Enclosed on three sides by the nineteenth-century Italianate landmark Villard Houses, this formal European-style courtyard on the east side of Madison Avenue between East 50th and 51st Streets may be described as the oldest privately owned public space in the city. The City Planning Commission in 1976 approved a floor area bonus and additional regulatory concessions for a new hotel, to be built east of the courtyard, if the developer agreed to preserve the Villard Houses, open the courtyard to public use, allow pedestrian circulation through their hotel lobby, and conduct public tours of the landmark building interior. The general success of this courtyard in serving public and private interests demonstrates that historic buildings, as well as newly constructed ones, should be understood as candidates for providing exterior and interior public space. The atrium space in the approved permanent passageway at 712 Fifth Avenue is another example, even as it struggles with issues of public access and private use.
Entered from Madison Avenue through a high wrought-iron gate, the courtyard is a model of comfortable horizontal and vertical proportions. The height of surrounding façades, roughly three-and-a-half stories, matches with the courtyard floor space, and the stone back of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral across Madison Avenue adds to the effect. Completed in 1885 for railroad magnate Henry Villard, the chocolate-colored stone compound seamlessly integrates what were six townhouses to evoke the appearance of a Roman palazzo, specifically the Palazzo della Cancelleria, which designer Joseph Wells of McKim, Mead & White took as precedent. The modern hotel tower is sufficiently set back on the lot, behind the arched arcade, that its presence is virtually unnoticed from within the courtyard itself. The stone paving employs a pattern of swirling circles. Trees grow in four large planters decorated with medallions. Black-metal tables and chairs are set up throughout, but, in the sole act of privatization, those near the southern end are used by the adjacent world-famous restaurant. No record of City approval for such use has been found. Nor is there any explanation for the absence of a required fountain and reflecting pool.
Preservation of the Villard Houses under the watchful eyes of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and City Planning Commission was one of the city’s great landmark preservation triumphs. It also served as one of the earliest brushes with a partial “façadectomy,” a controversial historic preservation technique in which a landmark’s façade is preserved by tacking it onto the face of a new building while the rest of the structure and its historic use are lost. Here, substantially more than façade was preserved, and the owner is obligated to provide public tours of the significant interior rooms at least six times a year. North and south wings enclosing the courtyard are fully preserved. Known as the Urban Center, the north wing houses exhibition galleries and a bookstore on the first floor, as well as office space for the Municipal Art Society of New York, the Architectural League, and the Parks Council, on upper floors. The south wing is used by the restaurant. The public is also legally entitled to pass through the hotel lobby, from East 50th and 51st Street entrances, as well as from the courtyard, Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.