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Sixth Avenue & 42nd Street

23 Mar

So yeah, we’re basically talking about the center of global capital here; Midtown baby!

I was wondering about beginnings the other day: how all these massive businesses or institutions that seem so complicated got their start – you know, finance, communications, utility companies, that kind of thing .  Were they all massive and confusing from the get go, or did they all just start in somebody’s garage?  (You know, and then through hard work and making sure that government didn’t hamper their drive, potential and confidence with pesky regulation grow into the heroic job creators that they are today?)

Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street is home to the Bank of America Tower – headquarters for the company’s investment banking division.  So yeah, lots of global capital probably cruising through the joint, well on computers at least.  Forbes listed Bank of America as the 3rd biggest company in the world in 2010.  So how did they get their start?  I hate to tell you, but it seems like it was basically in somebody’s garage….and by an Italian no less!  That’s right, Bank of America was founded as the Bank of Italy by Amadeo Giannini, in San Francisco in 1904.  Now sure, he’d made his money as a broker for his step-father’s produce business first and had married the daughter of a North Beach real estate magnate before becoming one of the directors in a bank in which his step-father owned an interest, but Giannini did start his bank in a fashion that springs right from the heart of the American Dream.  Though American born himself Giannini realized that few banks catered to immigrants and took advantage of that vacuum to create the Bank of Italy – geared towards the working-class Italians of North Beach.  When the earthquake of 1906 hit, Giannini was able to rescue all his deposits – something not every bank, or even close to every bank, was capable of – and a few days later he started making loans to help with the rebuilding of the city, from his makeshift office composed of a plank placed over two wooden barrels.  And everyone of those loans was eventually paid back.  Now is that story true?  Who cares?  America!  (Bank of) America!

One Bryant Park

The Bank of America Tower is currently the third highest building in NYC, after the still uncompleted One World Trade Center and the ever-solid Empire State Building – though it really doesn’t look that tall.  It’s probably the all-glass facade that masks it vertical grandeur, and the fact that it doesn’t taper off into a spire.  Though technically its top does include an “architectural spire” that allows it to reach its official height of 1,200 feet, although to me there’s nothing architectural about it.  I’ve never quite understood this height distinction thing in that regard – when a spire counts and when it doesn’t.  The Empire State Building is usually listed as a height of 1,250 ft. – but it goes up to 1,454 if you include its antenna spire.  But how is that antenna spire any less a piece of architecture than the Bank of America Tower?  Who can say? (How many people care?) I guess that I should probably ask the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat about this kind of thing.  They’re the foremost authority on the official height of tall buildings (you know they just added that Urban Habitat to their name to sound like they don’t just care about how tall a building is).  These guys really exist, and they apparently have over 450,000 members; if you ever run into one of them at a party stick around.


They gave the Bank of America Tower their Tall Building Americas Award in 2010….so clearly they like the joint.  Since the building was completed in 2009 it’s generally received a lot of accolades, mainly for its ecological design.  It was the first skyscraper in the world to receive a Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification, and so I’m sure the place is pretty cool.  I’d probably think it was cooler if it wasn’t the investment banking division headquarters of a major bank.  But shit, why I got to be a hater?  Let me do a little more research and I’ll let you know.  I’m sure I’ll come up with some reasons.


Park Row & Spruce Street

29 Nov

It’s a sad time for newspapers, sure, and sure, it’s not something I’m happy about.  I like to read things on paper – and not just for nostalgia reasons.  If I’m holding a physical paper in my hand I read it all, and so I learn a little more.  If I’m reading news on-line I just don’t do that.  C’est la vie, I guess…I’m not the type to complain really.  As with anything, I can’t help but try to put things in perspective; there was a time (a lot of time) when newspapers as we know them didn’t exist; they’ll be a time to come when newspapers as we know them won’t exist either.  I can live with that, I guess.  I guess I could even live with no more real books (I mean what would I do, kill myself?) Though one question: can we stop saying that e-books and Kindles and i-Pads and things are more friendly for the environment?  I mean aren’t these gadgets made out of plastic and don’t they run on power, and aren’t they designed to be obsolete a couple years from now?  Books are made out of trees – which are things that grow – which means if you do it right they’re a limitless resource.  Honestly, am I wrong about this people?  Maybe I’m wrong about this, people.

I know another argument against the loss of newspapers is the loss of good reporting.  And I’m totally behind that idea.  Was reporting much better back in the days of multiple daily papers competing in every city?  I couldn’t say (I mean I guess I could, if I really studied it).  But if you read a bit of New York City history you inevitably come across the name of all these papers that are now gone: The World, The Sun, The Tribune, The Herald, The New York Journal, just to name a few of the more famous.  I was reminded of them in writing on Richard Morris Hunt last time around, and his Tribune Building specifically, on Printing House Square at Nassau & Spruce Streets – one of the earliest high-rise elevator buildings in the city (and now demolished).  It housed the headquarters of The Tribune and went up in 1875.  Fifteen years later in 1890 the New York World Building was finished nearby (after its earlier headquarters burned down in 1882 – on the site of today’s Potter Building) – sometimes called the Pulitzer Building as well for The World’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer.  Just one year before the new World Building the New York Times Building (1889) was finished, also next door, and also – like the World building – designed by the architect George B. Post.  The whole area running down Park Row was nicknamed “Newspaper Row” – back when close proximity to City Hall was a real asset for the industry.

The New York Times Building is the only one of the three that still stands, though today it’s owned by Pace University.  The Times didn’t stay in the building for very long to begin with; in 1903 they moved uptown to Longacre Square: one year later re-named Times Square by proclamation of mayor George B. McClellan Jr.  (after heavy lobbying by Times owner Adolph Ochs).  Ochs purchased The Times in 1896 and his family is still the principal owner today.  But The Times itself goes back to 1851, founded by Henry Jarvis Raymond as a Republican-leaning daily paper (with the exception of Sundays).  Raymond was a former Whig politician and an instrumental figure in the creation of the Republican Party, serving as the second chairman of the RNC.  The Times‘ star rose in the early 1870s when a series of exposes on Boss Tweed helped lead to the end of his notorious reign over NYC politics.  A decade later in the 1880s they moved away from Republican support to declare themselves a politically independent newspaper – though I’m sure conservatives today would deride them as a wing of the Democratic Party.  I’d counter that The Times strikes me as an impeccably intelligent and fact-based paper – and hey, facts tend to have a liberal bias.

Just like The Times you could look at a lot of these papers (extant and extinct) by looking at the names associated with them.  It’s another thing you come across a lot in looking at New York City history.  The Times had the Och family, and then the Sulzbergers who married into them.  The Tribune was manned by Horace Greeley; The Herald by the Bennett family; William Cullen Bryant was the long-time editor of The New York Evening Post – the same paper we call The New York Post today.  That’s right, this bastard was once the editor of the newspaper that now runs headlines more like this.

Time marches on.

Lexington Avenue & 53rd Street

1 Aug

On October 17, 1975 Abe Beame, the mayor of New York, was prepared to declare the city bankrupt.  He had a statement drafted and ready for release, claiming, “I have been advised by the comptroller that the City of New York has insufficient cash on hand to meet debt obligations due today. This constitutes the default that we have struggled to avoid.”  It was a serious low point for the city (to say the least).  Beame didn’t have to release it though: the president of the teacher’s union, Albert Shankar, provided $150 million that morning, from the union’s pension fund, to buy municipal bonds and ensure the government would stay afloat, at least for one more day.  It was a move the mayor had been hoping for; and he had his sights set on a federal bailout as well.  President Ford had other ideas, declaring two weeks later that he would refuse any outright grant to the city, and prompting the pretty awesome and famous New York Daily News headline seen here.

Things got arguably worse from there, before they got better (eg: the 1977 blackout), but there were a few signs that could be pointed towards as at least symbolic of an approaching recovery.  One of them was the opening of the massive Citigroup Center in 1977, taking up the entire block on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue.  Aside from symbolizing a return to economic strength for the city the building also represented a break from the International Style, ubiquitous in skyscraper design for at least the past quarter century.  The Citigroup Center’s intentionally asymmetrical angles paved the way for the postmodernist high-rises that would follow in the coming decade.

The most notable features of its design were its elevated base and its slanted, 160 foot roof (the entire building, at 915 feet, is one of the tallest in the city).  The base of the Citigroup Center rises on four gigantic pillars, and one central shaft, about 10 stories high, before the actual bulk of the building begins.  It’s a disorienting effect, making the structure appear to float above the street, made more disorienting by the fact that the four pillars are placed in the center of each side, not at the corners.  The elevated base was planned in response to one of the preconditions of the project.  Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church owned part of the site, having stood on the corner of 54th Street and Lexington Avenue since 1905, and before Citigroup could build they had to agree to rebuild the church in the exact same spot and ensure that it still had an unobstructed view of the sky (where god lives).  They also paid them $9 million dollars for the sale of their air rights alone.  Air rights!  What a city!

Elevating the base solved the problems raised by the church – allowing the corner of the skyscraper to cantilever over Saint Peter’s without blocking its view.  It also had the nice effect of freeing up space beneath the building, creating a sunken public plaza and giving me something to get excited about.  Public space in Midtown, right below a skyscraper!  You can actually leisurely hang out in a corner of the world who’s general design is entirely based around an equation that equals money.  I don’t know if you could get away with drinking here, but you should probably try it, and you know, think about things.

The slanted roof was designed for more aesthetic reasons than functional – a desire to break from the right angles demanded by the International Style.  The original plan envisioned mounting solar panels on the roof’s surface, providing an alternative energy source for the building, although it was never actually realized.  The same went for a plan to house residential apartments there.  A year after the building opened the debate over how to use the roof was solved when a troubling problem was discovered.  An engineering student studying the skyscraper for a graduate class called up the building’s engineer, William LeMessurier, with an observation.  Based on the student’s calculations LeMessurier discovered that the Citigroup Center wasn’t reinforced enough against strong winds – in theory a hurricane strength gust (something that hits New York on average every 16 years) could have caused the building to collapse.  The hasty, and secret solution, was to reweld large parts of the frame (at night when nobody would notice) and to install in the roof a tuned mass damper: basically a giant weight that could move to offset the swaying of the building.  The Citigroup’s tuned mass damper – the first to be installed in a skyscraper – is a 400 ton, 30 foot square concrete block that runs on a oiled track, guided by sensors.  Wild stuff.

Citigroup was actually named Citicorp at the time of their building’s construction, or maybe Citibank; I don’t know, I didn’t feel like getting too deep into corporate history this week.  Regardless, they got a federal bailout themselves, not too long ago, which was more than New York could manage – the first time around at least.  They were deemed “too big to fail,” but I mean, come on, what’s bigger than New York?  We’ve got floating skyscrapers, with giant concrete blocks in their roofs; what has Citigroup got?  Oh…never mind.

(Originally posted Apr. 16th, 2010 on

Madison Avenue & 25th Street

25 Jul

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

Madison Avenue & 24th Street

24 Jul

Man, I don’t even know what corner to write about.  All I’ve been interested in this week is health care reform passing.  It’s amazing!  It’s all I’ve wanted to think about – it’s all I’ve wanted to read about.  Have you ever heard of blogs?  Apparently there are a lot of them, and a lot of them have an opinion on current events.  I’ve been delving deep.  My favorite articles are the ones along the line of exposing the Republican’s tactics, slash, reveling in their stupidity.  They lost in 2006, and they lost in 2008.  The lesson they took from that: we’re not going to work with the majority at all.  So guess what?  They locked themselves out of the biggest social legislation in 40 years.  They could have been in on this!  They could have had a say in creating it.  Instead they tried to make the bill the apocalypse – whipping their base into a frenzy by pumping out one hundred percent disinformation.  They bet their entire strategy on stopping it.  And they lost!  And now what’s their plan?  To repeal it!  Forget the fact that it’s logistically impossible (until at least 2013), they say, let’s double down on this strategy that screwed us in the first place.  I love it!

And look, really, here’s why it makes me happy.  They got greedy.  They kept saying, health care needs reform, just not this reform, but they didn’t even mean that.  They just wanted the seats in November.  They thought they’d found the formula to derail the Obama White House and win big come the mid-term, and that’s absolutely all they cared about.  And they were completely wrong.  And I suppose that excites me because I feel a change coming, or perhaps a renewal of the feeling when Obama was elected.  I don’t think the majority of the American people were upset at Obama because of his agenda, I think they were disheartened because he wasn’t getting any of it done.  And now he has.  And now the Republicans have to run explicitly on saying no, claiming to be the party of retribution for a bill the American people never wanted.  But what if it turns out they do want it?  What will the Republicans say then?  I don’t know.  And I really don’t know, maybe a majority of Americans won’t like this bill, but I find that hard to imagine.  Although I do after all (as Spaulding Gray used to say) live on “an island off the coast of America.”

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been mostly thinking about this week and saying to anyone who will listen (which means mainly my girlfriend – I haven’t gotten out much). Hmmm…..what else have I been thinking about? Skyscrapers!

There’s something reassuring in riding around town recognizing the profiles and names of different buildings, like, “Ah, the Metropolitan Life Tower is shrouded in fog today – it’s lonely at the top.”  It keeps me occupied; kind of like a pop-quiz everywhere you look.  And sure, the Metropolitan Life Tower isn’t the top of the top anymore, but at one point it was.  From it’s completion in 1909, until the opening of the Woolworth Building in 1913, this was the tallest building in the world, standing at an even 700 feet.  That wasn’t the intention of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, or its architect Pierre LeBrun, who’s original plan was about half the size, but once they started building they figured they might as well go all the way.  It made sense for the site, which was small and wasn’t going to yield much profit in square-footage per office anyway.  Instead they could trade-in for the prestige and attention that would come with having the tallest building in the world.  And it seemed to have paid off, as their continued skyscraper expansion can testify: constructing the Metropolitan Life North Building next door in 1933, and purchasing the much larger (and controversial) PanAm Building in 1981.

The tower itself can be seen as the apotheosis of the early 20th century tendency in New York to model high-rises after European buildings.  In design and execution the Metropolitan Life Tower bears a strong similarity to St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice, although the architect denied any direct attempt at imitation.  And in fact St. Mark’s Campanile itself wasn’t standing when the Metropolitan Life Tower was constructed.  The original Venetian campanile, completed in 1514, actually collapsed completely in 1902.  The decision was made to reconstruct it exactly as it was and after ten years of work the campanile returned, at which point the Metropolitan Life Tower was already standing.  Regardless the similarity between the two is undeniable.

So there you go, a little something to distract me from thinking about politics.  I figured I had to throw a little history in here, just to stay on message – the Corner by Corner message.  Like the Republicans!  I hope they stay on message too, all the way until November.  I really do.  What’s their message again?  No! No! No!  How catchy.

(Originally posted Mar. 26th, 2010 on

14th Street & Irving Place

20 Jul

Riding into the city over the Williamsburg Bridge I’ll often glance at the clock tower that rises above Union Square, just to see how I’m doing on time. (I’m almost always early – curse you mama for the way you raised me!)  But what is this clock tower I stare at?  I realized the other day that I had no idea.  That’s one of the funny things about living. I was going to say: “about living in the city,” but I think it’s true everywhere; the city just points it out more.  We can have these daily relationships with various structures we don’t know anything about.  It’s why ideally I would like to learn the history of every building that I walk by, just as I’d like to know the types of trees I pass on every block (a good guess here is that they’re London Plane, or maybe Ginkgo).  For now I suppose I’ll settle for trying to get down the larger buildings, the signposts, the ones that you can’t help but see at various points and angles throughout your day.

The clock tower by Union Square, on 14th Street and Irving Place, is known today as the Con Edison tower.  It was built in 1928, designed by the firm of Warren & Wetmore of Grand Central Terminal fame (and also the original Chelsea Piers).  The tower was just one part of Con Edison’s larger headquarters, which took up most of the block between 14th and 15th Street, and had been in various stages of construction since 1910.  The original architect Henry Hardenbergh, better known for the Dakota Apartments and Plaza Hotel, designed a 12-story and then 18-story building on the site, but as Con Edison continued to grow they felt the need to build ever higher.  They brought in Warren & Wetmore to design a tower that could stand out on the city skyline as a symbol of their company.

The tower was designed with a sixteen-foot-wide clock face on each of its four sides, a recessed loggia above that and on top of its pyramidal cap a gigantic 38-foot bronze lantern, about the size of a four story building.  The tower was lit up at night with colored dials on the clock, a wash of changing colored light on the loggia, and five beacons inside the lantern: one shooting straight up, the others coming out the sides.

The intention of this light display was to advertise the wonders of electricity.  The irony is that when the Con Edison tower was completed in 1928 the company was still known as the Consolidated Gas Company.  Consolidated Gas had formed in 1884, with the merger of six of NYC’s independent gas companies, in large part as a response to the threat they saw posed by electricity.  It didn’t take them long however to realize that they might be on the losing side of history and starting around 1900 Consolidated Gas began buying up their rivals – electric companies – most notably the New York Gas, Electric Light, Heat & Power Company, which itself held a controlling interest in Edison Electric (we’re getting deep into some corporate history here).  Consolidated Gas then combined all its electric utilities into a subsidiary known as the New York Edison Company.  In 1936 they officially changed their name to the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, at which point about 75 percent of their revenue came from electricity.  Today they’re one of the largest investor-owned energy companies in the United States, taking in approximately $14 billion a year.  Well yeah, they send you a bill every month and you pay them.  What else are you supposed to do?

(Originally posted Mar. 5th, 2010 on

Lexington Avenue & 51st Street

7 Jul

Well that’s it, seems like winter has officially arrived. We had a good run there – I mean yesterday was pretty awesome. But looking forward it’s only going to get worse from here. We can all kiss genuine happiness good-bye for a little while. (For me genuine happiness is somehow tied up with the idea of not having to wear a shirt.) In warmer weather, it doesn’t matter what you do – if you have time to kill just sit outside. The winter makes us planners, hurrying to get indoors. I just hope I’ve stored up enough corners to write about, so I don’t actually have to go out into the cold and look at them.

But you know, I do like Christmas, so maybe this is a little premature. Isn’t that the general line: that winter is all right until after New Years, and then it should be over with? Isn’t that why Jesus was born on Dec. 25th, to help get us through the darkest time of year, by throwing him a birthday party? Come on, who wouldn’t respond to a nighttime walk by Rockefeller Plaza for example, a light snow falling, the Christmas tree and ice skating rink and that statue of Prometheus? There’s something about Art Deco that really reminds me of the holidays.


What is that exactly? Well for one, Art Deco is all about ornamentation. It’s like an art design style based on a Christmas tree. But even more, I think it’s the sense of assurance that Art Deco embodies – this was a civilization that knew what it was all about. This was our Empire style, not much different than what they were doing in Assyria or Babylon however many millennium ago. So you know, with so much certainty of feeling, that Christmas must have meant something back then, even if all it meant was commercialization. To see Christmas at Rockefeller Center is to see it in that context.

Just down the road from Rockefeller, at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street, is one of the prettiest Art Deco skyscrapers in Manhattan. It’s the old General Electric Building, and its history is intertwined with its more famous, Christmas-friendly neighbor. The building went up in 1931, originally intended to house the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a corporation that had itself been founded by General Electric in 1919 (and only sold in 1930 as the result of anti-trust charges). But before RCA ever moved into the building they were wooed away to 30 Rockefeller Plaza (30 Rock), which opened in 1933. NBC, also originally owned by General Electric, leased space in 30 Rock as well, and it remains their headquarters today. That left General Electric free to move into the building at 51st and Lexington, where they stayed till 1988, when they reacquired both RCA and NBC, and purchased 30 Rockefeller Plaza, now called the GE Building. In 1993 General Electric donated their old building to Columbia University. Columbia University, by the way, had been the original owner of the land that Rockefeller Center was built upon, leasing it to John D. Rockefeller in 1928, before finally selling it all to the Rockefeller Group for $400 million dollars in 1985. They now lease out the old General Electric Building to various tenants.

Phew, you follow all of that? The important thing to notice here  is that the rich keep getting richer. And maybe that the rich making all these business deals is how most of the rest of us get our jobs. Is that good, bad, or just reality? I don’t know. They do build some pretty skyscrapers. The main feature of the old General Electric Building is its 50-story Gothic tower, topped by an elaborate crown with lightening bolt motifs. The whole building was designed to blend in with the Byzantine architecture of St. Bartholomew’s Church, which it backs up against on its west side. It does a nice job in that regard. St. Bartholomew’s Church is probably another good place to visit if you want to feel the holiday vibe. You could take a little tour around the block, St. Barts and the GE Building, to encapsulate the Christmas spirit, peace on earth and an electrical appliance.

(Originally posted Dec. 4th, 2009 on