Updated: Jul 03, 2016
id: contemporary history-enriched hotel
atmosphere: serene by day
cool detail: 1904 tiffany stained glass dome
By Terry Trucco
At a glance: Renovating a historic property is dodgy. Too little new stuff, and the place feels creaky. Too much, and it loses its character. But the Carlton, built in 1904, reopened in 2005 and still looking fresh, gets character and contemporary just about right, particularly in the public spaces.
The exuberant Beaux Arts exterior in tiger-stripe red brick and limestone looks stunning or a little scary, depending on your taste. But the interior, to my eyes, is just plain sweet.
I love the lobby, a dramatic, golden David Rockwell creation, with a triple-height ceiling, lavish grillwork and plenty of sleek sofas and club chairs, often occupied by business suits, tourists and an occasional amorous couple, like the pair I saw, wine glasses in hand, at lunchtime. On a wall, a waterfall splashes over a towering black-and-white image of a horse-drawn hansom cab, a nod to the hotel’s Edith Wharton-era origins. I like the chic, shaded crystal chandeliers, too. But new furniture has freshened some worn lobby pieces I saw in a previous visit.
The Carlton isn’t edgy, but it’s comfortable, and the Somewhere in Time blend of present and past is unusual and appealing.
Rooms: Crisply romantic. Skip the smallest if you can. They’re almost big enough for two (if you don’t spend much time in the room). On the upside, they have luscious ceiling moldings and sheer pull-down shades with elegant stenciled borders, same as the larger rooms.
But you get what you pay for. Larger rooms have the Carlton Closet -- a witty armoire patterned with mirrors that echo the look of the lobby’s clever ultra-suede columns. Beds range from full to king, come dressed in snowy Frette sheets with a cornflower throw at the foot and are crowned by white tufted leather headboards. I like the crystal sconces dressed with sheer shades -- and especially like the pliable bedside reading lights. I also applaud the chic little sofa and chair in the executive king room I saw.
Bathrooms, clad in subtly striped brown wallpaper and brown and cream granite, range from very snug to spacious, and are outfitted with handsome painted wood vanities and Molton Brown toiletries (neat perk: yuan zhi sleep mist to spray on your pillow). Most have tub/shower combos, while a few just have showers.
Ask for a room with a view of the Empire State Building.
Or spring for a themed suite (pictured). In 2012 the hotel turned five of its largest suites, including two penthouse models, into themed suites, a nod to a flourishing hotel trend. Among the choices, Broadway Diva features an enormous sitting room with mirrors galore and a romantic, canopied bed. The Terrace Suite offers indoor/outdoor views of the Empire State Building. And in addition to a card table, hidden bar and tommy gun (nonworking), the showstopper Speakeasy Suite comes with a hidden room.
Food and drink: The two-story dining space and bar is gorgeous, with dark wood paneled walls on the ground floor bar/lounge, where a combo often plays, and painted white wood panels for the upstairs restaurant Millesime, a casual seafood brasserie that opened in July 2010, owned by chef Laurent Manrique, formerly of Peacock Alley at the Waldorf. (Country, the hotel's previous restaurant, closed in 2008 while the casual restaurant Country Cafe closed in 2009.) That magnificent Tiffany ceiling forms the restaurant's centerpiece, not far from the marble raw bar. With red leather banquettes, the original tile floor, white tablecloths and wait staff dressed like French bistro waiters with a twist -- namely the saucy short black dresses with white aprons worn by the women -- the restaurant is stylish and comfortable and feels as Parisian as you can on lower Madison Avenue. (The salt and pepper shakers look like miniature Eiffel Towers.)
I lunched at a little round table in an alcove overlooking the lobby. The raw bar is extensive with a daily selection of fresh oysters, but I opted for the $17 salmon escalope with Herbe Meuniere (you get a choice of three sauces including Lemon Mousseline and a red sauce Vierge). Delicious. Or to quote Meryl Streep as Julia Childs, "Butter!" I added a $6 side of heavenly creamed spinach, a far cry from the steak house accoutrement. Oh, damn the calories, it tasted amazingly light. I finished with a good strong coffee ($3.50) in a gigantic mug.
Amenities: Flatpanel LG TVs and iHome players and chargers. Free WiFi. No fitness center -- yet -- but guests can use a nearby health club free of charge. Daily newspaper delivered to your door. Pets up to 25 lbs. allowed ($50 cleaning fee). Molton Brown bath products.
Surroundings: A boring block but nicely situated if you need to get downtown (SoHo, Nolita, Tribeca, the Village and the Financial Distrist, et al) or to Midtown -- and the area, dubbed NoMad, is newly almost-hip. The Empire State Building, Morgan Library, Madison Square Park, lower Fifth Avenue shopping, Flatiron building and the Fashion Institute of Technology are all a short walk away. Madison Square Garden, Macy’s and Times Square and the Theater District are slightly farther afield as are Grand Central Terminal and Fifth Avenue stores. Bus stops are steps away and the nearest subway station is a short walk.
Back story: In a previous life, this was the Seville, an elegant 1904 hotel whose fortunes rose and fell with those of the city. By the early 1990s, it was rundown and scuzzy, a prime candidate for an extreme makeover. The ground floor was gutted, the lobby was moved from 29th Street to its current spot on Madison Avenue, and uber hotel/restaurant architect David Rockwell was recruited to design the premises. Best of all, the renovation unearthed a stained glass dome, believed to be by Tiffany -- a smoke-stained, broken, boarded up wreck that was restored to showpiece glory. Several years – and $60 million – later the renamed Carlton on Madison Avenue opened. Rooms retain the original dimensions but have new bath fixtures and heating (radiators be-gone).
Keep in mind: Hallways are labyrinths, and the hall floors leading to the rooms are uneven. Interior rooms on low floors can be dark. I saw scuffed paint in the halls.
What We Saw: