. "...the (former) Della Robbia Bar...is a rare survivor of the...[original] hotel['s] interior. It exhibits architecturally significant Guastavino vaults featuring colorful, glazed tiles and terra cotta manufactured by the...Rookwood Pottery Company. The surviving space comprises the entire original bar (now the front dining room) and two adjacent gallery bays (now the rear dining room) of the similarly decorated Della Robbia Grill Room, otherwise destroyed. Seemingly Rookwood's largest interior commission, the Della Robbia Grill and Bar were typical of the spacious public interiors incorporated into hotels built during the decade before World War I... .
"The most striking features of the design of the Della Robbia Restaurant were its ceramic-tile finish and its thin-shell Guastavino vaults... . ...The final design for the restaurant was composed of a variety of shapes and colors. Arches were faced in a blue background, against which ivory-colored bands of foliated patterns framed flowers of two types, one of which featured grotesque heads; borders of rectangular blue tiles were edged in spindle moldings. Vaults were edged with a field of blue and aqua tiles superimposed with an outer border of ivory rope molding and an inner band of yellow, green and red panels alternating with ivory rosettes. ...The dramatic spatial effect of multiple vaults, trimmed in delicate, colorful terra-cotta patterns, and the glistening surface of salt-glazed tiles decorated with a raised interlocking key pattern and laid in a herringbone fashion (typical of the Guastavino Company's work) were among the features that attracted customers to the Della Robbia Grill Room and Bar.
"In 1965 the hotel was closed... . [The structure was altered, and...t]he basement level and most of the gallery of the Della Robbia Grill Room were stripped of their original character. However, the Della Robbia Bar and the adjacent two bays of the Grill Room gallery were spared; they remain largely intact [and] are entered through an East 33rd Street doorway... ." (Former) Della Robbia Bar (aka The 'Crypt,' now Fiori Restaurant), in the (former) Vanderbilt Hotel, Ground Floor Interior...", New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 5, 1994; Designation List 258, LP-1904)

Some of the tilework in the surviving, former Della Robbia Bar.
Photo courtesy of the Friends of Terra Cotta.
Today, the Fiori Restaurant is gone and the "Della Robbia" space at 4 Park Avenue is now occupied by the upscale Wolfgang's Steakhouse, which has a photo gallery that features the surviving Guastavino and Rookwood tilework.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the tile work in these buildings. They had so much character. Now everything is so modernized. Sometimes I wish that they would still build buildings like this. Thanks for the great post!