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One Chase Manhattan Plaza

Block 44 Lot 1

View from the plaza looking north

View from the south

By Carter B. Horsley

This huge, shiny, boxy skyscraper was eredted in 1960 and helped stop a corporate exodus from Lower Manhattan and led a downtown renaissance that led to the creation of Battery Park City and the World Trade Center.

At the same time, it created one of the world's greatest plazas as well as one of the world's greatest sunken plazas.

In the process, however, it ruined the Lower Manhattan skyline that had been, up until its erection, the most romantic and famous in the world because of its spindly tall towers that rose almost symmetrically in its center.

This tower has no setbacks and its 60 stories of 30,000-square-foot floors are topped by a roof without skyline ornament.

Looking up at tower

Lookinp up from under the Dubuffet sculpture

On February 10, 2009, it was designated an offricial New York City landmark.  Its designation report provided the following commentary:

"Faced with simmering panels of natural color and black-enamel aluminum, H-shapped mullions and glass, One Chase Manhattan Plaza is among the largest and most important 20th century skyscrapers in New York City.  The project was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill...with J. Walter Severinghaus as partner in charge, Gordon Bunshaft overseeing the development of the design and Jacques E. Guilton as lead designer....Chase merged with the Bank of the Manhattan Company in 1955 and the new headquarters was planned to consolidate 8,700 employees under a single roof.  David Rockefeller played a leading role in the project; as executive vice president he convinced Chase to remain downtown and hire SOM, resulting in a 813-foot-tall slab-like tower that dramatically altered the skyline and character of the financial district....One Chase Manhattan Plaza signaled a new start for this historic area.  Not only did it stand out sharply from its older masonry neighbors, but the planning of the site, incorporating an irregularly shaped 2 1/2 acre plaza, established a welcome break from the narrow, twisting streets that characterize much of the neighborhood.  Construction started in 1957 and was  mostly completed by 1961.  The south plaza and basement levels were dedicated in 1964, incorporated a 'Sunken Garden' by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi.  Resting 16 feet below the plaza, theis serene work of art is visibile from above and through curved glass windows that separate it from the bank's main branch located on the concourse level.....As hoped, One Chase Manhattan Plaza did lay a significant cgroundwork for a downtown reniassance in the 1960s, leading to construction to a succession of corporate towers immediately west, from the Marine Midland Bank Building in 1967, to the World Financial Center complex in 1985-88."

View from the northeast

View from the northeast

The structure "was one of the financial district's first buildings," the report continued, "to boldly reflect the aesthetic and planning strategies of 20th Century European modernism, often called the International Style....The Bank of Manhattan...first served depositors in 1799 where 40 Wall Street stands today and Chase was founded at 104 Broadway, near Cedar Street, by banker and publisher John Thompson in 1877.  Named for Salmon Pl. Chase, secterary of the U. S. Treasury under President Abraham Lincoln, it grew to become the largest bank in the world by 1930.  in the late 1940s, however, National City Bank and the Bank of America National Trust and Savings....surpassed Chase ....Johyn J. McCloy was the bank's president (1953-55), and later, chairman (1956-60).  Trained as a lawyer, he had been Assistant Secretary of War under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and headed the World Bank from 1947 to 1949.  To supervise the project, in January 1955 he promoted David Rockefeller (b. 1915) to executive vice president for planning and development.  Rockefeller had first joined the bank as a manager in 1946.  His parents, Joyhn D. Rockefeller Jr., and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, were major philanthropists, having played leading roles in the creation of many famillar New York City structures....David Rockefeller remained associated with Chase for most of his career, becoming its president in 1960, and chairman of the board and chief executive officer in 1960....[He] helped found the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Associationin 1958.  Under his leadership, this organizationn helped plan the South Street Seaport, the World Trade Center, and Battery Park City....Rockefeller worked closely with William Zeckendorf (1905-1976), a long-time family advisor, to find an ideal location....It was the pending sale of the block directly north of the bank's Pine Street headquarters, bounded by Cedar, Nassau, Liberty and William Streets, that helped finalize their decision.  The 60,000-square-foot site had been occupied by a Romanesque Revival style structure (Charles W. Clinton, begun 1882) and six other buildings erected by the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.  Vacant since 1950 when the firm moved to Broadway and 55th Street, the block was currently owned by the Guaranty Trust Company of New York."

The design of the building by SOM had a recessed, 30-foot-high lobby, which originally had a mezzanine level, and deep large floors.  Mechanical floors were on the 11th, 31st and 51st levels.

northeast corner

Northeast corner

The designation report states that "originally constructed with white marble terrazzo paving and enclosed by a solid parapet of white travertine that was personally selected by Bunshaft in Tivoli, Italy. The L-shaped plaza levels the sloping site and conceals six floors of operaitons that would have been difficult to fit into a single floor of the tower, including an auditorium seating 800, the world's largest bank vault, and a staff cafeteria with the capaciity to serve an estimated 10,000 meals a dayl...Isamu Noguchi...served as consultant on the plaza's design.  Early schemes, dating form 195 6, including square- and rectangular-shaped wells in which a spiral staircase at the southwest corner served as a dramatic entrance to the bank.  In 1957, however, the stairs were removed and the rectangle became a circle."

"Bunshaft and Noguchi," the report continued, "wre frequent collaborators and became close friends.  Their earliest project was an unexecuted raised garden for Lever House, followed by a group of square courtyards at the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters (1957) near Hartford.  Work on the 'Sunken Garden' began in 1961, during the period when Noguchi was planning a courtyard and sculptures for the Beinecke Library at Yale University.  These commission share many characteristics: neither can be entered and, like the Zen Gardens he and Bunshaft visited during a trip to Kytoto a year earlier, were conceived for contemplation.  Enclosed by large glass windows, both can be viewed from above or in the round.  While both incorporate patterned paving, they differ in shape, form, and materials.  The Beinecke courtyard features a level rectangular base, bu the garden at Chase was, according to the artist: 'sculpturally treated - like the wild and surging shell of the sea and rising out or floating on it would be elemental rocks.'  Noguchi selected seven black basalt rocks of various sizes taken forrm the bed for the Uji River near Kyoto, Japan....he told the Herald Tribune in 1963: ...the rocks I found in Japan for this garden contain a levitating as well as a gravitating quality.  Some of them will seem to soar, others, remain close to earth.'"


Dubuffet sculpture from the west

Circular areas in the sunken garden were designed to hold seasonal displays of various flowers andplants and shortly after completion  some "passer-by" added some goldfish but the fish soon died "apparently victims of the braass priping and copper found in the numerous pennies pitched into the pool."

The building's large piers had been used recently at the Time-LifeBuiding in midtown that had been designed by  Harrison & Abramowitz & Harris and completed in 1960 and a much narrower variation was employed at SOM's Uniuon Carbide Building on Park Avenue that was also completed in 1960.

Noguchi sunken plaza and fountain

Noguchi's sunken plaza and fountain

There was a fire in the building's sub-basement in 1962, some windows "popped" in 1964 and a bomb went off in the bank's internaational department on the 16th floor in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War.  

Noguchi fountain detail

Noguchi Foundation

Jean Dubuffet's "Group of Four Trees," a forty-foot-high sculpture, was installed in the plaza in 1971 and not long afterwards the terrazzo in the plaza was replaced with granite pavers and the solid marble perimeter wall replaced with a glass wall.  The bank moved its headuarters to midtown on 1996 and would later became known as J. P. Morgan Chase & Co.  In 2008, the place was named to honor David Rockefeller.

The building's other addresses are 16-48 Libery Street, 26-40 Nassau Street, 28-44 Pine Street, and 55-77 Wiliam Street.

Plaza view to the east

Plaza view to east

There can be little doubt thatDavid Rockefeller's decision to keep Chase downtown and to erect a major and imposing "modern" skyscraper was very critical to the well-being of Lower Manhattan, especially at a time when the corporate exodus to the suburbs was a major concern for the city and as many CEOs decided that they could do without the "secondary" commute from the suburbs to downtown.  One need only watch such movies as "Sabrina" or "Executive Suite" to understand the culture of Lower Manhattan's views from the proverbial 40th floor.  Stunning color photographs of the harbor from the huge picture windows of the Wall Street Club on the 60th floor of the building, however, did a lot to elevate the declining status of downtown and indeed the views were stupendous and the club was proably the the city's most improessive business luncheon venue.

The massive bulk of the building, of course, make it a skyline bully, hogging all the attention and intimidating the thinner "boys on the beach.  Had SOM sculpted its roofline somewhat it could have mitigated a lot of the building's negative impact visually on the skyline because it was centrally located unlike the World Trade Center that was yet to come.

View from Delmonico's

View from the south

As a result of its contruction and the leadership of David Rockefeller and his brother, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the downtown renaissance would soon be vigorously reinforced by the construction of the World Trade Center and Battery Park City on the landfill created with the dirt of the center's excavation.  A few years after it was built, the Rouse Corporation created the south Street Seaport on the East River just south of the Brooklyn Bridge with the hope that its large retail presence and hisotrical assocations would also significantly bolster downtown's status and it led to the redevelopment of Water Street.

Rear of Cipriani's

View up William Street

The lure of very cheap rents and greatly reduced taxes in the suburbs, however, was too irresistible for many companies in the city who fled downtown and even midtown.

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