It’s a little unnerving to see the Plaza dark at night, its entrances fenced off as the hotel undergoes conversion to an apartment building (but one with a hotel component!). As a designated city landmark, the Plaza’s French Renaissance facade, conceived of a century ago by the great Henry J. Hardenbergh (1847-1918), cannot be altered without the permission of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, so there’s no need to worry … about … that. Hardenbergh also designed another gem that defines and enlivens the city: The Dakota. But you already knew that.
Maybe you didn’t know about 63 buildings that Hardenbergh designed that have been demolished over the years, most recently in 2003. But thankfully, there are at least 59 buildings that Hardenbergh designed that have survived demolition, from the little Western Union Telegraph Building in the shadow of the Flatiron Building, to the grand and restored Willard Hotel in Washington. To help bring to light this architect’s work and show how his tastes evolved over his career, I’ve created the Henry J. Hardenbergh architectural database and put in here on this website. This is a work in progress, so things are likely to get updated or change in appearance. If this works out, maybe I’ll do Cass Gilbert or William Van Alen next.
Send any information or photographs to firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy.
Meanwhile, as workers gut out the Plaza, I’m reminded of a 1906 interview Hardenbergh gave to a reporter from Architectural Record. The reporter sat in his midtown office, which he described as “A quiet interior, a harmony of deep reds and browns, frugal but elegant equipment and a subdued light effect … his office desk on an elevated platform that runs along the window, and I on a leather chair below, which obliged me to look up to him.” As the interview was wrapping up, the reporter, Sadakieln Hartmann, asked a final question, “Have you any special method in following out your theories?” To answer that, Hardenbergh turned to the project he was working on at the time:
“My method is really a very simple one. There, for instance, is a sketch of the new Plaza Hotel,” and he showed me a sketch of that giant caravansery. There seems to be a striking tendency in this latest of his work, to abandon the picturesqueness and irregularity of his former sytle, and to arrive at a simpler, and at the same time more pleasing effect. I had involuntarily to smile, however, at what seemed to me interminable rows of windows. He guessed my thought: “None of them is unnecessary. Now, what would be the use of introducing columns, colonnades, as they do? The Greek didn’t build buildings of this kind. Edifices of this order have been unknown to past generations. They have no prototype. All one can do is to take some good model, that served some kind of purpose as a hotel, and enlarge upon it. And then embellish it as well as one can, as for instance, in this case, with the early French Renaissance.”
Hardenbergh lived at precisely that moment when buildings were getting huge but before architects dropped those subtle flourishes that can make a building pleasing to look at. The result is a perfect combination of proportion and richness.