One of Dickens’s villains boasts that he’s never moved by a pretty face, for he can see the grinning skull beneath. That’s realism, he says. But it’s a strange kind of realism that can look through life in all its vibrancy to focus only on death.
Much of today’s architecture brings that misanthrope to mind. Beauty? For our advanced culture, it’s as spectral as classical philosophy’s two other highest values: the good and the true. A building might be cutting-edge, boundary-breaking, transgressive. But simply beautiful? The arts have transcended such illusions.
A pity. Part of the pleasure of metropolitan life is the pre–World War II city’s manifold loveliness. When you see the illuminated Chrysler Building glowing through the evening fog, or walk by the magnolias blooming in front of Henry Frick’s museum, ravishing outside and in, or gaze up at the endlessly varied historicism of lower Broadway’s pioneering skyscrapers, you know you are Someplace—someplace where human inventiveness and aspiration have left lasting monuments proclaiming that our life is more than mere biology and has a meaning beyond the brute fact of mortality. Like all our manners and ceremonies, from table etiquette to weddings, beauty in architecture humanizes the facts of life. So we don’t want a machine for living—a high-tech lair to service our animal needs—but rather a cathedral, a capitol, a home, expressive of the grandeur, refinement, urbanity, and coziness of which our life is capable.
Two recent Manhattan buildings gracefully exemplify the life-affirming architectural humanism I have in mind. First is a gemlike house at 5 East 95th Street, just east of Central Park, by celebrated London architect John Simpson, designer of the enchanting Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Completed late in 2005, it looks like an independent townhouse but is, in fact, an extension of the landmarked Beaux-Arts mansion at 3 East 95th Street that Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer designed in 1913 for Marion Carhart, a banker’s widow, who died before she could move in. In 1935, the Lycée Français bought the house, and years of high-energy students left the structure battered by the time the school sold it to a Hong Kong–based developer in 2001. Layers of battleship-gray paint covered the first floor of its grimy limestone street wall; the interior, with its institutional bathrooms and fire doors, had grown shabby; and a jerry-built, three-story 1950s annex, resembling an auto-body shop, adjoined it at 5 East 95th.
The developer’s idea was to tear down the annex and extend the Carhart Mansion eastward, to create four princely condos suitable for the quietly posh Carnegie Hill neighborhood and the giddy, new-century real-estate boom. An establishment architectural firm drew up plans for a modernist extension, which the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved. But a tough-minded broker recruited to presell the condos dismissed the plan as economically unviable, reasonably observing that no gilt-edged buyer would pay millions to live in an apartment that started out a Beaux-Arts Dr. Jekyll at one end and turned into a glass-loft Mr. Hyde at the other. So it was back to the drawing board—after a call to City Journal contributor Simpson (see “Reimagining the Far West Side,” Autumn 2004).
For starters, what Simpson and his New York coadjutor, Zivkovic Connolly Architects, had to do was bring the Carhart house’s original magnificence back to life, cleaning, repointing, and repairing. Magnificence, of course, was Horace Trumbauer’s stock-in-trade: as architect to many Gilded Age plutocrats, he had built The Elms, one of the grandest Newport summer “cottages,” for a Philadelphia coal tycoon, and in Manhattan, he designed a dozen or so urban palaces, of which a few still survive—including the 40-room 9 East 71st Street, built for one of the Macy’s-owning Strauses, and the Fifth Avenue marble palace of tobacco magnate James B. Duke at 78th Street. A virtuoso of the French classicism that American architects had imported from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris around 1890, the self-taught Trumbauer created for Mrs. Carhart a suave limestone facade enlivened with dramatic banded rustication—the tops and bottoms of the stones are beveled to create deep horizontal stripes—on the ground floor. He recessed the carved stone frames of the windows—arched on the second floor to echo the arched doorway and two flanking windows of the first floor—so that the remaining stone of the facade appears to project slightly forward, suggesting four pilasters that tease your eye as you try to follow them upward toward capitals that you find only as a sedately witty coda above the deep stone cornice that crowns the composition. A shallow wrought-iron balcony resting on four consoles that are a signature motif of the Beaux-Arts style runs across the second floor and finds an echo in wrought-iron grilles across the bottoms of the third-floor windows.
Understanding that he wasn’t designing in a vacuum, Simpson planned an adjoining facade for his new building that constantly plays off against Trumbauer’s, creating a whole that, in the comparisons it constantly invites your mind’s eye to make, is greater than the sum of its parts. If Trumbauer, with his pilasters, goes vertical, Simpson, with his emphatic moldings between each floor, opts for horizontality, making his building look as wide as its partner when it is, in fact, 25 percent narrower. Trumbauer’s verticality looks all the more lofty because his pilasters rise above the tight horizontal bands of his ground floor’s rustication; Simpson, by making his rusticated bands twice as wide as the original, makes his ground floor appear to spring upward by comparison, a dynamic contrast to the strong horizontality above. Where Trumbauer’s facade seems to recede with a feminine discretion between its pilasters, Simpson’s is all broad-chested masculine assertiveness: even the carved stone panels he sets between the second and third floors, answering Trumbauer’s demurely set-in ones and inventively varying his cornucopia design in bolder relief, intrepidly protrude. But lest you think Simpson is stuck on the horizontal, he subtly echoes Trumbauer’s pilasters as frames for his three third-floor windows. On the rear of his building, he pulls out all the stops and plays a bravura variation on Trumbauer’s theme, with wrought-iron balconies, pilasters, inset windows, and arches, rising above one another in a yellow-brick fanfare.
Simpson had an advantage that Trumbauer lacked: the east wall of the new building doesn’t abut another structure but fortuitously overlooks the little front garden of the redbrick Italian Renaissance townhouse that Grosvenor Atterbury designed for Ernesto Fabbri and his Vanderbilt-heiress wife in 1916. The Fabbris had made a deal with friends who planned to build a house at 5 East 95th Street: each couple’s house would have a set-back section, so that the two together would form an airy, vest-pocket forecourt that would allow light to flood into the interior rooms. But Number 5 never got built as planned, giving Simpson a chance to adorn the demi-piazza with another classical limestone facade, this one blossoming as it reaches the top into a breathtaking classical pediment that makes triumphantly explicit all the Greek-revival allusions of his main front. And above that rises the profile of another columned temple behind it—an acropolis in the sky on East 95th Street!
But here we come to a conundrum. Whereas the developer’s original plans for a lackluster modernist extension to Mrs. Carhart’s house sailed through the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Simpson’s design met stiff resistance. It’s an architectural shibboleth that an extension of a historic structure must be sufficiently differentiated from it that no one can mistake the new work for old—which, for sensible preservationists, might mean merely not staining new wood to look aged. But some now-forgotten secretary of the interior set architectural standards for extensions of historic federal buildings—on which states and localities have modeled their own historic-preservation rules, and on which historic-preservation tax credits depend—that all but require modernist additions, not so much in the bland language of the standards as in the pictures that illustrate the dos and don’ts. (Memo to reformers seeking to clear away harmful government regulation: the purpose—and the poison—often hides in the details and attachments.) The great apostasy to this dogma, in the eyes of its acolytes, is Kevin Roche’s 1993 extension of the Felix Warburg mansion, housing New York’s Jewish Museum. Using stonemasons whom the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine had trained, as a way of giving a livelihood to impoverished minority kids who lived in the cathedral’s then-seedy neighborhood, Roche masterfully extended the museum’s Fifth Avenue facade in the same stone and French-Renaissance style as C. P. H. Gilbert’s 1908 original. To me, his work is a moving, reverent homage to the past and a miraculous triumph of skill and craftsmanship that I had feared our own age had lost—and that we should celebrate, not execrate. What’s more, Roche’s extension replaced a 1963 glass-and-steel annex that, despite its small size, was, in my view, Gotham’s most hideous monument of preening modernist vulgarity—but that would comply perfectly with the secretary of the interior’s standards.
For all its hesitation, the Landmarks Preservation Commission conceded that Simpson’s austere Greek classicism contrasted sufficiently with Trumbauer’s lush Beaux-Arts classicism, and the result is triumphant proof of their decision’s wisdom. If you have any doubts about it, only compare the urbanity with which the extended Carhart Mansion enhances and harmonizes its block of Carnegie Hill with the jarringly dreary effect on West 44th Street of the Harvard Club’s clichéd 2003 glass annex, linking the soberly decorous neo-Georgian main building that McKim, Mead, and White built in stages between 1894 and 1915 to Warren and Wetmore’s gorgeously phantasmagorical fin-de-siècle Yacht Club to the west.
To get to Yes, the commission had to overcome yet one more shibboleth that David Watkin, Cambridge University’s emeritus professor of architectural history, has exploded in these pages more than once: that building new structures in historical styles is inauthentic because it produces buildings that don’t express today’s zeitgeist. How do buildings designed in the modernism of the 1920s or thirties or even fifties express the spirit of the twenty-first century? Watkin asked. And has not the architectural vocabulary that developed from the Greeks and Romans to the Europeans of the Middle Ages and Renaissance allowed every age to express its vision of the good life with its own distinctive accent and emphasis? (See especially “Why a Classical Lincoln Center Is Visionary,” Summer 2001.) No one would mistake a Michelangelo or an Inigo Jones building for one of John Soane or Edwin Lutyens: each is classical in the spirit of its own age—as is John Simpson’s. And each is beautiful.
Tom Wolfe coined the wonderful word “plutography” to describe the voyeuristic peek at the airbrushed lives of the very rich that glossy architecture magazines procure for their readers; and if such indulgence offends you, feel free to skip this paragraph and the next. But oh, what grand apartments Simpson and Zivkovic created for the Carhart Mansion’s new cohort of mega-millionaires—while making ingenious use of space by horizontally slicing some of the loftier rooms into two. Opening off Trumbauer’s sumptuous marble entrance hall is a 15-room triplex, whose paneled, 45-foot-long drawing room, with five windows opening onto a rear terrace, is the bottom half of the original house’s 21-foot-high ballroom, while what was to be Mrs. Carhart’s bedroom, with a marble fireplace and a 16-foot-high ceiling swirling with painted mythological figures, the blueprint designates a “den.” The old basement contains a family room and kitchen opening onto a 1,000-square-foot garden.
Simpson and Zivkovic turned the second story into a 17-room duplex, with full-height rooms, including a salon 45 feet long and 18 feet tall, behind Trumbauer’s facade, while behind the new facade, two levels of rooms rise a more down-to-earth 9 1/2 feet—still higher than most Manhattan apartments. The 12-foot-high third story is a 12-room, full-floor apartment, while Simpson transformed Trumbauer’s old mansard-roofed attic—probably just servants’ rooms—into a fantastic ten-room penthouse, whose showstopping centerpiece is a brand-new 40-by-22-foot salon crowning the new extension, with light-streaming windows on three sides, those at the front and back opening onto airy terraces, one of them backed by a pedimented temple that makes you feel that you have ascended to Parnassus in Manhattan. But even that’s not all, for you climb a stairway with a hand-carved mahogany banister to Trumbauer’s rooftop solarium, surrounded by three more terraces totaling some 3,000 square feet and giving views of Central Park, with one final garden on its roof—more than a tenth of an acre of gardens in the sky, Elysium indeed.
Tucked away in its quiet Manhattan corner, the Carhart Mansion delights mostly its neighbors and architecture buffs who seek it out. But no one can miss the second new building worth considering—the Ralph Lauren store on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, one of Gotham’s most prominent crossroads. Marketing wizard Lauren has put his stamp upon that metropolitan hub for decades to come by constructing a coolly elegant French château as a women’s clothing store to balance the men’s store he opened on the other side of Madison Avenue in 1986 in the neo-Renaissance 1898 Rhinelander Mansion. Like its brawnier, beautifully restored older brother across the street, the luscious new limestone confection, which opened late in 2010, rises only four stories, considerably fewer than zoning would allow. So Lauren has given the city an urban-planning as well as an architectural gift, creating an airy, low-rise oasis on the Upper East Side, where two evocations of French classicism, sixteenth-century and eighteenth-, engage the eye and the imagination.
In the New York tradition of looking a gift horse in the mouth, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, with jurisdiction over the Upper East Side Historic District of which this site forms the heart, hesitated, out of piety to the historic-preservation dogma that makes desecration preferable to deference. Perhaps the near-universal acclaim that met the Carhart project—including a prize to Simpson from Carnegie Hill’s residents—swayed the commission’s ultimate approval. Perhaps, too, it saw that there was nothing inauthentic about the Carhart extension, with its sumptuous, load-bearing limestone facades, thick walls, and finely crafted ornament. Perhaps that made the commission all the readier to consent to Lauren’s hôtel particulier—a nobleman’s townhouse—with its thick walls (though the Indiana limestone is a screen hung on cement blocks), its elegant, lacy metalwork balconies crafted in the Czech Republic, its Turkish limestone floors and Italian marble stairs, and its skillfully carved solid limestone embellishments.
Designer Michael Gilmore of the Scottsdale-based Weddle Gilmore architectural firm told a shelter-magazine reporter that he designed the Madison Avenue château with some of its Upper East Side neighbors as inspirations—above all, the Frick Museum and the James B. Duke house, by none other than Horace Trumbauer, one more link with the Carhart project. Certainly, you can see the Duke house’s influence on Gilmore’s contrast of chaste expanses of sumptuous limestone with areas adorned with refined, restrained ornament. Most notably, Gilmore uses rusticated quoins—carved, beveled blocks that form the corners of a building—in the same way Trumbauer does, stacking them evenly on top of one another, rather than alternating long and short corner blocks in the more usual fashion.
Which raises one further question of architectural authenticity: Trumbauer closely based the Duke house, now the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, on the exquisite 1770s Château Labottière in Bordeaux (just as he based The Elms in Newport on the 1750s Château d’Asnières just north of Paris). But he blew up his models to American size—and, in the Duke house, stretched out his eighteenth-century pattern horizontally, producing something very different in its exaggerated monumentality, in the way that Michelangelo’s David belongs to another world from its classical models in its astonishing 17-foot height. The Duke mansion is no more a fake than the David is: Trumbauer’s homage was also a transformation.
Gilmore’s French classicism, though, is more inventive than Trumbauer’s. The Arizonan got a hands-on course in that style when he remodeled an 1890 Beaux-Arts townhouse for Lauren’s Paris store on ultra-chic Avenue Montaigne; but the Madison Avenue hôtel particulier bespeaks a sophisticated understanding not just of Beaux-Arts architecture but also of the earlier French models from which the Beaux-Arts style springs. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, France developed a refined classicism that doesn’t rely heavily on the Greek and Roman orders, letting rusticated ornament—beveled stones—do the work of articulating the structure, just as the Duke house’s quoins suggest the columns that hold up the corners of the building. Some of the most daring French eighteenth-century buildings—for example, the Parisian Hôtel Biron of around 1730 (now the Rodin Museum) or the 1725 Hôtel Matignon, home of France’s prime ministers—do entirely without Ionic columns or Corinthian capitals or Doric triglyphs. With his assured use of the vocabulary of French classicism and his Beaux-Arts quotations, Gilmore has produced a highly original structure in an eighteenth-century French style so avant-garde that it never existed until now—one more proof of classicism’s endless capacity for reinvention and renewal.
The Madison Avenue château’s elegant ground-floor facade is relatively conventional, with three recessed arches—for an entrance and two flanking shop windows—piercing its banded rustication, and two larger show windows at either end, with concave curves at the top corners, like the moldings on French classical paneling. Above the three arches, a stone balcony rests on consoles. Things get more adventurous in the next three stories, where the building splits into three parts, suggesting two wings, each two windows wide, flanking a set-back central block three windows wide. The viewer’s eye sees the banded rustication on the second and third stories of the central block as pilasters supporting the fine stone cornice that separates the third floor from the fourth. Rusticated quoins, as at the Duke house, appear to support both corners of each wing, but—unusually—they are rounded, perhaps inspired by the Saint Regis Hotel or Trumbauer’s stable and coach house at The Elms. The relatively unadorned fourth story gives all the more emphasis to the stone balustrade crowning the whole top of the building. Delicate hoods on dainty consoles, like those at McKim, Mead, and White’s 1893 Metropolitan Club, adorn the second- and third-story windows of the wings, and the whole structure radiates romantic loveliness. If I had any criticism to make, it would be that the rounded quoins of the wings don’t seem to rest on any structural element on the ground floor, making the transition between the first and second floor seem slightly arbitrary and unsupported.
Inside, the great triumph of designer Gilmore and his New York executive architect, Thomas Hut of HS2 Architecture, is the ceremonial staircase, contained in the townhouse just to the west of the new building and incorporated into it. With the giant, sparkling beveled mirrors at every landing reflecting its flamboyantly filigreed, sensuously curved metalwork railing, it seems made for the grand entrance of a duchess or a movie star. The high-ceilinged rooms—adorned with big crystal chandeliers, finely cast plaster moldings with every elegant detail as yet unclogged by years of repainting, and a profusion of beveled mirrors artfully incorporated into the paneling and infinitely reflecting one another—flow into one another as in a French building, and gas fires blaze invitingly in the richly carved marble fireplaces. In a Pavlovian response, one salivates for gilded moldings, brocade curtains, Aubusson rugs, Sèvres vases, and subtly colored walls, but Lauren’s decorators have opted for white as far as the eye can see, along with modern furniture—and who can argue with success?
Marianne Moore wanted her poems to be “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”; on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, Lauren and his architects have created a real palace with imaginary aristocrats in it. The marketing whiz made his success by grasping firsthand something at the heart of American culture. In a democratic society with equality of opportunity, how does anyone gain distinctiveness, let alone distinction? Even given America’s plutocratic strain, how does yet one more rich person stand out from the moneyed herd? When “old money” means the Wall Street boom-before-last, and “aristocracy” means descendants of the robber barons, Lauren saw a widespread craving among prosperous Americans for rootedness in a less egalitarian American past, when, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote (fatuously, in Ernest Hemingway’s view), the very rich were different from you and me. Fitzgerald’s great creation, Jay Gatsby—who was born James Gatz in a boondock, just as Lauren was born Lifshitz in the Bronx—yearned to make a fortune and, when he succeeded, yearned even more to win admiration for the refinement of spirit he believed he displayed in his waterfront Long Island mansion, his London-tailored shirts, his openhanded hospitality. Lauren, who in high school reportedly yearned to be a millionaire, became a billionaire by providing a version of the clothes Gatsby wished for (as well as the costumes for the 1974 Great Gatsby movie), along with advertising that evokes the Gatsby fantasy of polo ponies, tennis in white flannel trousers, attentive servants with silver trays, one-of-a-kind cars, furniture inherited rather than bought, a carefree life of privilege on manicured lawns—and now (why not?) a château.
Out of impulses like these great monuments can spring—not just the plutocratic Newport “cottages” but also the Grand Canal palaces of Venetian nobles trying to outdo one another or the great country houses of English lords trying to show who’s the lordliest of them all, since even in hierarchical societies, some of the eminent will crave preeminence. For myself, I like Lauren’s democratization of grandeur: just as with Mr. Frick’s museum that served as a model for Lauren’s new building, anyone can walk in and feel enlarged by what human imagination has created. And I like that in our free-market society, such a vision sells. It’s another straw in the cultural wind that, according to the New York Times, the apartments in two condominium buildings under construction on East 79th Street, incorporating traditional classical elements and limestone facing, are selling briskly, while apartments in two recently completed modernist glass buildings nearby on Park Avenue sold for discounts of up to 30 percent.
Maybe beauty is illusory only for the misanthropes.