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The Dowager's Facelift

A venerable 185-room Manhattan hotel is transformed into a 26-unit apartment house.

Project: The Stanhope, New York, NY

Architects: John Simpson & Partners, London, Enlgand; John Simpson, RIBA, CVO, principal; Cetra/Ruddy, New York, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

Rosario Candela lined the avenues of Manhattan's Upper East Side with effortlessly elegant Classical buildings. A native of Palermo, Italy, Candela (1890-1953) put himself through Columbia University's architecture school in the 1910s and then founded a briefly prolific Manhattan practice. During its Jazz Age heyday, Candela put up dozens of apartment buildings – especially on Fifth and Park Avenues – that remain some of the city's most valuable residences.

His work has been praised for "wonderful assurance and solidity" (architecture critic Paul Goldberger) as well as "great exterior dignity and superb internal planning" (architectural historian David Netto, writing in a 2001 monograph from Acanthus Press about Candela and his main competitor, James Carpenter). Candela worked mainly in brick with rusticated stone bases, and he spiced his façades from sidewalk to bracketed cornices with quoins, pilasters, scrollwork, cartouches, coats of arms, swags, urns and balustrades.

The exteriors were, in a sense, tasteful excuses for famously well-proportioned interiors: not too baronial but always gracious enfilades. As Netto explains, Candela pioneered the concealment of structural framing and mechanicals inside thick masonry walls and deep window reveals. He thus maximized space and kept unsightly architectural necessities from "inelegantly intruding upon the interior," Netto writes.

In the mid-1920s, a developer named Morris H. Rothschild asked Candela to design a hotel on Fifth Avenue at 81st Street, facing the Metropolitan Museum of Art and next door to an elaborately rusticated, imposingly baronial stone apartment house by McKim, Mead & White. Candela didn't try to compete with the neighbors, but stuck to what he knew best: a limestone block base, a copper cornice and a buff-brick shaft generously dotted with Classical limestone ornament. Inside, he had little chance to execute his popular enfilades; the suites were mostly two rooms, with 8-ft.-tall ceilings. But he did incorporate generous pairs or trios of double-hung sash, and tucked radiators into the windows' deep reveals. The Stanhope, despite its relatively modest proportions, became a beloved dowager, its sidewalk café a posh spot to be seen and its suites sometimes rented monthly or yearly to Hollywood celebrities and European aristocrats.

So how fitting that an aristocratic British architect, John Simpson, was imported to convert The Stanhope into enfilades that Candela would have admired. The building's owner, Extell Development, has been calling Simpson "the Queen's architect" in press materials. Simpson is in fact best known for designing the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, but he has also wrought everything from New Urbanist towns to colleges, mansions (including one for the Queen of Jordan) and furniture. In 2005, he unveiled the first major Classical building that Manhattan had welcomed in decades, a Palladio Award-winning addition to a 1916 mansion by Horace Trumbauer on East 95th Street, less than a mile north of The Stanhope.

At the former hotel, Simpson (in collaboration with local firm Cetra/ Ruddy) has created 26 apartments out of 185 hotel rooms or suites. The half- or full-floor homes range from 4,100 to 8,400 sq.ft., not including each unit's wine-storage space in the basement, and have price tags from $12 million to $47.5 million. On top of those dizzying numbers, the owners will pay between $9,000 and $26,000 in monthly maintenance fees. The building will be so "full service" that concierges, sommeliers and masseuses will be on call, and from each apartment's central control panels, the owner will be able to schedule food deliveries or valet parking and adjust the HVAC, AV systems, lighting and window shades.

The Stanhope's interior, Simpson reports, was not easy to adapt into architecture suited to such demanding moguls. The hotel, he says, "had a grand name, but not grand spaces. Our challenge has been to give a feeling of generous proportions despite the ungenerous original ceilings. And there was little room for maneuvering."

Simpson ended up squeezing grids of molding-trimmed coffers into ceilings that now measure 9 ft. tall. He also brought in pilasters that reach the floor – "that emphasizes the sense of verticality," he explains. "And wherever we subdivided the ceilings and walls, we used golden-section proportions." Candela, fortunately, had already hidden the radiators inside the deep window reveals, which now contain four-pipe fan-coil units.

As demolition and reconstruction progressed, innumerable design adjustments had to be made on the fly. "All the steelwork on every floor turned out to be different," Simpson says.

"The hotel had changed the interior so often that there were no meaningful drawings for us to follow," John Cetra adds. "Candela's plans were only useful for helping us locate columns." The hotel bathroom layouts, Cetra says, were especially tricky to undo: "All the plumbing was contained in dropped slabs, one per bathroom, and the pipes didn't continue to the floors above and below." That infrastructure has been replaced with new slabs at grade and standard pipe risers spanning the height of the building.

The architects also had to deal with an exterior that hotel management had let slide over the years. "We patched the brickwork wherever through-the-wall air conditioners had been punched through, and then cleaned the new and old brickwork so it all matches," Cetra explains. "We also had to patch some cracked stone, and we replicated some carved panels at the ground floor that had been taken out when the café was set up. We also put in new aluminum windows [from Pella Corporation of Pella, IA] to replace the aging aluminum windows that the hotel had installed, we repaired the parapets and copper cornice, we put down new roof pavers and we turned the penthouse into a duplex – it has 7,000 sq.ft. inside, a 5,000-sq.ft. terrace and incredible views."

The apartments are slated for occupancy in early 2008. Owners and guests will enter via a lobby with ceiling coffers sculpted into anthemia-trimmed pendentives – Simpson based the design on an early-1800s breakfast room at London's Pitzhanger Manor by Sir John Soane. At each floor's elevator lobby, the main apartment doors are mahogany with petaled studs – "we wanted them to have a robust Greek feel, like real exterior doors, and like the ones we used at the Queen's Gallery," Simpson explains. The elevator lobby floors will have marble inlays patterned in floral starbursts, modeled after lacy, delicate designs in the entrance-hall flooring at Robert Adam's 1768 Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, England.

The Stanhope has become so transformed, in fact, that it has lost its name. Only its Fifth Avenue street number, 995, appears on the green-fabric entry awning, and the official sales website is www.995fifthave.com. When Extell first put the building on the market in 2005, sales were slow, so the company dropped the word Stanhope, worried that it evoked the cramped hotel accommodations. At the sidewalk, where the hotel ran its café, Extell is installing a private flower and hedge garden. But 995 Fifth nonetheless remains a gift to the street, thanks to passersby's potential glimpses of Simpson's erudite Soaneian lobby and Candela's newly rejuvenated limestone scrollwork, cartouches, balustrades and swags. 

 

 

 
 

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