Architectural Evolution: Bryant Park Hotel through the Years
February 14, 2016
The Bryant Park Hotel, which stands in close proximity to Atlas New York, is one of New York’s premier designer hotels. But it’s not only the property’s ideal location on West 40th Street that Manhattan hoteliers and luxury apartment rental companies have long coveted—it’s also the building’s status as an iconic Art Deco skyscraper that prefigured both the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. The rich architectural history of this classic black and gold tower lends it a timeless sophistication and character few Manhattan hotels can match. We’ll explore important moments in the history of 40 West 40th Street, from its beginnings as a headquarters of American industry to its present incarnation as a boutique hotel on scenic Bryant Park.
American architect Raymond Hood was classically trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but abandoned his historicist training during the 1920s in favor of the emergent Art Deco style. This forward-looking architectural idiom became popular during the early 20th century, when Art Deco’s bold geometries and eclectic decorative motifs came to signal the optimism of the modern city at the height of the Machine Age. In 1924, alongside partner John Howells, Hood designed an Art Deco headquarters building for the American Radiator Company on West 40th across from Bryant Park. Inspired by an unbuilt competition entry for Chicago’s Tribune Tower by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Hood amplified the impact of Saarinen’s design with a striking use of materials. Hood clad his tower in black brick with gold accents to symbolize coal and fire, the sources of a radiator’s steam heat. These contrasting finishes served also to solidify the mass of the 23-story tower and mitigate the interruption of the windows on the facade. The building’s graduated form gets narrower as it rises in height, an aesthetic function of the city’s 1916 zoning law that required stepped setbacks for tall buildings to permit light and air to filter down to street level. Described by The New York Times as a “daring departure from the conventional in office building construction,” the American Radiator Building was the first New York high-rise with dramatic exterior lighting. It even inspired Georgia O’Keeffe to paint her important 1927 work, “Radiator Building – Night, New York.” At a time when many buildings were still being designed in the classical Beaux-Arts tradition, Hood’s innovative combination of Art Deco’s sleek modernism with Gothic detailing proved startlingly original. The Art Deco style would soon become the style of choice for architects of Manhattan’s early skyscrapers, and remains intrinsically connected to the city’s iconic skyline today.
The American Radiator Company merged with the Standard Sanitary Corporation in 1929. At that time, the tower’s lower level, originally designed as showroom space, displayed all manner of heating products designed by its original corporate namesake. After the merger, this showroom was renovated to showcase the plumbing-related wares of its new occupant. Today, the vaulted tile ceilings of the former showroom space provide a moody ambience to the Bryant Park Hotel’s chic Cellar Bar.
Thirty-eight years after the merger between the American Radiator Company and the Standard Sanitary Corporation, the American Radiator Building was renamed the American Standard Building.
Recognized for its distinctive beauty and significant role in New York architectural history, the American Standard Building was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. This designation protects the building from short-sighted renovations and preserves its original details and design.
In 1988, Japanese company Clio Biz acquired the landmark skyscraper from American Standard with the hope of converting the building into a hotel. Unfortunately, the plan was never realized, and the grandiose building remained empty, and tantalizingly full of potential, for the next ten years.
In 1988, investor and entrepreneur Philip Pilevsky bought the building for $15 million, a relative steal for a historic property in such a desirable location. As Chairman & CEO at Philips International, Pilevsky saw promise in the tower’s parkside frontage and Art Deco character, and proceeded to convert the property into a hotel. British designer and architect David Chipperfield was appointed designer for the project; aptly enough, Chipperfield himself had once designed fixtures for American Standard.
The spectacular renovation of a 76-year-old office building to the 130-room Bryant Park Hotel found David Chipperfield balancing his modern approach with a sensitivity toward the structure’s history and landmark status. To achieve the “classic, modern, yet comfortable” result he sought, Chipperfield restored all of Hood’s groundbreaking exterior features, including the black brick with gold ornament and the dramatic lighting, while outfitting the interior with the contemporary luxuries and comforts that discerning travelers demand. The building’s designation as a landmark prohibited the designer’s proposed changes for larger guestroom windows, though he was able to replace the black marble and mirrors that once created an imposing effect in the building’s lobby with a more inviting burgundy leather finish on the walls. Thanks to Chipperfield’s tempered renovation, today’s Bryant Park Hotel remains as sleek and sophisticated as Hood’s 1924 design and yet is also imbued with a contemporary feel that brings new warmth and vitality to this classic building. In the same way the American Radiator Building broke from the norm with its bold new style when it was unveiled, the Bryant Park Hotel stands out from the many ultra-modern glass high-rise office buildings and luxury residential towers found throughout New York with its harmonious and truly unique blend of the past and present.
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