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Gilsey House, 1200 Broadway

Between West 29th Street & West 30th Street

Carter Horsley
Reviewed by Carter Horsley
Carter Horsley Carter B. Horsley, a former journalist for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Post. Mr. Horsley is also the editorial director of CityRealty.com.
 

The Gilsey House at 1200 Broadway is one of the city's most imposing Second Empire cast-iron buildings and was declared an official city landmark September 11, 1979.

It was designed by Stephen Decatur Hatch for Peter Gilsey and was erected between 1869 and 1871.

After the Civil War, several fashionable hotels opened near Madison Square along Fifth Avenue and Broadway whereas before the war "most hotels, restaurants, theaters and stores of any distinction were still below Houston Street," according to the landmark designation report.

At about the same time, the city's leading department stores moved uptown to Ladies' Mile between Sixth Avenue and Broadway from 14th to 23rd Streets and there were six theaters on Broadway between 28th and 31st Streets and so many music publishers opened offices on West 28th Street that the "cacophony of their pianos - likened to the clashing of tin pans - gave the sobriquet 'Tin Pan Alley' to the street," the report noted.

West of Sixth Avenue, however, the side street became notorious for housing the city's posh brothels and swank gambling clubs and the report said that 27th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue "once contained 27 of the district's 'seraglios.'" The neighborhood soon gained the knickname "Tenderloin."

The Gilsey Hotel was a distinguished property for about three decades until the theater district moved north to Times Square at the turn of the century and its neighborhood became part of the garment center and the hotel was converted to loft space.

Hatch, the architect, worked for several years for John B. Snook, one of the city's top architects. Prior to the Civil War, the current style was the Italianate, a style based on the architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Sir Charles Barry had introduced the style in London with his Travelers cub (1830-2) and the Reform Club (1838-40) and in 1845 Snook designed the A. T. Stewart department store on the east side of Broadway between Chambers and Reade Streets, the first building in the United States based stylistically in the Italianate motif. "With the Stewart Building, Snook introduced the palace mode or palazzo style for commercial structures to this country and 'created architectural repercussions up and down the Atlantic seaboard,'" according to the designation report.

The "New Louvre" project designed by Visconti and Lefuel between 1852 and 1857 became the best known example of the architectural style in Paris of Louis Napolean who embarked on a campaign to redesign Paris. The style was known as the Second Empire style and the New Louvre with its ornate pavilions and striking mansard roofs became the symbol of cosmopolitan modernity in Paris and would begin to appear in New York in 1867.

According to the designation report, "the prominent characteristics of the Second Empire are pavilions which add plasticity and verticality to the façade, and mansards which elaborate on the pavilions and create bold silhouettes." "In New York," it continued, "because extensive lot coverage and building to street-property line were traditional in commercial architecture, fully developed pavilions were usually found only on institutional buildings surrounded by open land or on free-standing mansions. Often, the style as expressed in a business structure was the standard palazzo topped with a mansard, with little or no vertical articulation on the façade to indicate pavilions. It was left to the silhouette of the mansard with its towered sections to create that image. The Gilsey House, as originally designed, is not a mÂlange of palazzo below and palais above. It is an example of mature American Second Empire."

The report, which was prepared buy James T. Dillon, noted that the Gilsey assemblage consisted of the corner lot and three mid-block lots that were governed by a 1848 restrictive covenant that mandated an eight-foot setback which Gilsey honored. "However, the restriction presented the architect with a sudden corner almost at the center of a very long façade. He dealt with the problem by slicing he corner it he center of the west 29th street front and at Broadway at an angled, creating two single-bay chafers which he designed to recall pavilions. At the ground floor of each was an entrance to hotel facilities. He further enhanced both chambers by the use of Palladian inspired windows it he bays above the ground floor and flanked the ground floor entrance and upper story windows by paired, free-standing columns with stylized Ionic capitals. Behind the columns were paired pilasters which visually tied the columns to the façade. Hatch's design seems to be consciously imitating that of Visconti and Lefuel who had used paired columns with echoing pilasters on the pavilions of the New Louvre. The impression of pavilions created by the free-standing columns was heighted by the graceful, three-story high curved of the convex mansard towers. Each roof tower was pieced at its base by round-arched windows enframed with paired pilaster supporting a heavy broken segmental arch pediment. To the side of the pilasters were handsomely turned volutes. From the break of the pediment rose another small window with triangular pediment. On the prominent Broadway chamfer, the small window carried a clock held on the shoulders of two fanciful figures while at the central chamfer on West 29th Street was a bull s-eye with radiating keystones."

"The verticality," the report continued, "created by the free-standing paired columns and continued above the roofline at the chamfered bays by the towers, was carried up at the entrance bays by decorated chimney flues, elements usually hidden within the roof. In order to break the long horizontal space o the West 29th street front between the chamfered bays, Hatch treated the central windows at each floor separately and enframed within with paired engaged columns, imitating in an understated, shallow way, the pavilion effect at the chamfered bays and the entrance bays."

The building's floor levels were clearly defined by cornices and separate window treatments for each story and the report noted that "the technique of differing window treatment at each floor is typically Second Empire and added a subtle horizontal element, further emphasized by the cornice above each floor."

When the building stopped being used as a hotel in 1911 the façade was probably altered to its present appearance with the removal of some of its ornamental detail and changes in its openings. The modernization of its storefronts dates from 1946.

In a December 29, 1991 "Streetscapes" Column in The New York Times, Christopher Gray noted that Gilsey lived in a rowhouse at 33 West 28th Street and had the hotel built with 300 rooms, rising "five stories in varying iron designs to the mansard, which then slopes back three stories, interrupted by a panoply of dormers, oculi and cresting. At the corner, a clock rests on two mermaid figures; the façade was further agitated by regular sets of paired, projecting columns running up the main elevations. The rooms were decorated with rosewood and walnut, with richly veined marble fireplaces, tapestries and bronze-gilt chandeliers."

"In a hotel boom at the turn of the century," Mr. Gray wrote, "a $1.5 million annex was proposed adjacent to the Gilsey, but then in 1904 a lease fight between the Gilsey family and the hotel's operator closed the building with only a few hours' notice its guests. By 1911 it was in loft occupancy. The projecting columns, which extended beyond the property line, were removed and in 1925 plans were filed to rebuild most of the Gilsey as a plain vanilla brick and stone loft building. The plans were not carried out and the Gilsey survived in deepening decay. Photographs taken in 1977 show the façade with much of the original mansard, cresting and decorative elements. But it was so decayed, sagging and rusted that it looked like a ghostly skeleton, a lost cause. Several developers, including Douglas Durst, were interested in the building but it was Richard Berry and F. Anthony Zunino who successfully converted it to a residential co-op in 1980."

"They designed a modest repair of brown and pink paint and fiberglass replications of columns and other elements. It was not meant to be much more than cosmetic, but the preservation community was rightly overjoyed that somebody had done something," Mr. Gray observed, adding that in 1991 the façade was to be repainted and leaks addressed.

Many of the fiberglass columns at street-level, he wrote, were crushed or broken and a new round of repairs and patching will use aluminum, galvanized iron or even cast iron.

The 8-story building has 40 apartments, an elevator, basement storage, laundry facilities and an intercom.

When it opened in 1872, the Gilsey House "was an instant success" and "the bar, made of silver dollars, became a world-wide destination" and its customers including Diamond Jim Brady, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clemens, according to daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com.

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