In writing about the Metropolitan Life Tower last week I briefly mentioned their skyscraper next door: the Metropolitan Life North Building. But I was so caught up in the political winds of the moment that I didn’t go into any further detail. So let’s stick around these parts a little longer – in the foothills, if you will, of Manhattan’s high-rise range, getting acclimated – before we head off elsewhere. I don’t know, maybe after this we’ll be ready to scale the vertiginous heights of Midtown. Yikes!
For four years, starting in 1909, Met Life had the tallest building in the world – their tower on 24th Street – until the 57 story, 792 ft. Woolworth Building displaced it. The Woolworth Building would hold that title for 17 years, through World War I and the 1920s, until a whole new crop of even higher buildings popped up towards the end of that decade. In a matter of months (in 1930-31) the title of tallest building would be transferred from the Woolworth Building to 40 Wall Street to the Chrysler Building to the Empire State – which at 1,250 ft. ended all discussion for 40 years (1,454 ft. if you count the tip, these things can get a bit confusing). It was the intention of Met Life to get in on the competition. The original plan for their Met Life North Building called for a skyscraper of 100 stories, topping out at around 1,300 ft. and stealing back the title of tallest building in the world.
It never happened. Most of the skyscrapers built of this generation were started during the boom of the Roaring Twenties and finished during the first few years of the Great Depression, and the effects were certainly felt. 40 Wall Street could only manage to fill half its office space up until the end of World War II, and only started turning a profit in the 1950s. The same went for the Empire State Building, known by its nickname, the “Empty State Building,” all through the 1930s. The ambitions of the Met Life North Building were hit particularly hard. In 1933 Met Life decided to halt construction entirely, leaving the skyscraper just 29 stories tall. Work continued in two phases after that, with the building’s current form being reached in 1950, although no further height was ever added. It stands now as a squat monument to thwarted plans.
Because the intention was to reach so high the base of the building had to be gigantic. It takes up the entire block between 24th and 25th Street, fronting Madison Avenue, and even with its severely shortened height it was one of the largest office buildings in the world at the time of its completion, with almost 2 million square feet of space. There’s evidence throughout of its abandoned expectations, including the three-story round arches that mark each corner and look completely outsize for a building of its stature. Inside it holds the 30 elevators that would have been needed to serve the original 100 story plan, creating a boon for current tenants who find they rarely have the need to wait.
In its exterior design the Met Life North Building was similar to skyscrapers of its day, with the ubiquitous set-back style required by the zoning laws, whereby the higher you went the narrower the building had to be – insuring light and air could pass through to the streets below. It accounts for the “wedding-cake” appearance of so many buildings from the 1930’s and before. We’ll have to go to Midtown, especially above 42nd Street, to find some more modern styles that shake up the pattern. I think I’m ready for it. Straight lines! No setbacks! Volume emphasized over height! High-rise architecture as built sculpture! I mean, look at this baby.
Yeah, I think it’s time to get more modern.
(Originally posted Apr. 2nd, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)