Villard Houses
451-5 Madison Avenue, McKim Mead & White [1884], Today the Helmsely Palace, Emery Roth & Sons [1980]

These speculative brownstone residences were built by a railway promoter and financier. Their form recalls the mansions that used to line Fifth Avenue as well as the row of houses that once stood on the site. The five contiguous Renaissance Revival buildings are unified by a single facade that wraps around a U-shaped courtyard. They are an accurate rendition of a 15th century Italian palazzo, sharing its comfortable scale, rusticated base, and simple decoration. A hotel was added to the site when Harry Helmsley bought the property in the 1970s. Although the developer wanted to demolish the Villard Houses for his new building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission fought -- and won -- to save the original structures. As a result, the facade of the Villard Houses was incorporated into the new hotel and the wings of the building were given over to non-profit organizations including the Urban Center, the Landmarks Conservancy, and the Municipal Arts Society. The new structure pays little respect to the existing buildings, and it departs radically from the Villard Houses in terms of color, form, decoration and scale. This is a particularly blatant example of the battle between profit and preservation which has characterized New York architecture of the 20th century.

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