Where is the center of New York City? Some would say midtown given its status as a dealmaking hub. Others would argue it’s downtown, at least culturally. But a little over 100 years ago, a New Yorker would have said Madison Square Park. As the novelist Willa Cather wrote of the district in 1915, “Madison Square was then at the parting of the ways; [it] had a double personality, half commercial, half social, with shops to the south and residences to the north.”
Today, the park is still surrounded by buildings that define the economic and cultural history of New York. There’s the Flatiron Building, wedged between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, home until 2019 to Macmillan Publishers and now empty and recently repurchased by a consortium of its current owners at a May auction. The four Corinthian columns on Madison Avenue’s landmarked Appellate Division Courthouse are thicker than the oldest trees in the park. And the original Madison Square Garden was once just north of today’s Madison Square Park. But the building that (literally) overshadows them all is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, also known as One Madison Avenue — not to be confused with the MetLife Building that looms over Grand Central or One Madison, a new luxury-condo building one block south developed by Related. With one oversize clock on each façade and a spire inspired by St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice, the Met Life Tower has dominated the corner of East 24th Street for more than a century. Completed in 1909, it was for a few years the tallest building in the world, though now, of course, it’s one of the stubbier silhouettes on the city skyline.
Most passersby hardly register the building’s modest mid-century east wing, a 150-foot-tall structure huddled in the shadow of its 700-foot counterpart. But soon, a glass-covered addition, set for completion this year, will almost double its height. Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates is assembling 13 stories of offices, gyms, and a restaurant on top of the east wing’s 14-story steel skeleton. It’s a big office bet at a time when the post-COVID commercial-real-estate market in Manhattan looks grim. But developers SL Green and Hines, alongside the National Pension Service of Korea, have nearly filled the building’s 1.3 million square feet with tenants. Anchor tenant IBM, which has floors eight through ten and part of the seventh and second levels, will be joined by two investment firms and a three-story gym from Chelsea Piers Fitness. On the dining side, Chef Daniel Boulud is taking over 16,000 square feet for a not-so-petite petit marché and a steakhouse. Boulud will also be operating a 7,000-square-foot lounge for tenants on the roof of the original building. At the top of the new structure, an indoor events space will segue into a landscaped patio with views of Madison Square Park. The main tower was converted in 2015 to the New York Edition, a luxury hotel.
In a city that’s almost completely built out, placing new buildings on top of old ones is a time-honored development strategy. Last year, investor Jeff Greene plopped 18 stories of condos on top of a six-story building in Hudson Square. Developer Two Trees is constructing a barrel-vaulted glass-dome office penthouse that will rise over the roof of the former Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg. Three miles south, in downtown Brooklyn, JDS Development Group grafted a 1,066-foot-tall skyscraper onto the historic Dime Savings Bank building. On the smaller end of the height spectrum, Cadence Property Group added two stories and 30 condos to a working post office in Hell’s Kitchen.
However, the building-on-top-of-a-building wasn’t the primary focus of SL Green’s original plan for One Madison Avenue. When it bought the complex in 2005 from MetLife, it wanted to convert the clock-tower building to apartments and lease the shorter east wing as offices. Ownership stakes in the property changed hands a few times, with Marriott converting the tower to a luxury hotel in 2012. Six years later, SL Green announced it had chosen KPF as the east-wing-expansion architect. The developer team avoided a reconfiguration of the main tower — it’s a landmark — and instead gleaned air rights from surrounding properties to achieve the addition’s desired height and mass, a move that allows for a taller building without the need to seek more approvals for the extra height.
Although the new building and the old are dissimilar at first glance, they’re connected mechanically and materially. KPF drove megacolumns into the gutted base of the mid-century structure to support the addition, carving out a mechanical umbilical cord within the new building that connects the landmarked tower’s heating and cooling systems to the new building, project architect Amy Savage explained. This extensive system is tucked underneath the structural steel overbuild at the new tower, right under the truss on the tenth-floor terrace. While the glassy face of the addition is most prominent, a closer look reveals limestone details similar to the historic tower. In fact, they’re identical: KPF sourced its Alabama limestone from the same quarry.
Beyond shared guts and stone faces, the new and old buildings tell two stories about the evolution of corporate architecture in New York. When the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company hired Napoleon LeBrun & Sons to design its 11-story, full-block home office in the 1890s, it was one of the first corporations with an uptown headquarters (most were clustered downtown in what’s now known as the Financial District). A little over a decade later, it commissioned the same architect to create the tower with the four clocks. The company didn’t necessarily need the space; it wanted a monument. The new building projected stability and security, two essential qualities for an insurance company in an industry that at the time was plagued by fraudsters and failures. The lantern at the top of its spire, nicknamed “the Light That Never Fails,” figured prominently into Met Life’s advertising many decades after the building’s completion.
The tower was also one of the city’s earliest contenders in the skyscraper height wars; it beat the (now-demolished) Singer Sewing Machine Company’s headquarters in lower Manhattan, which had been the tallest building in the world. Erecting the highest skyscraper gave caché to Met Life.
Compared with its showy predecessor, One Madison Avenue is an introvert. Although its ground-floor restaurants are open to all, its signature features — the two terraces and the brawny tenth-floor trusses — aren’t visible from the street. Glass façades allow glimpses into the offices, but ironically, due to the screen-based nature of contemporary office work, it’s unclear to outsiders what exactly is being produced inside. The 20th-century office building was a corporate branding exercise, but the 21st-century office is distinguished by its interiority.
“We weren’t trying to develop an iconic landmark,” Savage said. “I think we were kind of doing the opposite. We wanted the focus to be on the tower.”