Tag Archives: Madison Avenue

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 Takethehandle.com)


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 Takethehandle.com)

Madison Avenue & 72nd Street

18 Jul

It seems like a good week for staying indoors, ideally somewhere with a lot of windows offering a multitude of views of the windy, wet and slush filled street. I’m picturing a giant wooden dining room table covered with hardcover books and the only light that gray and muted color that is the sun diffused through layers and layers of cloud. It’s like a boat on the North Sea, dark and lonely in the daytime, though maybe not lonely so much as just outside the flood. The flood being time. And although snow and rain might feed the flood, as they’re falling they’re something else entirely: they’re the moment, “this life’s howling gale.” Or to quote W.G. Sebald, “Why does time stand eternally still and motionless in one place, and rush headlong by in another? In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it?” I’m picturing a room that’s still and motionless; I’m picturing a room that floats.

Really I’m picturing the Rhinelander Mansion: the Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo Mansion, on 72nd Street and Madison. This place was basically constructed to be haunted, cut loose from time – a rock sticking out of the river, or else just bobbing round and round as in an eddy. It was commissioned in 1895, designed in a neo French Renaissance style that already made it seem much older than it was, and finished in 1898. Then for over twenty years it sat uninhabited.

It was commissioned by Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo (hence the name), of the very wealthy, land-owning Rhinelander family, their New York ancestry dating back to 1696. The Rhinelander’s were one of the big building families of the 19th century, especially on the far Upper East Side, and particularly on the 72 acres of land that had earlier made up their summer home. The mansion (west of those holdings) was built by the firm of Kimball & Thompson and was based on the Loire valley chateaux of the early French Renaissance. It’s size alone made it one of the more notable and imposing of the many palaces going up at the time for New York’s aristocracy. What made it even more notable was the widowed Mrs. Rhinelander Waldo’s decision not to move in when the building was completed. Instead she lived directly across the street with her unmarried sister, until her death in 1914. From there she could look out the window and watch her empty mansion slowly deteriorate. It was also burglarized a number of times; apparently she kept about $200,000 worth of art-work in the unused house – a mark that was too hard for some people to resist.

Just before Gertrude’s death the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn foreclosed on the mortgage and began court proceedings to allow the building to become a commercial property. They were successful and in 1921 it was finally occupied, though only partially and not as a residence, when an antique dealer leased out the ground floor. The top four floors were eventually turned into two separate residential apartments, though not for particularly long. In 1971 St. James Episcopal Church right next door bought the mansion to serve as their administrative offices. Then in 1983 Ralph Lauren acquired the lease (though not the deed) for the entire building and after a massive overhaul turned it into his Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store, which it remains today.

So there you go: the classic style of the old wealthy being sold in a mansion of the old wealthy, by a company that’s very wealthy (Forbes listed Ralph Lauren as the 224th richest person in the world in 2009 – that’s out of a world population of about 6.8 billion). So time marches on. The flood catches up with most things (well of course – this is the Upper East Side of Manhattan!) It looks like we’re not going to be able to stand here in the gray light after all, solitary and above the water, even if, right now, it’s snowing out.

(Originally posted Feb. 26th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)