Six unified mansions still gracing Madison Avenue

In 1882, when Henry Villard commissioned a complex of six Italian Renaissance-inspired mansions on Madison Avenue between 50th and 51st Street, the railroad magnate and newspaper publisher was one of the most prominent financiers in the nation.

By 1884, his financial empire was in tatters, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy.

So begins the unusual story of what became known as the Villard Houses—a collection of six harmonious brownstone mansions designed by the then-new firm of McKim, Mead & White.

Though intended for six separate households, the mansions were to appear as one building (above, 1882), and the ambitious but restrained design was based on the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome.

The architects built four mansions in a U-shape around a central courtyard fronting Madison Avenue, with the remaining two mansions facing 51st Street, explained Christopher Gray in The New York Times in 2003.

“The courtyard matched a grassy square at the back of St. Patrick’s [Cathedral], and the whole became a sort of urban piazza, with parts not open but at least visible to the public,” wrote Gray.

“Why would Villard build six houses as an enclave for like-minded people rather than just one home? The Real Estate Record and Guide observed in 1881 that his goal was probably to ”secure privacy and get rid of tramps, and to live in a quiet and secluded way.”’

And though Madison Avenue in the 1880s wasn’t exactly secluded, it was sparsely settled—not nearly as posh as neighboring Fifth Avenue, with its Vanderbilts and Astors.

Even though Villard was broke, he managed to spend a few months living in one of the mansions. His was a corner house with beautiful interiors and ornamental touches by John La Farge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Once he was forced to leave (and he was forced, as an angry mob of investors gathered outside his mansion’s front door), Villard’s business associates bought up the six mansions and moved their families in.

Through the turn of the century, these families largely remained in the beautiful yet outdated Villard Houses.

While apartment living became fashionable by the 1920s and the rich gave up their single family homes, the residents of the Villard Houses lived Gilded Age-style, a team of servants in tow.

“All six houses continued to be used as residences until after World War II, when the changing character of Madison Avenue led to their conversion into offices,” wrote Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel in The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

The Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Random House were among the new tenants, but by the late 1970s, the entire complex was threatened with demolition.

Then, Harry Helmsley bought the air rights and demolished two of the mansions to build the Helmsley Palace Hotel.

Today, the Lotte Palace Hotel occupies the site, and many of the rooms of the mansions have preserved details and artwork.

Skip the holiday festivities on Fifth Avenue and really celebrate the season by going back in time with a tour of the lobby and public rooms of this Gilded Age masterpiece.

(Photos by Ephemeral New York except third photo: MCNY, 90.44.1.127; fifth photo: MCNY, 2013.3.2.721)

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6 Responses to “Six unified mansions still gracing Madison Avenue”

  1. Tom B Says:

    Years ago during the Holidays, they covered the courtyard with a massive awning and filled the space with unattractive stuff. After walking inside it was gorgeous. The restaurant look very high class and quiet, a great place to escape from the bustle of mid-town.
    As a former GE employee, I always remember Henry V as one of the founders.
    Didn’t this hotel have a huge bed bug problem years ago?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I have never heard of the bed bug problem. but it seems like a lot of high-class hotels have to deal with these critters too. In any event, it’s a gorgeous place.

  2. Paul Payton Says:

    Thank you for adding another stop on our “holiday tour” of NYC. And to Tom B, as I recall, the bed bug problem was one of the reasons that the Helmsley was no longer The Helmsley.

  3. Greg Says:

    “The Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Random House were among the new tenants, but by the late 1970s, the entire complex was threatened with demolition.”

    According to Gray’s article you link, the whole complex was declared a landmark in 1968. Only the rear facades were lost to Helmsley’s building, although it is not clear there either why the LPC allowed that.

  4. bknbowswbellnet Says:

    Again, a post exposing the fascinating history of this city. Really enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

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