Hotel History: Lucerne Hotel

One of the most beautiful hotels on New York's upper west side is the Lucerne Hotel which opened in 1904 on the corner of 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

The Lucerne was designed by architects Mulliken & Moeller with a reddish brown façade of wonderful richness. The detailing is heavy and thick making the building seem all the more like clay, but it is skillful enough so that it never feels overbearing. The entrance is one of the finest, thanks to the deeply modeled, banded entrance columns.

In his Streetscapes column, "Mulliken & Moeller, Architects; Upper West Side Design in Brick and Terra Cotta", New York Times, September 14, 2003, Christopher Gray wrote:

Lucerne Hotel

Harry Mulliken and Edgar Moeller were born in the early 1870's, Mulliken in Illinois and Moeller in New York, where his Prussian-born father was a fresco painter. Both graduated with the class of 1895 from Columbia University's School of Architecture, but they were at first not associated. One biographical entry says that Mulliken worked with the Chicago architect Daniel H Burnham and then the New York architect Ernest Flagg....

In 1902, when Moeller joined his former classmate, they were kept busy by a string of commissions from the Todds (James and David): the Bretton Hall Hotel, on the east side of Broadway from 85th to 86th Streets; the Hotel York, at the northeast corner of 36th Street and Seventh Avenue; and the Aberdeen Hotel, at 17 West 32nd Street, notable for its voluptuously modeled curved limestone entryway.

These share what was becoming Mulliken & Moeller's trademark: a vigorous contrast of flat brick and extensive, highly sculptured cream-colored terra cotta, often organized around a large central bay.... The partnership's standard design was transformed by executing the terra cotta in a deep plum color and giving the brick a variegated red and purple cast, making the Lucerne a rich furnace of late sunset shades.

Dr. James Todd came to New York in 1896, after practicing medicine in Minnesota, to join his brother, David in the real estate business. Together they developed and built a series of office buildings including 52 Vanderbilt Avenue at 45th Street in 1916. Dr. Todd partnered with other operators to construct buildings including the 1921 Cunard Building at 25 Broadway. The company later became the Todd Robertson Todd Engineering Corporation which built the Graybar Building adjacent to Grand Central Terminal. It was also the principal builder of Rockefeller Center. Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey is a grandniece of the Todd brothers.

An early brochure for the new Lucerne Hotel offered the following information:

  • September 1st to July 1st, Room and Bath $3.00 per Day and Up
  • Suites of Two Rooms and Bath For One or Two Persons, $4.50 per Day and Up
  • Special Summer Rates From July 1st to September 1st, Room and Bath $2.50 per Day and Up
  • Suites of Two Rooms and Bath For One or Two Persons, $4.00 per Day and Up

Located between Central Park and Riverside Drive on one of the most desirable corners of the exclusive residential district of the upper west side, in close proximity to all lines of transit including Buses and within ten minutes ride of Grand Central Station, Pennsylvania Terminal, Theatre and Shopping districts. The Hotel is strictly fireproof, overlooks the beautiful Hudson River and Central Park and is noted for its atmosphere of home-like comfort.

The Apartments are arranged in suites of one to six rooms and baths. Exceptionally large closets. The unfurnished suites furnished apartments are rented monthly, weekly or daily as desired. The Dining Room with its attractive furnishings, perfect ventilation and unexcelled service, makes its rendezvous of a discerning clientele. A la Ca?te service from 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. also Table d'Hote Dinners, Luncheons and Club Breakfasts. An especially attractive Grill and Specialty Shop.

The architectural critic Paul Goldberger in his The City Observed: New York (1979), describes the Lucerne Hotel, one of the terra-cotta treasures of New York:

The Upper West Side is full of apartment hotels and it is full of buildings that lean vaguely toward the Baroque. But this one stands out, in part because of the wonderful richness of its brownstone. It could almost be wet mud, so alive and sharp is the color... molded carefully and then baked. The detailing is heavy and thick, making the building seem all the more like clay, but it is skillful enough so that it never feels overbearing. The entrance is one of the West Side's finest thanks to the banded columns, but the entire mass stands nobly on its corner.

New York Times article (May 14, 1911) titled "Architectural Terra Cotta a Big Factor in New Building" stated that "the New York skyline which, without exaggeration, is the most wonderful building district in the world is more than half architectural terra cotta.... And yet not more than one lay mind in a thousand appreciates the fact, and even to some architects and builders, this truth will come as a surprise."

Wikipedia describes terra-cotta as follows:

Terra-cotta is an enriched molded clay brick or block. It was usually hollow cast in blocks which were open in the back, with internal stiffeners called webbing. Webbing substantially strengthened the hollow blocks with minimal weight increase. The blocks were finished with a glaze, with a clay wash or an aqueous solution of metal salts, before firing. Late 19th century advertising for the material promoted the durable, impervious and adaptable nature of glazed architectural terra-cotta. It could accommodate subtle nuances of modeling, texture and color. Compared to stone, it was easier to handle, quickly set and lower cost. The cost of producing the blocks, when compared to carving stone, was a considerable savings, especially when casts were used in a modular fashion that is, used repeatedly. It never needed paint, and periodic washings restored its appearance....

Variations in the color and pattern of the glaze could make it look like granite or limestone; this flexibility helped it make it attractive for architects.

Four major types of terra-cotta were widely used:

  1. Brownstone was the earliest type. A dark red or brown block which was not necessarily glazed, it was used as imitation sandstone, brick or with real brownstone and associated with the architectural styles of Richard Upjohn, James Renwick, Jr., and Henry Hobson Richardson.
  2. Fireproof was developed as a direct result of the growth of the high rise building in America. Cheap, light and fireproof, the rough-finished hollow blocks were ideally suited to span the I-beam members in floor, wall and ceiling construction. Certain varieties are still in production today.
  3. Veneer was developed during the 1930s and is still used today. Unlike traditional architectural terra-cotta, ceramic veneer is not hollow cast. It is a veneer of glazed ceramic tile which is ribbed on the back like bathroom tile and usually attached to a grid of metal ties which have been anchored to the building.
  4. Glazed architectural terra-cotta was the most complex building material developed. The hollow units were hand cast in molds or carved in clay and heavily glazed, then fired. This is the terra-cotta associated with the architectural of Cass Gilbert, Louis Sullivan and Daniel H. Burnham....

The American Terra Cotta Corporation, founded in 1881, operated for eighty-five years in the little town of Terra Cotta in the heart of Illinois dairy country (near Crystal Lake, Illinois). The company fabricated architectural terra cotta for more than 8,000 buildings throughout the US and Canada. It was the last exclusive manufacturer of architectural terra cotta by the time it ceased production in 1966. From its founding in time to rebuild the fire-ravished city of Chicago until its closing, it was the major producer of architectural glazed terra cotta in North America.

A 1939 brochure provided the following information about the convenient location of the Lucerne and the New York World's Fair:

Between Riverside Drive and Central Park

The area between New York's two famous parks has the advantage of being residential and at the same time conveniently near theatre, shopping, and business districts.

Central Park offers 843 acres of outdoors; and Riverside Park miles of river front walks, overlooking the Palisades.

Quite near the Lucerne, from 77th to 81st Street, Columbus Avenue to Central Park West are the Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. The New-York Historical Society also has a large museum on Central Park West.

There are numerous other interesting landmarks in the west of Central Park area, including Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, Grant's Tomb, the Sailors and Soldiers Monument, Riverside Church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the New York Conservatory of Music presided over by Dr. Damrosch.

5¢ and 10¢ to the WORLD'S FAIR BY RAILROAD, SUBWAY and BUS

  • 5¢ by Interborough Subway (Station 1 block from Hotel Lucerne)
  • 10¢ by Long Island Railroad from Pennsylvania Station (in 10 minutes, with a seat for every passenger)
  • 10¢ by Independent Subway (Station at 81st and Central Park West)
  • 10¢ by Fifth Avenue Coach (at 79th Street and Riverside Drive)

In a New York Times article (April 19, 2002) "My Manhattan; Stone-Faced Sentinels With Their Eyes on You", Thane Rosenbaum wrote:

New York may be known for its skyscrapers, but you don't have to look up that far to glimpse a less imposing, and in some ways more enticing, puckish feature of this city's architecture: its gargoyles. Whether carved from sandstone or terra cotta, these decorative monsters stand guard over buildings great and small, blending the medieval with the modern and sprinkling Gotham with a touch of the Gothic...

Harking back to this fierce tradition is a ferocious specimen hovering over the Lucerne Hotel, 201 West 79th Street, at Amsterdam Avenue. Designed in 1904 by the architect Harry B. Mulliken, the building has a reddish, ominous gargoyle stationed above a portal on the Amsterdam Avenue side. With a long, open mouth, gaping hollow eyes, broad tongue, muscular nose, horns that serve as ears and an angry forbidding expression, this is a face that not even a gargoyle mother could love. Lurking around the corner, and less intimidating, is a cluster of other gargoyles above the archway of the hotel's 79th Street entrance, all of whom sport handlebar mustaches, sidelock foliage and sunken, smiling jaws.

Frommer's Review of December 29, 2009 in the New York Times reports:

As a longtime resident of the Upper West Side, I can easily say that the Lucerne, a magnificent 1903 landmark building, best captures the feel of that special neighborhood. Service is impeccable, especially for a moderately-priced hotel and everything is fresh and immaculate. The rooms are comfortable and big enough for kings, queens, or two doubles, with attractive bathrooms complete with travertine counters. Some of the rooms have views of the Hudson River. The suites are extra-special and include kitchenettes, stocked minifridges, microwaves, and sitting rooms with sofas and extra TVs. The highly-rated Nice Matin offers room service for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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