Thinking I’d heard the travel agent say "Plaza" (the home of my childhood heroine, Eloise), I was surprised to learn weeks later that we were actually booked at the Palace.
Disturbing memories of Mrs. Helmsley’s misdeeds compounded the misunderstanding, and I nearly canceled the reservation. However, Manhattan was overbooked for the three-day weekend by that time. I was forced to relax and look on the bright side--at least I had a reservation.
Rather than the views of Central Park I’d imagined, I had a bird’s eye view of the spires of St. Patrick’s and VIP treatment in the concierge lounge. It took about ten minutes to get over my disappointment, when the words "new ownership" and "Le Cirque" were mentioned by the multi-lingual concierge who checked us in and guaranteed our wish was her command.
"Dinner at Le Cirque?"
"Eight or 8:30?"
"Bombay Dream tickets?"
"Matinee or evening? Orchestra or balcony?"
I was beginning to like it here already.
The Palace rises 55 floors above Madison Avenue, sharing "air space" above the Villard Houses, a complex of town homes built in 1892 by financier Henry Villard. After paying an exorbitant price for the property directly across from St. Patrick’s cathedral, Mr. Villard unfortunately went bankrupt before moving into the grand estate. The property was eventually bought by the Archdiocese of New York, its use changing from residential to office and back again throughout the years.
Rather than demolish the Renaissance Revival buildings, the Helmsleys bought air rights and built around them in the late seventies. From 1980 to 1993, the hotel was known as the Helmsley Palace, but after the namesakes met their unfortunate fate, new owners took over and embarked on an extensive renovation.
The hotel does its best to retain the elegance established in the original courtyard residences. The lobby is replete with sweeping marble stairs, room-sized fireplace, and lush décor. Rooms are very spacious and well-equipped with truly luscious robes, in-room wireless internet, spa amenities, and a VIP lounge serving complimentary breakfast, snacks, drinks, canapés and desserts. The 7,000-square-foot spa and fitness center removes any excuse for missing your workout, as exercise shoes and garb are available at no charge.
My favorite spot to roost in the posh hotel was outdoors, in the brisk October air circulating through the Villard Houses courtyard. Unlike the interior of the hotel, which seems cramped in some corners, overblown in others, the Italianate courtyard offers proportion, grace, and a sense of scale. Themes from neighboring Le Cirque are repeated in the topiaries, whimsical animals illuminated by Italian lights.
Across the street, the great cathedral of St. Patrick’s stands sentinel. I couldn’t help thinking how things may have turned out differently for Leona had she stopped in the cathedral on her way to work. I thought it over, then went inside to light a candle.
I was just giving thanks, praying I’d return again soon to New York and the Palace.