Albertine Bookstore Brings Starry Colors to a New York City Landmark
New York City is missing one thing—stars. And not stars of the big or small screens—it has plenty of those—but stars as in those glowing orbs only visible in a night sky not dominated by the bright lights of a big city. However, the new French-language bookstore Albertine, located in the landmark Payne Whitney Mansion, offers New Yorkers the chance to stretch out under the stars right on Fifth Avenue.
Albertine has transformed a long-forgotten corner of the mansion into a new forum for the centuries-old conversation between America and France.
The French Embassy has owned the Payne Whitney Mansion since 1952, and the mansion is now home to the Embassy’s Cultural Services. Albertine, which opened in 2014, is the embassy’s newest cultural service to its host country. With its 14,000 (mostly French) titles and its celestial mural of the constellations and planets, Albertine has transformed a long-forgotten corner of the mansion into a new forum for the centuries-old conversation between America and France. Antonin Baudry, then cultural counselor for the French Embassy, told The Paris Review that he envisioned the space as “a French-American venue for international debate, to invite the most original writers in the U.S. and Europe to discuss art and finance and politics.”
Private Library Made Public
The story of the Payne Whitney Mansion has always been one of discovery. One summer night in 1906, just before the mansion was completed, its architect, Stanford White, was murdered on the roof of his most famous creation, the second iteration of Madison Square Garden. During the evening’s theatrical entertainment, White was shot three times by the deranged husband of Evelyn Nesbit, a young model and actress whom White had once seduced.
While White’s personal life may have been a bit tawdry, his buildings were formal and elegant, as were many of his famous clients. The Payne Whitney Mansion was commissioned as a wedding gift from Colonel Oliver Payne to his nephew Payne Whitney and his new bride, Helen Hay. The mansion symbolized the joining of two of America’s most prominent families, and Colonel Payne spared no expense in celebrating such a monumental merger.
The first floor’s marble rotunda features marble columns that surround the fountain where a replica of Michelangelo’s Young Archer stands. Keeping with the High Renaissance tradition, the rotunda’s ceiling is festooned with images of lattice and vines. Just off the rotunda is the mansion’s most famous room. Known as the “Venetian Room,” this pinnacle of Stanford White’s vision is wrapped in wall-to-wall mirrors. The room’s cornice is made of metal latticework embellished with decadent porcelain flowers. Eighteenth-century French furnishings occupy the space, but they’re there solely to admire—the room is accessible only by special permission.
Just beyond the Venetian Room, at the back of the first floor, waits Albertine (the second floor is off-limits unless you’re lucky enough to be invited to one of the French Embassy’s black-tie affairs). According to Baudry, Albertine “was designed to look like a grand private library.” In a New Yorker profile, Baudry told the story of finding old photos of the mansion and noticing a library. Where’s that? he wondered. It turns out that, over the years, the Whitney family’s library had somehow been converted into storage and then later divided into offices. At that moment, Baudry became determined to restore the space to its former glory. This story of discovery is also the source of the bookstore name: Albertine is the name of the enigmatic and elusive heroine of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu in the original French).
An Uncommercial Space
Renovations began in 2016 under the supervision of renowned French architect Jacques Garcia. Garcia is famed for creating luscious spaces, and if you’ve ever set foot in one of his other New York City projects, such as the NoMad Hotel, you know there is no mistaking a Jacques Garcia space. Albertine’s bookshelves are painted an inviting shade of jade and are outlined by Argentine trim. The shelves are all topped with crown molding, and on top of the molding sit marble busts of famous French writers as well as famous American Francophiles: Diderot and Voltaire, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The book tables are made of rich, dark wood, the kind of wood that books deserve to be paired with, the kind of wood that makes you want to curl up and read.
And if you do give in to the urge to curl up and read, just walk upstairs to one of the many leather sofas that sit under the mural of the night sky. The color palette for the mural is reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s palette in his most famous painting, Starry Night. The celestial shade of blue is reflected in the upholstery on the chairs that linger around the edges of the room. The mural was inspired by frescoes from the Italian Renaissance, an olive branch to the mansion’s architectural roots. Another inspiration for the mural was Franz von Stuck’s 19th-century music room at the Villa Stuck in Munich.
The store is lit by lamps shaded with amber silk, which only adds to the sense that you’re in some sort of fantasy library, the kind that exists only in period dramas.
The dark blues, gold, and burnished woods that dominate the space reinforce this leisurely vibe, a vibe that was completely intentional. Not your typical bookstore, Baudry didn’t want Albertine to feel like a retail space. As he told The Paris Review, “You can buy books, but you can also just sit on the sofa and read them.” The store is lit by lamps shaded with amber silk, which only adds to the sense that you’re in some sort of fantasy library, the kind that exists only in period dramas.
However private Albertine may feel, its mission is very public. In fact, it is the manifestation of the French government’s commitment to the intellectual exchange between France and America. In that spirit, Albertine hosts readings, film screenings, and lectures. It is also the home of the annual Festival Albertine, a weeklong event that brings together French and American writers and artists for public conversations. As a space, Albertine reflects its mission statement: “a belief in the power of literature and the humanities to increase understanding and friendship across borders, and in the power of books as a common good for a better world.”
Albertine inspired us to create a color palette befitting a grand library. Pratt & Lambert’s Scent of Semillon 16-25 is a palate-cleansing shade that will leave room for more color. Premium Yellow 14-15 will attract light during the day, and at night the light from a reading lamp will brighten the room. If you have any literary-themed prints or monographs to hang, try applying Red Mosaic 3-18 to unfinished frames. Taking a cue from Albertine’s celestial mural, apply Sailor Suit 27-16 to that one centerpiece item, whether it’s a desk, book table, or rocking chair. Finally, smaller pieces of wood, like the base of a footstool or a strip of trim, painted Midnight Black 33-16 lend depth to the room.