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Metal Buildings

8 Beekman Street

Fašade under construction at Frank O. Gehry's Beekman Tower

By Carter B. Horsley

Ever since the completion of Frank O. Gehry's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain in 1997, the world has been clamoring for shiny metal buildings with sinuous curves.

For a while afterwards, the museum planned a similar, large, spectacular structure by Gehry along the FDR Drive south of the South Street Seaport, but unfortunately it could not raise the funds.

Gehry also lost out in a design competition for a new tower for The New York Times on the West Side but eventually was commissioned by Barry Diller to build a modest office building on West Street in Chelsea for his IAC company. That very attractive project reflected the nautical heritage of the Hudson River with its sail-like shape, but the fašade was glass, not metal.

Finally, Forest City Ratner commissioned Gehry to design two metallic projects in New York City: a very tall, mixed-use tower near City Hall at 8 Beekman Street and an enormous but lower project in the Atlantic Yards section of Brooklyn.

The Beekman tower, which will contain a school and about 900 rental apartments, will be taller than the Woolworth Building on the other side of City Hall Park but its greater claim to fame will probably be that its entire fašade above the school will be stainless steel and that it is likely to out-dazzle the Chrysler Building, the city's most famous and romantic stainless-steel pinnacle.

The Beekman project's reflections are greatly enhanced by the fact that its facades ripple with subtle, seemingly random curves.

The fiscal crisis, however, got Gehry recently kicked off the Atlantic Yards project as the developer hoped to save $200 million with a less expensive and non-stainless-steel design by lesser-known architects. The surprise decision smacked of bait-and-switch but Gehry's design was not as fine as his metal designs at Bilbao, Beekman Street or the impressive Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building's crown, spire and eagles are stainless steel

Gehry's Beekman Tower, of course, is not the city's first or most famous metal skyscraper, on honor held by the 1931 Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Alen with its great glittering tiaras of stainless steel that have dazzled the world since its spire erupted from within the building in 1931.

Empire State Building

Empire State Building

At the same time, the Empire State Building, designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon,was being completed and it may have lost the beauty contest to the Chrysler Building but its tall and fine stainless steel wings that point towards the heavens are sometimes overlooked because of all the light that emanates from the top of the building.

While Gehry's stainless square footage may easily exceed the Chrysler's, its convoluted form is still not a match for the very imaginative top of the Chrysler and its great illuminated triangular windows.

Despite the wide acclaim for both the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, metal pretty much vanished from the city's architectural vocabulary for a generation in part because of the Depression and World War II.

Several major office buildings were clad in metal in the 1950s, but the popularity of the glass-clad Lever House won the day and it metal would not reappear until the 1970s and then only rarely until recently when several new projects have once again embraced it.

Gehry, of course, did not invent metal buildings. Tubular metal structures known as Quonset Huts proliferated across the country during World War II.

A Quonset hut is a lightweight, prefabricated structure of corrugated galvanized steel having a semicircular cross section. Its design was based on the Nissen hut developed by the British during World War I and it was named in 1941 after the site of their first manufacture, Quonset Point, at the Davisville Naval Construction Battalion Center in Davisville, a village in the town of North Kingstown, Rhode Island.

The nation's first major post-war "metal" tower was the Alcoa Building that was erected in Pittsburgh in 1953, a 30-story tower designed by Harrison & Abramovitz as a showpiece for the use of aluminum in buildings.

The aluminum reduced the building's weight and the architects would seventeen years later design the U.S. Steel Tower, a 841-foot-high, 64-story office building that was notable famous for its triangular shape with indented corners and for being the first to use liquid-fireproofed columns. U.S. Steel deliberately placed the massive steel columns on the exterior of the building to showcase a new [in 1970] product called Cor-ten steel. Cor-ten resists the corrosive effects of rain, snow, ice, fog, and other meteorological conditions by forming a coating of dark brown oxidation over the metal. (The material, however, caused a discoloration of surrounding city sidewalks and other buildings.)

(Another dark, steel-clad tower can be found at 1 Liberty Plaza at the intersection of Broadway, and Liberty, Church and Cortlandt Streets. The 1974 tower was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and was described by Norval White and Elliot Willensky in their fourth edition of "The A. I. A. Guide to New York City as "a gloomy, articular, cadaverous extravaganza of steel.")

The success of the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh was quickly followed by several major "metal" office towers in midtown Manhattan.

Harrison & Abramovitz designed the Socony-Mobil Building occupying a full city block at 150 West 42nd Street in 1956. It was notable for its dark blue base and its setback stainless steel tower.

Socony-Mobil Building

The Socony-Mobil Building viewed from the northwest

This sparkling, shiny, stainless-steel-clad office tower remains 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 and across Lexington Avenue from the impressive Chanin Building solidly 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 Manhattan and was one of 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 latest technology of under floor wiring and for its executives it offered a skyscraper luncheon club, The 45th floor Pinnacle Club, 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.

The Socony-Mobil Building was built on land leased form the Goelet estate. Francis Goelet emigrated from Amsterdam 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 Building 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 landmark 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 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 designing 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.

The four-story base of the 42-story 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 rectilinear 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&.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 purposes in situations 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, architecture 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.'"

Funded 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 Company. 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 corporations, most notably Standard Oil of New Jersey, which moved from 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 extremely positive development. Announced at a time when many corporations were considering 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.

666 Fifth Avenue

666 Fifth Avenue

In 1957, Tishman Realty & Construction Co., Inc., opened their 39-story office building designed by Carson & Lundin at 666 Fifth Avenue and wrapped in embossed aluminum.

Tinsel might have been more effective for despite a patterned treatment of the aluminum facade panels, the effect is more dull than glittery. At Christmas time, however, the building hangs up some brightly colored lighted stars on its facade that add some gaiety and from its completion the building sported its street number in big red lights above the top floor, which happened to house for decades its "Top of the Sixes" restaurant and bar, which offered very nice views, one of the very few public places with high-level vistas in the city. The facility is now private, however, and in 2002 the building replaced the large red "666" at the top of the building with "Citi."

Built before the city changed its zoning to encourage open plazas or enclosed public spaces such as atria or gallerias, this building innovatively opened up its ground floor spaces with high regard for the public and visitors. While the facade experiment was less successful, the building has aged well and is an inoffensive, modern background building that originally had an abundance of respect for weary pedestrians. Here was a great lobby in need of a great building.

It is not unusual for a building's lobby to be completely different stylistically from its facade, but this one made one want to cry out to experiment with its aesthetic in a new building, hopefully somewhere in the city.

Isamu Noguchi, the country's greatest modern sculptor, created three important elements here: the elevator bank ceilings and floors and the planted waterfall screen in the open lobby.

The main design element of the ceilings and the waterfall screen are sinuously cut thin railings, all different, that are used to create a rippling wave effect. (The lobby ceiling effect was clumsily copied on a larger scale at 222 Broadway.)

The ceiling railings are white-painted metal while the waterfall screen railings are stainless steel.

The elevator bank floors are covered with irregularly cut marble pavers, mostly white, some black and others red. The effect is Mondrianesque.

These effects presaged Deconstructivism by a couple of decades.

The "outside" lobby was also important because of its unusual layout and its wonderful large slabs of slate covering the floor. The Fifth Avenue frontage had two broad, unobstructed alleys, shown below, that penetrated deep into the building all the way back to the waterfall and the entrance to the elevator bank areas where the alleys were met by a through-block alley or galleria between 52nd and 53rd Streets. In the middle of the Fifth Avenue frontage, between the two alleys, was a rounded glass retail area that for many years was very handsomely occupied by Alitalia. The retail spaces on the north and south sides of Alitalia had large clear store windows so that the alleys were well lit and did not suffer from blank wells.

The building replaced nine buildings and part of the site was once occupied by a mansion designed in 1882 by Richard Morris Hunt for William K. Vanderbilt that was torn down in 1927 for a commercial building and another mansion designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1905 for Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt Jr.

In 1998, however, the southern avenue retail frontage of this building was taken over by the National Basketball Association and the northern retail section was being converted for use by Brooks Bros., the famous Madison Avenue clothing store. The renovations were substantial and at complete odds with the building.

Whereas before, the retail spaces were neatly contained beneath the building, the new stores were flamboyant and large. The basketball store's facade is rather amusing with a design of nets and basketballs, but a unified vision of architecture has given way here, once again, to eye-level design.

In 2000, the owners of the building decided upon another major change and installed a new retail store, Hickey Freeman, at its avenue entrance, which was then closed. The base of building briefly had mirrored angled element in 2000 and 2001 but was removed in early 2002.

In 2007, the building was acquired by Kushner Cos., which is based in Florham Park, N.J., for a record $1.8 billion, then the highest price ever paid for an office building. Two years later, the building's occupancy rate had dropped percent and lost its biggest tenant, Citigroup Inc., according to an Bloomberg News article.

In 2009, Brooks Brothers decided to close its store that occupied the northern third of the building's avenue frontage.

99 Park Avenue

99 Park Avenue

In their great book, "New York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism Between The Second World War and the Bicentennial," Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman provided the following commentary about Emery Roth's design for 99 Park Avenue:

"In 1952 Emery Roth & Sons drew plans for the National Distillers Building (1954), at 99 Park Avenue, a twenty-six-story, 445,000-square-foot building on the east blockfront between Thirty-ninth and Fortieth streets. The new building filled several long-vacant lots, including one on the northeast corner of Thirty-ninth Street that during the Depression had served as the temporary site of two exhibition houses: a Georgian-style house designed by Roger Bullard and Clifford Wendehack and an all-steel house designed by William Van Alen. The National Distillers Building also replaced several mid-nineteenth-century rowhouses, including one at 93 Park Avenue, occupied by the Navy Club, and one at 99 Park Avenue, on the southeast corner of Fortieth Street, which had been occupied by the Nurses' Club. The Roths' design marked a significant achievement in technology: the pre-fabricated curtain wall, comprising 1,800 two-story-high panels, was the first in the city; and it was erected in six-and-a-half working days, a remarkable feat compared with the eight weeks or more that a conventional masonry fašade would have required. Although masonry was originally specified, the decision to switch to aluminum was made after plans were begun. The change was triggered by executives of Tishman Realty & Construction Company, the building's developers, who had been impressed with the fašade of the Aluminum Company of America's Pittsburgh headquarters, designed by Harrison & Abramovitz (1953). Though the Roths' window wall was ingeniously designed, it was not particularly handsome. A four-faceted pattern was introduced on each panel to provide strength and reduce glare. Lewis Mumford found some value in the 'effective contrasts of light and shade' that resulted from the curtain wall's faceted surface, but he cautioned against overuse of the material: 'A whole avenue of aluminum walls would be dismal, and as grime overlaid the surface, it might likewise become dingy, too.' Although Mumford felt that the 'dour' quality of unwashed metal might suit the grimy industrial atmosphere of Pittsburgh, he noted that 'in New York, which has hitherto lifted a bright, almost feminine face to the sky, this material can be welcomed only as an occasional note of contrast."


465 Park Avenue
465 Park Avenue

99 Park Avenue is not as bad as the authors suggest and in 1954, Emery Roth & Sons designed the 22-story office building at 465 Park Avenue at 57th Street with a curtain wall of glass windows and patterned aluminum spandrels, a smaller and less inspired building.

The authors were considerably more impressed, understandably, about the former Pepsi-Cola Building at 500 Park Avenue:

"Built under the old zoning but in effect a base without a tower, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Pepsi-Cola Building (1956-60), at 500 Park Avenue, was ambiguous in its urbanism but quite distinguished in its aesthetics. Located at the southwest corner of Fifty-ninth Street, it replaced the building designed by Napoleon Le Brun that had served as the headquarters of the Board of Education between 1893 and 1940. Though its base-mass was similar to that of typical prewar buildings, the eleven-story, 120,000-square-foot structure with a curtain wall of matte-finished aluminum and glass was detailed to appear as tower-like as possible, set off from its immediate neighbors by an L-shaped, black-granite-clad recessed service core that formed shadowy notches. The building's curtain wall was notable for its elegance: with alternating horizontal bands of glass and metal that seemed to be pinned in place by thin vertical mullions, it was pure and crisply detailed, the quintessential essay in reductionism. The curtain wall was also technically innovative, with half-inch-thick, nine-by-thirteen-foot polished-plate-glass windows, the largest planes then available, set within a silver-anodized aluminum frame to create a powerful impression of transparency and weightlessness."

FLAnk additioin at FIT

SHoP Architects' addition at the Fashion Institute of Technology
The first buildings erected for the Fashion Institute of Technology in Chelsea, according to Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman in their great book, "New York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial," were "the up-to-the-minute if highly derivative Administration and Technology Building and the Morris W. and Fannie B. Haft Auditorium, designed by the firm of De Young, Moscowitz & Rosenberg and completed in 1959 on mid-block sites on the north side of Twenty-Seventh streets. Stylistically related to the aluminum curtain-wall designs of Harrison & Abramovitz, the nine-story Administration and Technology Building incorporated facades clad with faceted aluminum panels in two tones of blue and punctuated by windows framed in a gold color; the principal entrance was marked by a sweeping arc-shaped canopy. Two decades after completion, the design of the two buildings seemed as dated as poodle skirts. To Paul Goldberger the 'origami-fronted' administration building looked as if it 'might be the best hotel in Dubuque." The harsh criticism was a bit unwarranted and in 2009 SHoP Architects designed an addition that covered up most of the 28th Street fašade.

Seagram Building

Seagram Building

The Seagram Building's use of bronze spandrels and topaz-colored windows quickly became one of the world's most imitated skyscraper models when it opened in 1959. Originally, Samuel Bronfman of Joseph E. Seagram & Company commissioned Pereira & Luckman to design the tower in large part because Charles Luckman's role in the design of Lever House across the avenue. When Bronfman's daughter, Phyllis Lambert, however, saw the design she protested vehemently to her father that he should use a different architect and he put her in charge and with advice from Philip Johnson she selected Mies van der Rohe.

In 1970, Emery Roth & Sons designed the medium size office building at 77 Water Street for the William Kaufman Organization as a cool palette for that firm's wild urbanity. Its metal panels were minimal but neat compared to the ill-proportioned white steel horizontal girders of I. M. Pei's 1973 Wall Street Plaza at 88 Pine Street.

Of course, the city's most celebrated metal building project was the twin-towers of the 1972-7 World Trade Center whose design architect was by Minoru Yamasaki. The stainless-steel mullions protruded significantly on the fašade where they were very closely spaced, limited vistas from within but presented shiny, if not blinding, reflections in certain light conditions.

Citicorp Center

601 Lexington Avenue (Citicorp Center)

In 1977, Citibank completed a major new skyscraper with silvery aluminum panels occupying a full block at 601 Lexington Avenue designed by Hugh Stubbins of Cambridge, Mass. The slant-roofed tower was known as Citicorp Center was notable for being raised on stilts to make room on the site for a new St. Peter's Lutheran Church as well as entrances to the subway and the project's retail atrium.

Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo attempted a chunkier stainless steel top several years ago at 750 Seventh Avenue but its awkward shape and proportions don't measure up to world class shine.

Chatham 44

Chatham 44 on southeast corner at Tenth Avenue

In 2009, Stephen B. Jacobs Group designed two small apartment buildings that employed metal panels, Chatham 44 on the southeast corner of 44th Street and Tenth Avenue, which had silver-colored panels, and 17-unit The Copper Building at 215 Avenue B at 13th Street, which had copper-colored aluminum panels.

385 West 12th Street

385 West 12th Street

FLAnk has designed and developed with Peter Moore Associates a "copper" building at 385 West 12th Street that will have residential condominium units including four townhomes and copper fašade.

FLAnk was founded in 2002 by Jon Kully and Mick Walsdorf has also designed the handsome filigree fašade for the mid-block apartment building at 441 East 57th Street.


245 Tenth Avenue

245 Tenth Avenue

One of the bolder new metal designs can be found at the 11-story residential condominium building at 245 Tenth Avenue adjacent to the High Line Park in Chelsea.

The building has distinctive facades of randomly stamped stainless steel panels with a faceted diamond pattern and tinted, fritted and clear glass and the basic plan of the building is of two rectangles that are perpendicular to one another but share a small part of an edge of each.

The building's unusual window patterns are somewhat like a crossword puzzle and the panelized system of semi-reflective stainless steel are designed to appear like the graduated shades of gray within glades, conjuring, according to Della Valle Bernheimer, the project's architects, abstract images of steam clouds from locomotives that used to run on the High Line.

Grasso Holdings, whose other projects in the city include 50 Pine Street and 124 West 24th Street, is the developer of the 21-unit project.

The architectural form of 245 Tenth Avenue, however, is further complicated by the fact that the building bulges outward at a slight angle near its base.

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