By Carter B. Horsley
This sparkling, shiny, stainless-steel-clad
office tower was erected in 1956 and mains one of the city's most
impressive full-block commercial developments.
It was the largest office building
development in the city since Rockefeller Center and its location
across 42nd Street from the great Chrysler Building - an earlier
stainless steel extravaganza - and across Lexington Avenue from
the impressive Chanin Building soldily reinforced the Grand Central
office district as a major new force in the city.
Although it set no new records
for heights, its monumental bulk was very impressive as was the
tenant after which the building was named. Socony-Mobil had been
located in Lower Manhan and was one of major major investments
of the Rockefeller Family. The commitment to East Midtown did
not go unnoticed and would soon be followed by a very significant
shift in new commercial construction from downtown to midtown,
highlighted by the development a few years afterwards of the Lever
House and Seagram House, both on Park Avenue in the 50's and both
instant icons of world-class International Modernism that would
set new high standards for a new generation of towers and put
enormous pressure on Lower Manhattan to retain its executives
who generally had to endure an extra commute from midtown to downtown
to older and less exciting properties.
Like its neighbors, the Chrysler
and Chanin Buildings, the Socony-Mobil office tower offered its
workers weather-protected underground passageways to subways and
Grand Central's commuter trains as well as it many restaurants
and stores, tennis courts and the meeting facilities in its connected
Biltmore, Commodore and Roosevelt hotels.
In addition, the new building
offered enormous floor plans to accommodate the largest technology
under floor wiring and for its executives it offered a skyscraper
luncheon club, The 45th floor Pinnacle Group, far larger that
the Chrysler's Cloud Club and more modern than the 60 East Club
half way up on the 27th floor of the Lincoln Building to the West
on the other side of Park Avenue. It was clear that oil interests
were becoming ever more important powerful.
Although Grand Central Depot
opened in 1870, it was not until 1878 that an elevator railway
service was introduced on Third Avenue between 67th Street and
South Ferry and on Second Avenued north of 23rd Street in 1880.
a spur line connected them at 42nd Street linking them to the
depot. Some time later, the IRT subway, which ran from City Hall
to 42nd Street and west to Times suare made the spur line absolute
in in 1923 it was demolished leading to the erection of the Bowery
Savings Bank in 1921-1923 and 1931-1933, the Chanin Building 1927-29
and Christyler Building 1928-1930. To the east development was
slower with only the Daily New Building of 1929-1930 making significant
The Socony-Mobil Buiding was
built on land leased form the Goelet estate. Francis Goelet emigrated
from Amterdam to the colony of New York in 1676 and his descendants
Peter Goelet (1800-1879) and Robert Goelet (1809-1879) amassed
vast fortunes in banking and real estate and were founders of
the Chemical Bank. In 1838 they began acquiring lots on the 42nd
Street block where Pottier & Stymus, furniture designers who
operated an "integrated factory" facing Lexington Avenue,
from the end of the Civil War to 1918.
Under Robert Goelet (1880-1966)
the family increased its holdings on the block, purchasing six
lots near the corner of Third Avenue and 41st Street during the
1940s. This acquisition, according to the landmark designation
report, was made with the expectation that the end of elevated
rail service in Manhattan was near. With the closing of the Second
Avenue line in 1942, the Goelets correctly anticipated that the
Third Avenue el would follow and as the Socony Mobil Bulding approached
completion in 1956, service ended and the iron structure was demolished.
The designation report said
that "as early as 1942, the Goelet estate began to contemplate
redevelopment of the site," adding that "John B. Peterkin,
an architect specializing in apartment houses and civic structures,
was hired as a consultant."
"Most of his designs,"
the report continued, "were relatively free of ornament and
he often worked in a stripped Classical or streamlined Moderne
style. His Manhattan commissions included: 53 Park Place (1922,
in association with Cross & Cross); 1016 Fifth Avenue (1927,
part of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District); the Airlines
Building (1939-40, demolished), across from Grand Central Terminal
on 42nd Street, the East Side Airlines Terminal (1950-51, demolished),
located on First Avenue, close to the Midtown Tunnel; and the
New York Coliseum (1953-54), in association with Leon & Lionel
Peterkin's plan called for
a three-story base with a 30-story tower with a large roof garden
on the setback. The plan however failed to attract "blue-ribbon"
tenants with long-term leases.
The designation report maintained
that the "driving force behind the Socony-Mobil Building
was Peter B.Ruffin, vice president of the Galbreath Corporation....Ruffin
recalled: 'There is was, a solid mass of bootblack stands, fruit
stands, hat-repair joints, and third-rate restaurants...the land
belonged to the Robert Walton Goelet estate, and I learned that
the estate did not want to sell, did want the property improved,
but didn't want to be exploited by real estate operators....After
months of discussion with the estate, Galbreath and I decided
to put the building up ourselves.' To accomplish this, Ruffin
needed a new design, major tenants, and financing. Harrison &
Abramovitz, possibly the city's best-known architectural firm,
was invited to collaborate with Peterkin in 1952....in July, 1953,
executives of the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company signed a letter of
intent to lease more than half the structure. With this agreement
and several others in hand, the Equitable Life Assurance Society
and National City Bank agreed to loan Galbreath and Ruffin $37.5
million toward construction."
In 1951, Harrison & Abramovitz
had worked with Galbreath in designed 525 Penn Place (now Three
Mellon Bank Center), a 51-one story office building in Pittsburgh,
and in 1959-61 they would design the 41-story Continental Can
Company building for the company at 633 Third Avenue between 40th
and 41st Streets.
According to the designation
report, "The New York Times reported that the forty-two story
skyscraper would be 'the largest commercial building project erected
in Manattan since Rockefeller Center."
The four-story base of the
building is clad with dark blue carrara structural glass that
is opaque and framed by stainless steel moldings that project
slightly forward. "Sleek, dark, and somewhat reflective,
this choice of color helps distinguish the building from its neighbors,
many of which are clad with light-colored brick or terra cotta....At
the center of the 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue facades are
the primary entrances. Each is marked by a shallow eyebrow curve
arch. It is likely that these dramatic elements were designed
by Harrison and they recall his life-long interest in abstract
painting and sculpture forms, a tendency which he explored in
such iconic World's Fair pavilions as the Trylon & Perisphere
(1939, demolished) and the Hall of Science (1964). The two entrances
fit squarely into this pattern, juxtaposing a dramatic sweeping
form against the rectinlinear elevations of the lower floors....
" ...bronze, aluminum,
and stainless steel. These materials had distinct advantages"
ease of installation and thinness - a characteristic that increased
the interior dimensions of each floor. Harrison & Abramovitz
were among the first architects to clad buildings entirely in
metal, most notably, the Alcoa Building (1950-53) in Pittsburgh.
Conceived to showcase the manufacturer's chief product, the thirty-story
elevations are enclosed by prefabricated gray aluminum panels
stamped with an inverted pyramid pattern. In susbsequent yeas,
aluminum was widely used in Manhattan: on the National Distriller's
Building (Emery Roth & Sons, 1954) at 99 Park Avenue; 666
Fifth Avenue (Carson & Lundin, 1957, significantly altered)'
and the Administration and Technology Building *(De Young, Moscowitz
& Rosenberg, 1959) of the Fashion Institute of Tecynology,
on West 28th Street. While aluminum was briefly considered for
the elevation so the Socony-Mobil Building, stainless steel was
chosen due to Galbreath's ties to the steel industry....Considerably
more expensive than other materials, the steel manufacturers agreed
to match the price of aluminum and 'write off the cost of any
price differential as the cost of promoting steel.' Above the
fourth story, the elevations are covered with 20-age type 302
stainless steel - a surface area of more than ten acres and weighting
about 750,000 pounds. Developed between 1903 and 1912 in England
and Germany, stainless steel was typically used for non-structural
pruposes in stiruations where there is a high potential for corrosion.
Among various architects to pioneer the use of this material was
William Van Alen, designing of the neighboring Chrysler Building,
completed in 1930....It was reported than' more than 100 panel
patterns and shapes were considered before the final selection
was made....From the outset, it was understood that the decision
to press decorative patterns into the panels might generate controversy.
It was, consequently, explained in functional terms; the reliefs
stiffen the panels, diminish reflections, and create a surface
in which 'dirt and grime can be readily washed away by rain.'
Lewis Mumford, acrhicture critic for the New Yorker, viewed it
less favorably. He called the design a 'disaster' and said that
the elevations looked as if they were 'coming down with measles.'
Fnded by John D. Rockfeller
in 1882, for more than sixty years the firm had been based in
lower Manhattan at 26 Broadway (1920-28), a designated New York
City landmark). Originally called the Standard Oil Company of
New York, it merged with the Vacuum Oil Company in 1931 and was
known as the Socony Vacuum Caompny. Vacuum was dropped from the
name in 1955 and Mobil Oil was added, a product trademark it held
since 1920....The Rockefeller family used business connections
to attract a roster of international tenants and major coporations,
most notably Standard Oil onf New Jersey, which moved fvrom 26
Broadway to 30 Rockefeller Plaza (now the General Electric Building
) in 1933. Socony's decision to follow its sister company to midtown
was viewed as an extrmely positive development. Announced at a
time when many corporations were consdiering moves to the suburbs,
the project bolstered midtown's standing as a viable alternative
to the financial district..
In 1966, the Socony-Mobil Company
changed its name to the Mobil Oil Corporation and until the company
relocated in 1990 to Virginia, the building was called the Mobil
Building. The Hiro Real Estate Company, which is owned by the
Honzawa family, acquired the building in 1987 for $240 million.