The Life and Death of The World’s Tallest Building
It was once the tallest building of the world—but in the late 1960s it was rendered suddenly obsolete, and so New York lost the Singer Building.
This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.
One of the great ironies of the 20th century is that for all the drama surrounding each grand new building, they all age about as well as that meme about Russian women.
There is perhaps no building more representative of this fate than the once iconic and now non-existent Singer Building.
In fact, when it was destroyed in 1968 (the tallest building ever destroyed until the Twin Towers) The New York Times obituary headline blared: “Daring in ’08, Obscure in ’68.”
When the Singer Building was completed in 1908, the 47-story, 612-foot building was the tallest building in the world, passing Philadelphia’s City Hall. (The Eiffel Tower was still the tallest structure at 984 feet.)
The building featured a 12-story base that took up the entire lot and was decorated in red brick, light-colored stone, and terra cotta.
Shooting out of one corner of the base was a 65-foot-wide square shaft featuring what New York Times architecture critic Christopher Gray called “a bulbous mansard and giant lantern” on top—really giving it an extra phallic boost.
The New York Globe deemed it an “architectural giraffe.”
The interior was also reportedly quite a spectacle, featuring “A forest of marble columns [rising] high to a series of multiple small domes of delicate plasterwork… A series of large bronze medallions placed at the top of the columns were alternately rendered in the monogram of the Singer company and, quite inventively, as a huge needle, thread and bobbin.”
The skyscraper was designed by Ernest Flagg for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Both the company and Flagg already had a rich architectural history under their belts. Edward Clark, who co-founded the company, built the now iconic Dakota building (of John Lennon fame) in the 1880’s using the architect Henry Hardenbergh (of Plaza Hotel fame).
As for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which was one of the first big multi-national conglomerates, it had already made architectural history with one of its other office buildings, the “Little Singer Building” that still stands at 561 Broadway (and is one of my personal favorites in the city, with its green wrought-iron screens).
Flagg was the artistic mind behind the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Singer Castle on Dark Island, and Singer Company president Frederick Bourne’s stately country estate, Indian Neck Hall.
A well-regarded Beaux-Arts architect, Flagg was working at a time when the world of architecture, particularly for commercial buildings, was undergoing a seismic shift.
Not only were architects in the last decade of the 19th century and first two of the 20th figuring out how a skyscraper should look aesthetically, but so too were city officials and urban planners who were concerned about the deleterious effects towering skyscrapers would have on city life.
Buildings like the Equitable Building, the Singer, Metropolitan Life (which when completed in 1909 passed the Singer Tower), the Woolworth, and the hulking City Investing Building would play a major part in the 1916 zoning regulations that led to developers embracing the now familiar “set-back” style recognizable in the tiered towers of New York City. (The set-back is the step-like recession in the wall of a structure—like the steps of a pyramid or 120 Wall Street—that allows the building to get taller without blocking all the light.)
Before the turn of the century, Flagg had been an outspoken critic of skyscrapers.
He worried about the darkness of a city perpetually in shadow as well as the aesthetic issue wrought by that period’s design in which only the street-facing façade of the building was decorated, and thus the remaining three left unfinished side walls.
With the Singer Building, it was clear Flagg hoped to define the new future of skyscrapers.
In 1907, as the building was under construction, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times offering his solutions.
“It seems to me,” he wrote, “that a better solution of the problem may be found in some such plan as that adopted for the Singer tower.”
The solution he is referring to is that the tower of the building only took up one-sixth of the actual base. “It casts a shadow, to be sure, but it seriously interferes with the light of no surrounding property. It presents a finished façade. It adds to the picturesqueness of the skyline… and its bulk rises from a line well back of the street façade.”
Otherwise, he warned, “we now see before us the prospect of streets little better than deep canyons.”
“In the early first generation of skyscrapers many of the earlier buildings were designed using many of the familiar architectural tropes of the day,” Professor Jason Barr of Rutgers-Newark and author of the upcoming Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers, tells me. “In that respect, the Singer Tower is in that vein… very much a Beaux-Arts style building.”
Flagg died, age 90, in 1947. At that point his vision for New York skyscrapers had long since been left for dead. In many ways the Singer Building had been rendered obsolete.
By 1968, the year it was destroyed, there were 20 office buildings that had passed it in height.
Flagg’s design choice of having the tower portion occupy only a small section of the overall lot had was not only abandoned by the rise of the setback in the subsequent era of Art Deco skyscrapers, but that choice also rendered it economically obsolete as it left the building with much less useable office space.
“[The Singer Building] is a sort of transitional building,” Barr explains. “The architects in that generation were still coming to terms with what it meant to build a skyscraper.”
The Singer Sewing Machine Company sold the building in 1963 and moved into Rockefeller Center. Five years later it was destroyed to make way for the U.S. Steel Building (now 1 Liberty Plaza), this despite the fact that the Landmarks Preservation Commission was in existence.
“If the building were made a landmark, we would have to find a buyer for it or the city would have to acquire it,” the commission’s executive director Alan Burnham said at the time. “The city is not that wealthy and the commission doesn’t have a big enough staff to be a real-estate broker for a skyscraper.”
And so the tower was cut down beam by beam. And as for its glorious lobby that was once described by architectural historian Mardges Bacon as “celestial radiance”—its Italian marble and bronze medallions were unceremoniously put up for sale.