Gilt, New York

The Gilded Age: Mixing the classic and avant-garde at this New York restaurant.
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Posted July 2, 2007
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Inside midtown Manhattan’s Palace Hotel sits what was originally the spectacular Villard Mansion, built in 1882 by journalist-turned-speculator Henry Villard. After one of his financial reversals, Villard moved out and it had a variety of residents thereafter. It was the home office of Random House and then the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York before being incorporated as the entrance of Harry Helmsley’s New York Palace Hotel and, most recently, was the home of the restaurant Le Cirque 2000. It’s an ornate and eclectic place, rich in history, and now it’s where the surprising new Gilt restaurant is located.

According to Pete Holmberg, director of communications for the hotel, one of the priorities for the design of Gilt was to restore the craftsmanship and style of the original Villard Mansion. “The design was off-the-wall to begin with, as everything seemed radically different among the rooms. Then Le Cirque went even further with that, which, in the late 1990s, was appropriate. But for Gilt, we wanted something a little more subdued.”

Subdued, yet futuristic. Everything was cleared out to restore the space as closely as possible to its original state, but then French designer and architect Patrick Jouin added a modern touch, the centerpiece of which is the bar area. There you’ll find a fiberglass, honeycomb geodesic structure covered in stretched polyester and illuminated by an LED box so that the color shifts from purple to red during the evening. Before this sits the bar itself – large, oval-shaped and glowing.

“The contrast of the classic architecture with a futuristic, avant-garde design was an enormous challenge,” says Holmberg. “Yet every color choice and every design choice was meant to accentuate the architecture, to pay tribute to the room.” The result is a clear tribute to the Gilded Age: soaring cathedral ceilings, a marble foyer, carved moldings, sconces, wood paneling and glittering mosaic tile floors.

While there are parallels between the design of the restaurant and that of the hotel – elegance meets opulence – the restaurant is its own design entity, with the logo and signage created in concert with the interior. And while the challenge of reconnecting a landmark building with its roots while simultaneously giving it a modern edge may seem steep, at least there were no surprises in it.

“The goal was well-established from the start,” Holmberg says, “so it’s not as if Patrick started to design Gilt and then later found out it was moving into the Villard Mansion. From the onset, he was acutely aware of the limitations imposed by our fidelity to the building’s origins, and he let that guide him. He was inspired and challenged by it, actually, so he was able to do just about everything he wanted to do.”