"Tile Revival: The original mosaic tiles at the Astor’s lobby have been lovingly preserved, and are a unique reminder of the Astor’s history and place in New York City architecture – this piece will discuss the inspiration behind this tilework, giving prospective residents more information on an often-overlooked design element." The luxury condos of the newly renovated Astor return the Gilded Age building to its originally intended use as luxury apartments. The first portion of the complex, the two eight-story buildings that face 75th Street, were constructed at the dawn of the 20th century, in 1901; the 12-story tower on the other side was added twelve years later. The long lobby that connects the buildings was built at the same time, and its restored elements—the plaster moldings, the marble fireplace, the iron balustrades, and, perhaps most stunningly, the original tile mosaics—all original, serve as a testament to the building’s historic beauty.
Tile floors of the Astor’s quality were a rare and cherished element of early 20th century American architecture. Manufactured tile, still relatively new to the country, is familiar in the form of all-white hexagonal tile floors, perhaps with a few dots of color in the corners: a fairly common element in older buildings, and an innovation that reflected the period’s new understanding of the germ origin of illness and a desire for cleanliness.
Hand-laid mosaics like the Astor’s, however, hearken back to an older, more aesthetically-aware era. While wealthy families like the Astors, of course, were well-travelled, most Americans became aware of true mosaic via the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, which featured exhibits of British Gothic Revival mosaic. Also known as “Victorian” Gothic, the Gothic Revival actually dates back as far back as the mid-19th century and the first glimmerings of British Romanticism, when English, Scottish, and Irish artists became interested in more regional and nationalized histories, as distinct from the classical and neoclassical elements associated with Greece and Rome. In the literary world, this meant a shift away from neoclassical couplets and attempts at epic poetry to things like Robert Burns’s Scottish poems, John Keats’s reimagining of the Arthurian legend in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and the beginning of an appreciation for Shakespeare as a great national playwright; in painting, the lush imaginary portraits of the Pre-Raphaelites, the English countrysides of John Constable and the sublime land- and seascapes of J. M. W. Turner.
In architecture, Gothic Revival elements looked to the Medieval period for inspiration. Gothic Revival buildings feature pointed towers and arches or castle-like corniced turrets; decorative carving and ornamental framing that imitated buttresses; medieval encaustic tiles—tiles with color patterns created by different colors of clay rather than merely through glazing—and tile mosaics, in which different-colored tiles were hand-laid into intricate decorative patterns.
American Beaux Arts architects were able to adapt the decorative elements of the Gothic Revival to their own more eclectic and functionally-sensitive—but still theatrical and heavily ornamented—sensibilities. Hence, in the Astor, the elaborate mosaic elements mix Greek and Roman design elements that true Gothic Revival would have eschewed, such as the Greek key patterning in border elements, with more truly Romantic motifs like elaborately imaginary fan-and-flower combinations. Each individual tile would have been laid and grouted by hand; restoring original mosaic of this quality requires equally laborious hand-placement of individually shaped and colored tiles to replace missing pieces and match the original. While the initial mosaics would have been laid atop a perfectly flat and smooth surface, the restoration, of course, was not able to benefit from such preparation; each replaced element, therefore also requires careful hand-grouting and final polishing to ensure a flat finish.
While many of the new-built luxury condos for sale in NYC boast of meticulous and detailed craftsmanship, few Manhattan condos for sale feature craftsmanship this old and exacting. The Astor’s restoration preserves the talents and standards of the Gilded Age into the new millenium for a new generation. Before you enter, glance up at the decorative copper cornicing atop the towers; as you stroll through the lobby, look down at the intricate mosaic tiling beneath your feet. Every original detail was put in place by a master craftsman over a century ago and has been refurbished with equal care and expertise to honor the building’s heritage and present its beauties to best advantage.