Tag Archives: 1952

Lever House

Lever House (1952) was New York’s first curtain wall skyscraper, beginning Park Avenue’s switch from masonry to glass buildings. The 24-story green glass tower gave impetus to the International Style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. What’s more, it led the owner to switch careers, from sales back to architecture! Lever Brothers president Charles Luckman quit the company before Lever House was completed, moved to California and his first love, architecture. (He had trained for architecture at the University of Illinois, but was sidetracked to sales during the Great Depression.)

Though Luckman was involved in Lever House’s design, the architect of record was Gordon Bunshaft of famed Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Lever House avoided the typical “wedding cake” skyscraper design by occupying less than 25 percent of its lot (an exception to the 1916 zoning law that dictated stepped setbacks to permit sunlight to reach the street). Lever House’s success was widely copied by other tower and plaza designs (notably Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece Seagram Building, diagonally across the street!).

Most of the Lever House ground floor is open plaza; the glass-enclosed portion includes an art gallery open to the public.

Along with the steel and glass curtain walls came another timely innovation: a window-washing gondola mounted on a rooftop track!

While the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission gave Lever House Landmark status November 9, 1982, the building’s original steel and glass facade had deteriorated. In 1998 Unilever sold the building; the new owners replaced the crumbling steel and glass with an aluminum and glass curtain wall – completed in 2001 and again designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Lever House Vital Statistics
  • Location: 390 Park Avenue between E 53rd and E 54th Streets
  • Year completed: 1952
  • Architect: Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owens & Merrill
  • Floors: 24
  • Style: International
  • New York City Landmark: 1982
  • National Register of Historic Places: 1983
Lever House Suggested Reading

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United Nations

The fledgling United Nations took great pains to demonstrate international cooperation (and independence) in the design of its headquarters. But by some accounts, the world’s architectural elite were as combative as a room full of generals.

As New York Magazine summed it up:

“The pragmatic New Yorker Wallace K. Harrison found himself placating squabbling visionaries. Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, in particular, fought over the shape, number, and orientation of the buildings, whether the glass curtain wall should include a sun-shading grid of stone, and — most ferociously — who got credit for what. Le Corbusier complained to his mother of the ‘apparent kidnapping of [his] U.N. project by USA gangster Harrison.'”

The result was a landmark that influenced skyscraper architecture throughout New York – and worldwide.

I’m fascinated by the buildings’ changing personalities, depending on your vantage point and the time of day.

It’s a minor miracle that the United Nations has managed to accommodate its membership over the years. In 1947 the U.N. had 57 members, and building plans allowed for growth to 70 members. In 1964, expansion allowed for 126 members. The assembly was expanded again in 1980, and the U.N. now has 193 members. The U.N. is in the last months of renovating its headquarters. The six-year program (to be completed in 2014) removed asbestos, rewired, added sprinklers and fire alarm systems, even replaced the famous glass walls. Fortunately (for traditionalists), the world body chose to preserve the buildings’ appearance. It’s a massive project: The original construction cost $65 million; the renovation will cost $1.8 billion.

United Nations Vital Statistics
United Nations Recommended Reading

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