400 Park Avenue (between 53rd & 54th Streets)
Developer: Lever Bros.
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
By Carter B. Horsley
A seminal work of Modernist architecture, Lever
House redefined not only Park Avenue and corporate architecture,
but also much of urban planning.
This "small" building, by midtown
Manhattan standards, not only forswore utilizing its maximum buildable
size, but it also sacrificed its extremely valuable ground-floor
space for public purposes. While its catty-corner neighbor, the
Seagram Building, was widely credited a few years later with spurring
the movement for plazas, Lever House actually was the real pioneer.
Lever House in 2015 with 432 Park Avenue in background
Its design appears to be a paradigm of clean
lines and simplicity, but in reality it is quite sophisticated.
A tower slab placed near the north end of the
site "floats" above a "floating" platform
raised on stilts, or pilotis.
A large rectangular well is cut into the platform
to create an open courtyard. An employee terrace overlooks the
lushly landscaped courtyard whose large planting area is surrounded
by a continuous seating wall.
Stainless-steel columns support the platform
and tower and all of the lobby, which is only under the tower
portion of the site, except the elevator-bank section, is glass
enclosed. The remainder of the ground-floor space is open and
serves as an arcade, probably the city's widest on both the avenue
and the 53rd Street portion of the site. The open street-level
areas, shown below, beneath the floating platform are rather dark
and unexciting and could use some color, lighting and perhaps
a lot of ivy.
Sometimes a corporate tenant or owner can be
too civic-minded and Lever House's policy of holding exhibitions
of children's art and the like in its glass-enclosed lobby over
the years has detracted considerably from the original design.
The exhibition panels partially obstruct the planned open vistas
and minimize the "floating" intention of the platform
design. Thankfully, such installations are temporary.
The "squeaky clean" cool green glass
and stainless steel facades of Lever House are appropriate for
the headquarters of a soapmaker and in sharp and definitive contrast
to its neighbors and superbly mark and highlight a new architectural
The building almost ended up in Chicago.
Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David
Fishman give a full history of the project in their superb book,
"New York 1960, Architecture Between the Second World War
and the Bicentennial," (The Monacelli Press, 1995):
"In the mid-1940’s, Nathaniel Owings
of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), had prepared
for Lever’s management a sketch model of a slab-like scheme
for a site opposite Chicago’s Drake Hotel; and in 1949 SOM’s
Charles D. Wiley had prepared a design for a downtown Chicago
site that consisted of a slab on pilotis locked into a low mezzanine
that wrapped around a small open-air courtyard. But Lever Brothers
decided to build their headquarters in New York rather than Chicago
because, as a company representative stated, ‘The price one
pays for soap is 89 percent advertising...and the advertising
agencies of American were there."
Gordon Bunshaft ended up becoming the SOM architect
in charge for this project for Lever Bros., whose chief executive
officer at the time of the company acquired the site was Charles
Luckman, who left the company to return to his architectural practice.
He formerly had been a partner of William Pereira.
According to Stern, Mellins and Fishman, "Lever
House was not...the first postwar proposal for a building that
would break dramatically with the street wall on Park Avenue."
They cited a design by Harrison, Abramovitz & Wiggins for
the Alcoa Company called for "a complexly massed stepped
slab office building to occupy the southeast corner of Park Avenue
and Fifty-Eighth Street, where it would replace a fourteen-story
apartment house, 471 Park Avenue, designed by Charles W. Buckham
in 1908." The design, they continued, called for three slab-like
"elements of different heights, combined to form a U-shaped
structure that enclosed a second-level open-air terrace facing
Park Avenue," adding, however, that the plan did not advance
and the apartment house was subsequently stripped of its facades
by Charles N. and Selig Whinston and reskinned in white brick"
The building, which introduced window-washing
gondolas, was widely admired, but, not surprisingly, there were
some dissents. Aline Loucheim regretted that a garden design by
Isamu Noguchi had been abandoned and argued that the rectilinearity
needed some relief and others said it was a little lifeless.
Architectural historian Vincent Scully was
particularly angry with Lever House in his book "American
Architecture and Urbanism, Henry Holt & Company, 1969 and
revised in 1988:
"That first of the modern skyscrapers
on the thoroughfare elegantly set the type for the famous American
screen, or curtain wall, of the 1950’s. Or perhaps the somewhat
less elegant Secretariat of the United Nations was more typical;
the whole group was a weakly achieved linearization of a sketch
by Le Corbusier. The screen itself had a typically American ancestry
and growth: a European original in Le Corbusier’s pans
de verre of the 1920’s, made slicker, thinner, and more
obsessively linear in the traditional American manner. Lever House
was also a typical Bauhaus object: freestanding, shiny, weightless,
asymmetrical, and fundamentally non-urban. It both cut the first
serious hole in Park Avenue as a street and created an unusable
plaza of its own. The Seagram building, on the other hand, although
it, too, clearly wanted to be free-standing in the ville radieuse
rather than on a street, was not unwilling both to assume a firm
cross-axis with the avenue, so creating a fine entrance plaza,
and to stretch its own slab laterally with the movement of the
avenue rather than against, as Lever had done."
What about St. Bartholomew’s Church not
holding the streetline on the avenue, Vincent?
Balderdash! Lever House’s base specifically
holds the streetline as does the edge of the tower! Some critics
just don’t get it, or just hate something "modern"!
Sterns, Mellins & Fishman note that Lever
House is "a triumph of Modernist aesthetics, setting a standard
for postwar corporate architecture":
"With the building’s completion the
thirty-year-old utopistic ideas of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier
were at last realized at full scale. No longer an art of solid
and void, of mass displacing and defining space, architecture
was now a play of light and shadow on glass, an art of literal
transparency and surface reflectivity. The construction of Lever
House marked not only the fulfillment of an architectural but
also an urbanistic vision: with the building slab lifted on a
base and turned at a right angle to the grand axis of Park Avenue,
the traditional street - the rue corridor so loathed by
Le Corbusier - was no longer an exalted standard. The old order
of the ensemble was replaced by a new urban order of individual,
object-like buildings ‘liberated’ in space and set apart
from one another."
It is true that Park Avenue should not have
been tampered with after World War II and turned into a very legitimate,
for a change, historic district. It was not, unfortunately.
One can fault Lever House for spurning Noguchi
and not maximizing their real estate development with a bigger
building and for patronizing an architectural revolution.
Park Avenue was well known before Lever House...as
a pleasant place to stay or live, not as the business pinnacle
of the world, a contribution made completely by Lever House, a
contribution that led to the sustained growth and fantastic redevelopment
of midtown Manhattan.
In retrospect, it is both a basic question
of planning and a basic question of economics. Do you have governmental
design review and direct all new development to areas less than
perfect, nay, attractive for the sake of historic preservation,
hoping that the marketplace will follow such direction? Or, do
you minimize interference with property rights and let the city
developer helter-skelter, chaotic, pretty much as it has? On the
other hand, does the dawning of a corporate headquarters haven,
or the promise of it and all its allegedly attendant wealth and
taxes, justify tampering with a fairly consistent and fairly attractive
street wall of fairly decent buildings.
Don’t mess with mother Park Avenue, some
might have said. Don’t mess with lesser architects, other
s might retort.
Common sense sometimes prevails. Lever House’s
glassiness became one of the most copied works of art in the history
The 24-story tower has had problems replacing
its green-glass curtain wall over the years, but the project remains
a monument to urban civility and elegance.
In 1990, a Spanish bank erected the very handsome
tower directly west of the site, greatly enhancing the ambiance
of the courtyard and terrace and the overall setting of Lever
A few years before, the Park Avenue Plaza office
tower, also by S.O.M., directly across 53rd Street and behind
the Racquet & Tennis Club fronting on the avenue paid fine
homage to Lever House with its crisply detailed cool green curtain
For a manufacturer of soap, the building's
glistening headquarters was appropriately "squeaky-clean"
In 2005, Aby Rosen, the owner of the building,
opened a new, elegant restaurant on the ground floor on East 53rd