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If the walls could speak, what secrets this distinctive Hell’s Kitchen building could tell…
What do Miami Beach, a drugs bust, God Bless America and the the People’s Republic of China have in common? They all come together in the dazzling (sometimes checkered) history of the Chinese Consulate on the corner of the West Side Highway and W42nd St.
The oddly shaped building began its life in 1962 as a Sheraton Motor Inn, designed by Morris Lapidus (who also was the lead architect for Miami Beach’s famous hotels, including the neo-Baroque Fontainebleau and Eden Roc). In total, Lapidus designed 1,200 buildings, including 250 hotels worldwide.
During his career, his work was characterized by the American architectural establishment as gaudy kitsch. Ada Louise Huxtable, writing in The New York Times, said of the Americana in Bal Harbor. “The effect on arrival was like being hit by an exploding gilded eggplant.”
Art in America deemed his work “pornography of architecture.”
Lapidus tried to ignore the critical panning (sometimes his work was criticized for its vulgarity, cheapness, and incompetence), but it had an effect on his career and reputation. He burned 50 years’ worth of his drawings when he retired in 1984 and remained bitter.
He told CNN before he died: “They couldn’t think of enough bad things to say about me.”
New York Magazine always seemed to lead the charge. In 1969, in its first Annual Cityscape Awards, it gave the Sheraton Motor Inn the Miami Beach Laurels for “combining within the volume of a modest hostelry every single design cliche produced by the so-called International Style during the past 50 years.”
In 1971, the same magazine said: “Room service at the Sheraton Motor Inn … wasn’t it conceived as a cheaters’ hideaway? Would any tourist in full possession of their sensitivities really choose to lodge overlooking the drudge of the West Side Highway and the venomous Hudson?”
But Lapidus wasn’t without his supporters. In 1962, the editors of The New Yorker described the new Sheraton Motor Inn as “a startlingly classy pioneer in a somewhat declasse neighborhood.”
And by 2001, The New York Times’s architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, was leading a change in attitude. “Any piece of architecture would look stupid if it were wearing staircases that went nowhere, ceilings with Swiss cheese holes in them and an allegorical statue salvaged from the first-class dining saloon of the S.S. Normandie,” he wrote. “But somehow Morris Lapidus pulled it off. At the Fontainebleau Hotel, scene of the Miami shots in Goldfinger, Lapidus made Swiss cheese holes look … Swanky. Maybe not Elsa Maxwell, Duke of Windsor, or lunch at the Colony swanky, but swanky as in a Madison Avenue, early 1960s view of sophisticated city life.”
Back in the day, the Sheraton boasted the Crown Restaurant and a rooftop swimming pool – Surfside 20 – on the 20th floor. In 1973, season membership for the 23 feet by 43 feet pool and sundeck, from June 1 to Labor Day, cost $160 for a single and $295 for couples. If you were not a member or guest of the hotel – and there was space, you could swim for $6 a day. The swimming pool is still in the Chinese Consulate today (but with a year-round glass weather cover).
The gazebo-style structure that can still be seen on the roof was the Carousel Lounge. New York Magazine in 1969 reported that it had “an interior platform that revolves, haltingly, underneath a thunderous piano player and enthralled patrons. By day, the room is full of merry-go-round motifs, but at night it’s pitch dark, and since all the tables are turned towards the piano instead of the view (Circle Line, New Jersey, and the occasional ocean liner) the effect is a little queasy.”
Kate Smith, whose vibrant voice made God Bless America an unofficial national anthem, and who was one of the most popular singers of the century, for many years rented a three-bedroom suite at the top of the hotel. Occasionally, she would visit the patio roof, giving her breezy “Hellll-ooo” to the swimmers and watching the ocean liners parked at the pier below.
She said at the time: “I’ve never been to Europe and I have no desire to go, but I sure like watching those liners being pushed in and out.”
Not all was sweetness and light at the hotel, however. On October 12, 1972, Room 1005 gained notoriety during an undercover drugs operation.
Frank Tummillo and Jeff Hall from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs posed as cocaine dealers to buy drugs with a street value of $500,000 from Jose Nieves and Jose Matta.
Fifteen federal agents were in the Sheraton, stationed either side of the room and in the lobby. The ‘deal’ ended in a shoot-out, with Nieves and Matta shot dead. Agent Tummillo later died of his injuries. He was just 25 – the first agent to be killed in the four-year history of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
Architecture experts today do not consider the Consulate as a pure representation of Lapidus’s work. Kathleen Randall from Docomomo (an organization committed to the conservation and documentation of buildings in the modern movement), speaking in 2005, said: “The Sheraton Motor Inn at 42nd Street and the Westside Highway was completely reclad and reworked three years ago for a consulate building and is no longer recognizable as Lapidus’s work beyond the structure’s massing.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 8 – September 2015. Pages 46-49.