Beaux-Arts Architecture in Midtown East
If you see a New York building with classical symmetry, arched windows and doors, prominent cornices, and a generous amount of statuary, chances are it is an example of Beaux-Arts architecture. These are buildings with both a sense of gravitas and a wow factor. Some of the city’s best examples can be found in Midtown East, as the walking tour below demonstrates.
New York Estonian House
243 East 34th Street (between Second and Third Avenues)
Norton Goddard founded the Civic Club in the late 1890s to promote his anti-corruption and anti-gambling efforts, and in 1898 he had a four-story townhouse constructed on East 34th Street to serve as its headquarters. Among its distinguishing features are an elaborate cartouche over a first-story window that gives the illusion of supporting the second-story balcony, above which still rests the inscription “Civic Club.” The now-oxidized copper roof adds a splash of color to the limestone facade. The Civic Club died when Goddard did, in 1905, but the building remained in the Goddard family until 1946, when the New York Estonian Educational Society bought it. Now known as Estonian House, it is home to a school, an Estonian-language newspaper, and various cultural groups.
James F.D. Lanier Residence
123 East 35th Street (between Park and Lexington Avenues)
As its name suggests, the Beaux-Arts movement began in France, and the five-story James F. D. Lanier Residence would look right at home in any of Paris’s smarter arrondissements. Indeed, Gilded Age banker James Lanier and his equally well landed wife, Harriet, asked architects Francis L.V. Hoppin and Terence A. Koen—both of whom had studied at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts—for a Louis XVI-style abode. With a rusticated limestone base supporting several more stories of red brick, two floors of which include contrasting limestone pillars on their facade, the building is certainly a standout, even without taking into account its copper mansard. The home was completed in 1903; four years after moving in, the Laniers leased it to another prominent couple, Theodore and Milla Shonts. During their tenure at the home, Mrs. Shonts was charged with smuggling gowns and other luxury goods from Europe in order to avoid paying duty on them. The Shonts moved out shortly after the scandal broke, the Laniers moved back in, and the house remained in their family until well into the latter half of the 20th century. Today it is believed to still be a single-family residence.
De Lamar House
233 Madison Avenue (at 37th Street)
Joseph Raphael De Lamar was a Dutch stowaway on a ship to the West Indies who later became a mine owner, a Wall Street tycoon, and a philanthropist. He was known among fellow financiers as “a man of mystery” because of his relative close-mouthedness. His Murray Hill mansion, however, did plenty of speaking for him, at least regarding his wealth. Some sources say that De Lamar chose this location and the home’s grand scale in order to overshadow J.P. Morgan, whose own, marginally less grand mansion was a block away; Morgan had turned down several of De Lamar’s offers to do business together. Architect C.P.H. Gilbert, whose other clients included Felix Warburg and F.W. Woolworth, designed the home, which was completed in 1905. Boasting balconies and balustrades, cornices and copper cresting, the five-story home was equally opulent inside, with numerous murals, a ballroom, a concert hall, a majestic oval staircase, and an art gallery with Tiffany stained glass. De Lamar lived here with his daughter until his death in 1918. His daughter sold the home to the American Bible Society, which in 1923 sold it to the Democratic National Club. Since 1973 it has served as the Consulate-General of Poland.
Grand Central Terminal
42nd Street and Park Avenue
Most of the grandeur of North America’s third busiest rail station is lost on the hundreds of thousands of commuters who pass through it each weekday. Construction began in 1903, but it was not until 10 years later that Grand Central Terminal opened, with more than 150,000 visitors on its first day. Among the station’s myriad highlights are the Main Concourse, whose 125-foot-high ceiling is painted with a depiction of the zodiac and from which hang 10 chandeliers, each of which weighs 800 pounds. The Corinthian columns of the south facade, facing 42nd Street, were designed in part to complement those of the main branch of the New York Public Library, a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets. Crowning this facade is “Glory of Commerce,” a 48-foot-high sculpture depicting Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules, who were meant to symbolize the speed, intelligence, and strength of railroads; amid this sculpture is a 14-foot clock that is the world’s largest work of Tiffany glass. Among the wealth of architectural details throughout the station are oak leaves and acorns, symbols of the Vanderbilt family, who financed the 48-acre structure.
230 Park Avenue (between 45th and 46th Streets)
Warren and Wetmore, the architecture firm that designed the exterior of Grand Central Terminal, also designed this 35-story building as the headquarters of New York Central Railroad, the Vanderbilt-owned company for which Grand Central was a major terminus. (The Warren in Warren and Wetmore was a Vanderbilt cousin.) In 1931, two years after it opened, the building was the site of a mob hit: Salvatore Maranzano, the head of the American Mafia, was murdered in his ninth-floor office by Bugsy Siegel and several others on the orders of “Lucky” Luciano. The building changed hands a few times, acquiring its current name when Helmsley-Spear, the property management firm of Harry and “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley, bought it in 1977. When Helmsley-Spear sold it in 1998, the contract stipulated that the name would not change. The building, which opened in 1929, straddles Park Avenue, with two arched portals that allow traffic to flow uptown and downtown.
As with Grand Central, a large clock surrounded by statues of mythological figures looms over the entrance. Titled “Transportation and Industry,” the statue features Mercury on one side, Ceres (goddess of agriculture) on the other, and plenty of Vanderbilt acorns.