Recently I was walking by the St. Regis Hotel on 5th avenue and 55th street in New York, when it occurred to me to go in and look at the “Old King Cole” mural that was the cover for Joshua McHugh’s book “The Murals of New York City”. At the time, it and the rest of the hotel was under restoration but you would never know it, EXCEPT that the mural was missing.
When you mention the “Old King Cole” Welsh nursery rhyme, chances are you’re not thinking of alcohol – unless you’re visiting the famous King Cole bar at the St. Regis, birthplace of the Bloody Mary. And then this innocent children’s tale takes on a WHOLE different meaning!
In 1904 as fashionable New York society continued its march further and further up Fifth Avenue, John Jacob Astor IV opened the new crown in his hotel empire, the St. Regis. At the time the tallest building in the city at a whopping 18 stories (yes, you read that right!!), the press dubbed it “the most richly furnished and opulent hotel in the world”. The hotel had central heating and air conditioning – luxuries unheard of in many homes at the time – and was truly a palace fitted out in marble hallways, French furnishings and sparkling crystal chandeliers.
The famed “King Cole” mural was not originally designed for the St. Regis. In 1906, John Jacob Astor asked renowned American artist Maxfield Parrish to paint a mural based on the nursery rhyme for the bar of his Knickerbocker Hotel. Parrish was a devote Quaker and disliked the idea of painting a commission for a drinking establishment, but was won over with a generous check for $5000 – a fortune at the time when you could stay at the St. Regis for only $5/night.
Parrish completed the scene of “Old King Cole”, portraying Astor’s face as the Kings’ surrounded by attendants and musicians. It’s a little known fact that the artist has the king’s aids holding their noses as a reference to Astor’s flatulence problem!!! I wonder if Astor ever knew about this or if he just played along?
After Astor’s death on the Titanic in 1912 and the later demise of The Knickerbocker Hotel, the murals moved around the city finally coming to the St. Regis in 1932 and finding their place over the bar in 1948.
We refer to the “Old King Cole” as a mural, but in fact its not – as it is not painted directly onto the wall – it’s just 3 very large paintings (each 8 x 10 foot canvases) affixed TO the walls. As one can imagine, it took a small army of people to remove these from the wall and transport them to the restoration studios of Rustin Levinson in Manhattan. Each was kept on their collapsible stretcher giving the ability to loosely “fold” the stretcher like a tortilla to transport each canvas with ease.
The St. Regis is concluding it’s extensive renovation of the hotel and bar (the latter, opened on 4 November to much fanfare). The rooms have been re-fitted to exude timeless elegance by acclaimed design firm HDC which also had a hand in the renovation of what’s now the magnificent King Cole Bar & Salon. And now back and standing proudly front and center, with years of Manhattan grime and remnants of tomato juice and egg whites removed (key ingredients of the perfect Bloody Mary), the “Old King Cole” mural looks now (below) just as it was when Astor commissioned it 107 years ago – rich, luminous and … humorous!
richard rabel: interiors + art
interior design and art advising
new york city
image credits: the transportation and reinstallation of the mural/Joshua McHugh, New York; all hotel shots/The St. Regis Hotel, New York