Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The 1927 Lombardy Hotel - 111 East 56th Street


Henry Mandel started his career in real estate development in his father's firm erecting tenement buildings.  His ambitions transcended tenements and in the post-World War I years he turned to progressively more elaborate projects.  In 1926, he demolished the high-stooped houses at 109 through 123 East 56th Street and hired the architectural firm of Farrar & Watmough to design an upscale residential hotel on the site.

Completed in 1927, the 21-floor-and-penthouse Lombardy was faced in beige brick above a three-story stone base.  Farrar & Watmough's romantic design harkened to Renaissance Tuscany, its mountainscape of setbacks embellished with Renaissance inspired corbel tables and arched openings.  

The Lombardy Hotel offered accommodations for both permanent residents and transient guests.  Along with the penthouse, there were a "sun parlor and sleeping porch" on the roof.  Permanent residents chose from apartments of one to seven rooms, which provided "freedom from household cares," according to an advertisement.  Hotel amenities, like maid service, were included and residents dined in the Lombardy restaurant.  An advertisement tempted,

Every day begins auspiciously at The Lombardy.  You never feel that is it just another morning to get up.  The efficient waiter serving your breakfast as if attending royalty...the deft courtesy of our entire staff...lends a sense of well being that starts you off right, a cheerfulness that flavors your whole day.  That is one of the reasons The Lombardy attracts so many people who cultivate the art of living gracefully, and who appreciate the niceties that are part of the daily route at The Lombardy. 
Would you like a new experience in fine living?

An orchestra was nearly obligatory in jazz age restaurants and the Lombardy Hotel was no exception.  On January 26, 1929, The Vaudeville News reported that Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees orchestra had been performing "as The Gondoliers from the Hotel Lombardy."

Henry Mandel set aside a group of furnished rooms for permanent residents who had visiting guests.  An advertisement in the New York Evening Post in July 1927 explained, "Smartly furnished guest rooms will be maintained by the management for guests of residents of the Lombardy.  They cost a reasonable tariff only--and only when they are used."

Despite the ongoing Depression, in 1930 Henry Mandell hired Farrar & Watmough to design the immense Vendome apartments on West 57th Street.  And in doing so, he overstretched his finances.  In March 1932 he filed for bankruptcy and, unable to pay alimony to his ex-wife, he was jailed in 1933.  Before that happened, the Lombardy was sold to millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst.  (Interestingly, his Warwick Hotel on West 54th Street, designed by George B. Post & Sons and Emery Roth in 1925, was strikingly similar in design.)

Along with successful businessmen, The Lombardy attracted tenants in the entertainment field.  Among the first was composer Richard Rodgers and his wife, the former Dorothy Belle Feiner.  Rodgers was in London in December 1930 for the debut of the Rodgers and Hart play Ever Green.  He rushed back in time for the birth of Mary Rodgers on January 11, 1931.  Mary, who would become a composer, screenwriter, and author, described their apartment in her autobiography, Shy.  "It was a beautiful apartment on the nineteenth floor, with a large balcony and nice views."

Among the Rodgers' neighbors on the 19th floor was Benjamin F. Feiner and his wife.  A partner in the law firm of Feiner & Skutch, the health of the 53-year-old declined that year to the point he needed a live-in nurse.  On the night of October 23, 1931, he went onto the terrace while his wife and nurse remained inside.  The Sun reported, "His body was found on the roof of a two-story extension."

Tragedy visited the Lombardy again nine months later.  On the morning of July 29, 1932, a maid entered the apartment of Theresa Kann.  The Sun reported, "a note fluttered to her feet.  It apparently had been tucked over the door."  It read, "Notify my brother at 1125 Park avenue, so he can break the news to mother."  Theresa's body was on the bed.  "On a table near-by was a glass containing dregs of potassium cyanide, according to police," said the article.

Novelist, playwright, and short story writer Edna Ferber moved into the Lombardy in 1929.  Born on August 15, 1885, she had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925 for So Big.  Two years before leasing her apartment, the smash hit Show Boat, based on her 1926 novel of the same name, opened on Broadway.  While living here she wrote the plays, Dinner at Eight and Stage Door.  She remained here at least through 1939.

Edna Ferber, Theatre Magazine, July 1928

The Lombardy was a favorite spot for transient stars.  On December 12, 1936, The New York Sun reported, "Gloria Swanson is stopping at the Lombardy Hotel," and two weeks later announced that George Burns and Gracie Allen "will be in New York at the Lombardy Hotel for two or three weeks, in which time they will present several of their broadcasts, discuss a new musical comedy, and confer with...sponsors."  And according to Axel Nissen in his 2021 Beulah Bondi, A Life on Stage and Screen, for years the actress maintained a suite here to use when she was in town.

Divorced actress, singer, and dancer Marion Pierce moved into the Lombardy on May 5, 1938.  Born Marion Dean Hughes in 1911, she married Conkey P. Whitehead in 1929 (his family had purchased the rights to Coca Cola from Asa G. Candler in 1888).  According to the New York World-Telegram, after the couple's divorce in October 1933, she was "written out of the Social Register."  She turned to the stage to make a living, and appeared on Broadway in New Faces, Three Waltzes, and I Must Love Someone.

Marion Pierce's residency would be short, and did not end well.  On November 29, 1938, The New York Sun reported that the Hotel Lombardy was seeking a $1,869 judgement "against the thrice-wed Marion Hughes Pierce," for "rent, midnight refreshments and other service."  Marion countered that the hotel owed her.  Saying "the hotel is wrong in its bookkeeping," and that she had paid the full amount, she contended "the hotel should be compelled to pay her $2,000 for the holding [of] her furniture from May 5 to September 28."

Prolific novelist Octavus Roy Cohen lived at the Lombardy in the late 1930s.  Born in 1891, he would publish more than 60 novels and short-story collections, five plays, and 30 film plays during his career.

Bandleader Xavier Cugat lived here in 1958 when he was a guest on the television show $64,000 Challenge.  It resulted in his being summoned before the United States Congress's Investigation of Television Quiz Shows the following year.  He testified that he was an unwitting participant in the fixed outcome, telling the committee that a few days before the program, producer Merton Koplin came to his Lombardy apartment.

Xavier Cugat - Billboard magazine 1944

"In the apartment we spoke a lot about music," he said.  "He asked me a lot of questions.  Then I found in the program that the questions that he asked me in my apartment were the same questions that went on the air."

The French restaurant Laurent opened here in 1950 and would remain for decades.  It received an unfortunate--and rare--scathing review from The New York Times critic John Canaday on October 12, 1973.  He said that among the contented diners, "none were French, and it showed."   When Canaday revisited three years later, he was more satisfied.  He called Laurent "a superbly professional restaurant that takes pride in its kitchen and service."

In the meantime, the Lombardy's most visible residents were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  The couple had married in 1964 after romance blossomed while filming Cleopatra.  They divorced in 1974, and remarried on October 10, 1975.  But storm clouds formed over 111 East 56th Street in February 1976.  Burton was currently appearing on Broadway in Equus.  Taylor arrived from Europe around February 15.  On February 24, The Daily News of Batavia, New York reported, "When Miss Taylor arrived in New York last week to join Burton, [gossip columnist Earl] Wilson said a photographer heard Burton remark to a security officer escorting her, 'Do you want to be her lover this week?'"

Burton and Taylor in New York in 1971.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Burton suspected his wife of "having a secret romance in Switzerland with a Maltese advertising man, Peter Darmanin," said the article.  Burton's attorney attempted damage control, saying on February 20, "the couple remained together in the same suite at the Lombardy Hotel."  The Burtons divorced in July 1976.

Richard Burton's fifth marriage was to Sally Hay in July 1983.  On August 24, 1980, Newsday reported, "the BBC said that offstage, Miss Hay has been his constant companion.  It said she has been staying with Burton at his New York hotel suite."  Although the British Broadcasting Corp. reported the wedding took place in the Lombardy, the manager insisted, "the couple was in Los Angeles and he knew nothing about a wedding."

Sir John Gielgud from the collection of the Library of Congress

Another British actor living here was Sir John Gielgud.  Syndicated columnist Leslie Hanscom wrote in Newsday on August 24, 1980, "It would be impossible to carry on a discussion of great actors still living without the name of Sir John Gielgud coming up."  But despite the Shakespearean actor's aristocratic bearing, said Hansom, "When he is loafing in bedroom slippers and an open-necked shirt, as he was doing the other afternoon in his digs in Manhattan's Lombardy Hotel, he is no more intimidating than George Burns."

In 1987 there were 176 cooperative apartments in the building, "of which 100 are for transients," according to The New York Times on August 23.  At the turn of the 21st century, the Lombardy was converted to a four-star boutique hotel.  Its romantic design is as captivating as its long list of celebrated residences.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

1 comment:

  1. I worked at the Lombardy for two summers in the early '80s while in college as an elevator operator. I have very fond memories of the permanent residents (many of whom were 1st generation immigrants who had made their fortune and retired in luxury but didn't let their money go to their heads) and Richard Burton (who stayed there while appearing with Liz in Private Lives on Broadway). Burton was the nicest guy.