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The Socony-Mobil Building

150 West 42nd Street

375-391 Lexington Avenue

640-658 Third Avenue

131-155 East 41st Street

Block 1296 Lot 46

The Socony-Mobil Building viewed from the northwest

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.

View from the West

View from the West

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 inroads.

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 Levy, demolished)."

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.

 

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