Designed in Georgian style by architects Schultze & Weaver, the Pierre joined a cluster of luxury hotels around the southeast corner of Central Park. Rising 44 stories on Fifth Avenue and East 61st Street, it combined lavish leased residences with hotel rooms, offering guests the thrill of possibly sharing an elevator with Elizabeth Taylor, Yves Saint-Laurent or any of the other luminaries who have called the Pierre home.
What made the buff-colored brick tower stand out — in addition to its copper mansard roof floating above the treetops of Central Park — were its social spaces. The main ballroom had marble columns and mirrored walls. The dining room — overseen by Auguste Escoffier in the early years — was walnut-paneled with gold curtains.
To reach those spaces one passed through the Rotunda Room, originally called the Oval Foyer. With its decorative plaster ceiling, stone walls and marble stairs, it looked like a room from a French castle.
But not for long. Within three years of the hotel’s opening — and with the country plunged into the Depression — the extravagant décor was deemed excessive and was simplified.
It was 1967 — after the Pierre had become a co-op, with residents purchasing their apartments and hiring the first in a series of hospitality companies managing operations — when the artist Edward Melcarth painted the Rotunda Room’s mural: a Renaissance loggia peopled with mythological characters and, seemingly, whomever else he fancied throwing in. Jacqueline Kennedy climbs a staircase. The actor Erik Estrada appears as Adam, eying a gamine Eve in slacks and a boho top.
Some members of the gentry, including Kennedy, weren’t happy about appearing in the mural and requested that they be removed, according to recently found hotel records. The Pierre responded by painting over telltale facial details, giving the visages a more generic look (though the former First Lady is still instantly recognizable).
“It’s over-the-top, even a little bit camp,” said Romualdez, who first encountered the extravaganza in the 1980s.
But by the early 2000s when Romualdez returned to the Pierre to renovate fashion designer Tory Burch’s apartment, the Rotunda Room was less lively. After a formal afternoon tea was eliminated, the furniture looked rather forlorn.
Until Francois-Olivier Luiggi, the general manager of the Pierre, which is run by Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, decided to revive the space.
The carpet is yet to arrive, but the menu is set: Weekdays a center table is piled with meringues, macarons and lemon-blueberry cake. After 7 p.m., light supper fare is served. Thus, visitors can sustain themselves while trying to guess the identity of the man in the mural wearing the blue Nehru jacket — or the guests across the room.