The Sherry-Netherland: Just Look Up When You Walk In

You can be forgiven for not noticing the Sherry Netherland Hotel as you walk along New York’s Fifth Avenue. Diagonally across the street stands the Plaza, commanding the attention of anyone and everyone. But the Sherry-Netherland’s not like that. If it weren’t for the stylish sidewalk clock, you might pass by without giving it a second glance. Even the hotel restaurant, Harry Cipriani – a near copy of Harry’s bar in Venice, Italy – hides behind crisp white curtains. Showy is definitely not its middle name, but that’s the way it’s been since its inception – and that’s the way they like it at this upscale place.

The Sherry Netherland Hotel opened in 1927. This was Prohibition-era New York, and like the rest of the United States, the city’s establishments were bound by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution which largely forbade the sale of alcohol. The 1920 Volstead Act, which wouldn’t be repealed until 1933, permitted the private consumption of alcohol. Unlike today, you couldn’t just go into a hotel bar and order a drink. Because of this, when plans for the Sherry Netherland were drawn up, it was agreed that there was no need for expansive reception rooms or a vast lobby. There was no sense in paying for expensive square footage if it wasn’t going to earn you any money. Instead, then as now, when you stepped in through the revolving doors, you found yourself in a small, unprepossessing space. That is until you looked up.

On the ceiling of the lobby was a colorful mural. The Sherry Netherland Hotel commissioned an Italian American called Joseph Aruta to create a lavish piece of art. It wasn’t his only such project; paintings by this once prolific and talented artist graced the Bowery Savings Bank, the Downtown Athletic Club, the Pennsylvania Hotel and the Paramount Theatre. Inspired by Raphael’s frescoes in Cardinal Bibbiena’s Loggetta in the Vatican Palace, Aruta created a piece in the same style, featuring eight of the nine muses from Greek mythology. It’s a wonderful painting and adds great character to the lobby, giving it an extra dimension yet perfectly enhancing that same muted color palette used on the walls and for the soft furnishings that soothes stressed guests the world over.

When it was unveiled, the artwork made quite an impact on those visiting the Sherry Netherland Hotel, not to mention those that worked there. For forty years or so, guests enjoyed the statement it made in such an intimate space, but then a water leak caused extensive damage to the ceiling. It was felt the artwork was beyond repair, so the decision was taken to plaster over the mural and it was eventually forgotten. Then one day, the staff at the hotel were looking at some old black and white photographs and realized what could be hiding in plain sight.

The hotel management called in a team from EverGreene Architectural Arts and in 2013, they carried out what’s known in the business as an investigative study. Very carefully, so as not to damage what might remain, conservationists removed tiny squares of paint. Some estimates put the number of layers of paint and plaster at thirteen; whatever the total, it was a delicate operation. They discovered that under the white ceiling paint, instead of the expected coat of plaster, there were two separate layers of faux decorative ashlar stone, a bit like polished limestone. Hairline cracks, multiple stained patches from the water damage and plenty of soot and grime by the door from the heavy Fifth Avenue traffic completed the not-so-pretty picture.

Restoring this ninety-year-old mural was no easy job. Painstakingly, the team of conservationists removed layer after layer of paint using solvent gels, strippers, and swabs. Much of the original painting was miraculously intact, though the substantial damage and the effects of age – not to mention all that paint – meant that almost a third of the 860 square foot ceiling had to be recreated referencing those historical photographs. The work took around 4000 person-hours to complete.

It wouldn’t have been financially possible to close the Sherry Netherland Hotel for such an extended period of time. To ensure the hotel could remain open throughout the renovation, scaffolding and a false ceiling were erected beneath the workspace. It had to be low enough to accommodate people working above it, leaving the already small lobby even pokier.

“There was a leak, right there in the corner,” one of the hotel staff told me, pointing to a spot just above the door. The ceiling was covered in scaffolding, as low as that molding. It was like a coffin. It took six or eight months to uncover, I don’t remember. Thirteen coats of paint. But then people came back just to see it. No matter how many times you look at it, you always see something different.”

Some of Joseph Aruta’s family were invited to the hotel while the work was being carried out. His granddaughter Gabrielle Aruta Pierce told me:

“Some members of my family and I were so fortunate to be invited to see not only the completed project but we were also graciously invited to go up into the scaffolding by the artisans of EverGreene who were doing the amazing restoration. To actually be able to reach up and touch work that my grandfather was responsible for – it was beyond special.”

The hotel was pretty special too, right from the get-go. In the 1920s, opening the Sherry Netherland had been the dream of two men. The first was Louis Sherry, an ice cream magnate, caterer, and restaurateur. He supplied confectionery to the cream of New York’s society, exquisitely packaged in elegant lavender boxes and tins. Those sweets would have been seen on the luxury cruise liners of the day and given as gifts by New York’s elite. Sherry’s partner was Lucius Boomer, who ran the first Waldorf-Astoria hotel on the site of what’s now the Empire State Building. He knew the hotel business inside out and brought a wealth of experience to the table. The pair of them hired top architects Schultze and Weaver to design them a hotel to rival anything already in existence. High-rise specialists Buchman & Kahn would take care of the technical specifications. But at one point it looked as though the Sherry-Netherland dream had turned into a nightmare.

Sherry and Boomer had located a suitable site without too much difficulty: that of the Hotel New Netherlands, built for William Waldorf Astor in the 1890s. Louis Sherry’s successful restaurant had operated on the ground floor; he had all the contacts necessary to do a deal. In 1926, the contracts were signed. Sadly, he died that same year and would never see his hotel complete. He did, however, insist that the hotel be called the Sherry-Netherland, understanding how important reputation was and ensuring that the Sherry benefited from its predecessor’s good standing.

Demolition of the New Netherlands commenced towards the end of 1926 and construction started not long afterward. Workmen erected wooden scaffolding but not far into the build, on April 12th, 1927, disaster struck as the wood caught fire. No one knows for certain how the fire started. One fire marshal is supposed to have believed a salamander heater of a type commonly found on construction sites might have been left unattended by plaster workers. Another theory pointed to a fault with a recently installed electric sign.

Whatever the cause, the fire raged for twelve hours, with fire-fighters struggling to battle flames that would be visible all the way across to Long Island City. Carrying rolled up lengths of hose, they ran up to the hotel’s upper floors but struggled to reach the inaccessible flames. The scaffolding eventually burned itself out and although the 32nd floor was a wreck, the hotel beneath it escaped largely unscathed. Not surprisingly in the aftermath, a debate took hold in the press about the safety of these new skyscrapers and how well protected potential residents might be in the event of a serious fire. It would lead to a ruling that future scaffolding should be made from metal rather than wood.

The finished 38-story building, like the New Netherlands before it, utilized a steel frame in its construction. It was partially clad in travertine marble, its neo-Romanesque and Renaissance façade incorporating Gothic minarets, griffins and hanging lanterns. Together, Sherry and Boomer created a hotel which from the outset was designed to offer long-term residences as well as rooms for short-stay guests. The advertising slogan of that period summed up the hotel’s approach to a tee:

“More than a place to live… a way of living.”

For those affluent enough to afford it, the Sherry-Netherland’s apartments were a way of securing one of Manhattan’s best addresses without the expense of hiring staff and paying for maintenance. The Sherry’s staff, butlers, concierges, and housekeepers, would take care of everything. The hotel part of the operation comprises around fifty rooms and suites. Each is individually decorated, with luxurious touches like antique furnishings, French carpets, ornate mirrors, original fireplaces, and marble bathrooms. Though the Plaza opposite is more accustomed to on location filming, fans of the acclaimed TV series Mad Men will recognize it as the place where Roger Sterling proposed and Don Draper enjoyed one of his many liaisons. In real life, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, and Joan Crawford all stayed there. But not everyone’s stay was an entirely happy one. Judy Garland slipped in her suite at the Sherry Netherland Hotel in February 1964 resulting in a mild concussion which required a hospital check-up.

From the 24th floor upwards, a single apartment rather than a cluster of rooms occupies each one. Residents have famously included Jack Warner (the head of Warner Bros.), Francis Ford Coppola, Barbra Streisand, Andy Garcia and Judith Sheindlin (you’ll know her as Judge Judy). Diana Ross occupied the penthouse until she sold up a few years ago. The residences have been cooperatives since 1954; if they wish, co-op owners can rent their place out via the hotel when they’re not using it.
Having such a cluster of wealthy residents makes a place a target for criminals and the Sherry Netherland Hotel was famously robbed twice in the 1970s. On December 9th, 1974, five gunmen burst into the hotel. They took thirteen people (employees, delivery men and two guests from Brazil) hostage while they stole over $900,000 worth of gems and cash from 55 of the hotel’s safety deposit boxes. Actor Elliot Gould was also a guest that night but according to the New York Times report the day after, he slept through the whole thing. A year later, police caught one of the gangs, an unemployed truck driver from Queens, but never recovered what was stolen.
A steel punch and hammer was used in another break in three years later. On that occasion, four well-dressed burglars got into 73 of the 110 safety deposit boxes. While the hotel’s security team carried out their rounds on the upper floors, the robbers pointed a revolver at manager Robert Clancey before placing the four members of staff in handcuffs. They overcame the night manager and three other hotel employees: bellman Steve McPartland, night auditor William Farragher and porter Jay Morton. The haul? Over several hundred thousand dollars in cash and jewelry. Those pros wore gloves to avoid leaving their fingerprints, also donning wigs and a fake mustache to disguise their appearance.

After the thieves finished, they returned to the storage room where the hotel’s employees were handcuffed. Instructing them not to move for ten minutes, they escaped with their loot via the hotel’s 59th Street entrance. Diana Ross was one of those who lost items of value. Regular guests Mr. and Mrs. Michael Segal were also relieved of some of her jewelry and in a cruel twist of fate, had been victims of the first robbery as well. They, like many of the other victims, were left out of pocket as each safety deposit box was insured for contents worth only $500.

Nevertheless, the Sherry Netherland Hotel remains attractive to a wealthy and sometimes famous clientele. For a while, particularly in the 1970s, it was the favored hangout of rock and roll royalty. David Bowie occupied a lavish suite for a year in 1974, checking in on April 11th. Writing in Bowie: The Biography, Wendy Leigh paints a vivid picture of a life of excess and debauchery. She records that Mick Jagger was concerned for his friend and fellow musician because of the vast quantity of cocaine he was taking. In the book, she quotes Bebe Buell, an American fashion model:

“One time we were in David’s suite in the Sherry-Netherland hotel and he asked us if we could see the angels flying outside the window. He made us go and look. ‘Don’t you see them?’ he said. ‘They’re flying around.’”

Such a crazy lifestyle seems at odds with The Sherry’s dignified image today, but times change. If you’ve been around as long as the Sherry Netherland, nothing fazes you: you’ll have seen it all.

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