This Was Almost New York’s Tallest Building
On Madison Avenue, at the edge of Madison Square Park, in the dense crush of skyscrapers that fill the middle of Manhattan, the Metropolitan Life North Building, one of New York City’s earliest tall buildings, stands out from its surroundings.
In an elegant counterbalance to today’s gleaming glass and steel super-tall towers that are rapidly redrawing the skyline, it is clad in beige limestone and decorated in the art deco style, with vertical flutes running up its sides and intricate details at its roofline.
Filling an entire city block, the building is a series of cascades that rise up, wedding cake-like, creating alternating and angular setbacks that give it a vaguely crystalline look as it climbs into the sky.
And then it stops. At about 450 feet, the building levels off. Upon first glance, it’s a bit of a harsh end, but not seemingly out of the ordinary.
But it’s hard to look at this flat-top mesa of a building without thinking about what it was supposed to be.
The hulking, somewhat stumpy 30-story building is actually just the bottom portion of what was originally planned to be a grandiose skyscraper of 100 stories, rising more than 1,300 feet.
It was going to be the tallest building in the world. But within just a few weeks of the project’s ill-timed announcement in 1929, the U.S. stock market collapsed, sending the country into the decade-long disaster known as the Great Depression.
The Metropolitan Life North Building would join the ranks of the world’s unfinished architecture, its ambition dashed by economic catastrophe.
Designed by the architects Harvey Wiley Corbett and D. Everett Waid, the building was intended to accommodate the growth of Metropolitan Life, then the biggest insurance company in the world.
It was to join a complex of other buildings in the immediate area used by the company, including the Metropolitan Life Tower, just across the street to the south. Completed in 1909, this tower had similarly high ambitions.
It holds a giant clock face on each of its four sides and rises roughly 700 feet to a pointed top reminiscent of a Venetian campanile. For about four years, it was the tallest building in the world–until the 792-foot Woolworth Building was completed in 1913.
By the time the Metropolitan Life North Building was being planned in the late 1920s, the Woolworth Building still held the title.
Amid the Depression, construction started on the 100-story Metropolitan Life North Building, a telescoping tower rising hundreds of feet taller than the Woolworth Building—as well as the other skyscrapers that would top out in the early 1930s, including the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building.
But, as the nation’s economy crumbled, it quickly became clear that the huge Metropolitan Life North Building project was going to be too expensive to pursue. Construction on the project stopped in 1933, leaving the building conspicuously unfinished, like the sawn-through trunk of a redwood tree.
About one-third of the project’s height had been achieved, including the massive foundation to support a 100-story building, and 30 elevators that would have been necessary to ascend to its upper floors.
Construction resumed again in two stages before the building was finally completed, at its truncated height of 450 feet, in 1950. One of its architects died in the meantime, and the Empire State Building took over the title of the world’s tallest building, which it retained until the completion of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1970.
Even though it ended up being significantly shorter than originally planned, the Metropolitan Life North Building has become a New York City architectural landmark.
Its three-story arched entryways at the street corners and vaulted dome ceilings give it an imposing presence on the street, and the pink granite floors and gold-veined marble walls of its grand lobby have made it a highlight for architecture enthusiasts.
It has remained a hot commodity for what it really is: an office building. In 2015, the Metropolitan Life North Building was sold for $2.6 billion, the largest single-building transaction in New York history. It’s still widely used by corporate office tenants, who clamor for bits of its roughly 2.2 million square feet of space. Even at less than a third of its intended size, the Metropolitan Life North Building is gigantic.
And, some architecture fans argue, it could be even more gigantic. Because the building’s foundation was built to support 100 stories, some enterprising developer could come along and add another 70 stories worth of real estate right on top what’s already there.
The cost of actually building such a proposal, of course, would be extreme; $300 million of the recent $2.6 billion sale price was dedicated to renovations alone.
But if real estate values in midtown Manhattan continue to rise—Great Recession notwithstanding—the original 100-story vision for the unfinished Metropolitan Life North Building could finally be realized.