The headquarters of JPMorgan Chase at 270 Park Avenue, a 1961 classic of corporate modernism that was designed largely by Natalie Griffin de Blois, one of the most accomplished women architects of her time. It could be demolished under plans developed by the bank to build a new home, 500 feet higher. Photo: Reading Tom, via flickr
A mega-bank and its ally at City Hall want to tear down a classic of Park Avenue corporate modernism and demolish the legacy of an unsung woman who was one of the great architects of the post-war era
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN
It was a wanton act of urban desecration that was executed by one of the city’s storied corporations and blessed by municipal government, to its enduring shame.
In broad daylight, wrecking crews demolished the Singer Building, an ornate Beaux-Arts masterpiece that had graced lower Broadway at Liberty Street since 1908.
The year was 1968, and it was the early preservation movement’s most spectacular failure. Now, half a century later, that dark chapter in city history is at risk of repeating itself.
Crowned by a shimmering mansard roof and glowing multi-story lanterns, the 612-foot, 47-story home of the old Singer Sewing Machine Co. was the tallest building in the world ever to be intentionally torn down.
Soon, it could lose that dubious honor: JPMorgan Chase has disclosed plans to raze its 707-foot, 52-story tower at 270 Park Avenue and erect in its stead a super-tall headquarters soaring 1,200 feet and 70 floors.
“It would be the largest voluntary demolition in human history,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a preservation advocacy group that is galvanizing opposition to the plan.
It would also erase from our skyline a structure that helped define mid-century Manhattan as the capital of capital and positioned Park Avenue as the must-have corporate address. Most troubling of all, it would negate the breakthrough work of a woman pioneer in the old boy’s club of post-war American architecture.
Natalie Griffin de Blois is not a household name. That’s regrettable. She helped make midtown midtown.
As senior designer at the architectural laboratory of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, she was a driving — if often uncredited — force in the classics of American corporate modernism, including such branding statements as the Lever House of 1952 and the Pepsi Cola Building of 1960, both on Park.
Both are typically attributed to Gordon Bunshaft, SOM’s Pritzker Prize-winner and a legend in the male-dominated field. “It has been said that she did all the work,” Bankoff said. “And he got all the credit.”
ONLY THE DIVINITY KNEW
Indeed, SOM has belatedly acknowledged that the firm’s signature works on Park Avenue could never have taken shape without de Blois.
For she not only cracked the glass ceiling, she also built it:
“Her mind and hands worked marvels in design,” wrote Nathaniel Alexander Owings, an SOM co-founder, in his 1973 autobiography.
“And only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM, owed so much more to her than was ever attributed by either SOM or the client.”
Lever House and Pepsi Cola are both designated landmarks. Both will endure.
But there is a third SOM building in the International Style, its design team led by de Blois, which has never been designated, though in 2013, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) found it “may merit designation.”
And that is the old Union Carbide Building at 270 Park — a sleek black-and-silver, glass-and-steel tower, with double-height lobby, built to straddle the railroad tracks, completed in 1961, a masterpiece both of elegance and restraint — that JPMorgan Chase wants to disassemble.
The chief cheerleader of the demolition? None other than Mayor Bill de Blasio, who on Wednesday, February 21st joined bank CEO Jamie Dimon in announcing plans for the new 2.5 million square-foot tower, which would be built on the ashes of the current 1.5 million square-foot de Blois building.
Under the city’s 2017 East Midtown rezoning plan, a 78-block district enveloping Grand Central Terminal, where scores of office buildings are over 75 years old, can now be rejuvenated, redeveloped or replaced outright with taller, modern towers.
JPMorgan is expected to become the first major project to take advantage of the initiative through a complex purchase of air rights from nearby landmarks, like Grand Central or St. Patrick’s Cathedral for instance, in return for substantial contributions to mass transit or other public realm improvements.
Those are worthy goals. But so is retaining our heritage, our history, our architecture — and even the stainless steel mullions, glazed with Union Carbide products, that de Blois used to frame her building.
The city has been down this road before. Ernest Flagg’s Singer Building was leveled three years after the creation of the LPC in 1965, which itself came into existence, a year after the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, to forestall similar calamities.
Those were the early days of preservationism. No such excuse exists 50 years later. It should never have happened then. It should certainly not happen today. And LPC, now a mature agency with a decent track record, cannot in good conscience make the same mistake twice.
Landmark 270 Park Avenue. Or as Bankoff wrote to 10,000 followers in an emergency eblast last week, “Save the Union Carbide Building!”