Friday, January 22, 2010

January 22, 1910 - Metropolitan Life Celebrates Completion of New Tower

In the fall of 1909 construction was completed the latest record breaking skyscraper in New York. The Metropolitan Life Tower on Madison Square was now the tallest building in the world, surpassing the Singer Sewing Machine Tower completed just a year earlier.

The age of the skyscraper had started in New York a little over 20 years previous with the construction of the Tower building on Broadway just north of the Bowling Green. Architect Bradford Gilbert proposed a building with a steel-skeleton frame, which would support the weight of the building and keep the walls from being thick. This was a radically new idea and a lot of people were opposed to it because they did not think the building would stand up.

Gilbert needed to persuade the New York City buildings department to give him a permit to build because the building's department was a little wary of this new technology. But Gilbert persuaded them that this building was going to stand up by making models of the building to show how it would withstand weight and wind pressure. He built this structure between 1888 and 1889 and it was the first building in the world with a steel-skeleton frame.

Since the Tower Building the skyscrapers in New York had shot up as companies competed with each other to have the tallest building in the world. The Syndicate Building at 15 Park Row, built in 1899 held the record for nine years at 391 feet tall. In 1908 thought the Singer Sewing Machine Company built a tower that dwarfed the Syndicate at 612 feet.

But the Singer tower's reign would be short lived when the Metropolitan Life tower topped out at 700 feet. " The Met" now held the title and the prestige that went with it. To celebrate, they held a ball for a thousand people at the Astor Hotel, on Broadway, between Vesey and Barclay streets on January 22, 1910.

The company had a lot to celebrate. As a latecomer to the life-insurance behind its chief rivals, Mutual, New York and Equitable. But by 1907 Metropolitan Life claimed to have written more policies than all the other New York companies combined. The home office work force was now in excess of 2,800 and it was time for the firm to expand and proclaim its importance in an appropriate manner. Metropolitan was able to obtain a long coveted site on the corner of Madison Avenue and 24th street, that it purchased from Madison Square Presbyterian Church.

The church's minister was Charles Henry Parkhurst who since 1891 had waged war against the political corruption of Tammany Hall. Parkhurst, mostly from his pulpit, was the first to convince the public that Tammany Hall, the police, and organized crime were interconnected. The church building itself had been built in 1906 and was the last public building designed by noted architect Stanford White.

John R. Hegeman, the president of Metropolitan at the time had greatly admired the Campanile of San Marco and hired the architecture firm of LeBrun and Company to design the tower in the form of the Venetian monument. Purdy and Henderson would serve as structural engineers and Post and McCord as steelwork contractors. The building woulkd be fifty stories tall and would look out over Madison Square and the Triangle building at 175 Fifth Avenue. Itself, one of the tallest buildings in the city when built in 1902.

The tower included four silver clocks, three feet in diamter which could now be seen from just about anywhere in the city.

Head table guests at the Astor celebration included the architects, Reverend Parkhurst, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Minnesota as well as Robert E. Peary and his second General Thomas H. Hubbard who had become the first party reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909.

At this point Peary and Hubbard were on a public speaking circuit trying to dispel claims by Dr. Frederick Cook who claimed he had reached the pole a year earlier.
When introduce to speak, Peary received a rousing ovation and said "If the almighty had fashioned the North Pole on so ample lines as your tower was fashioned, and had graced the arctic moon with the clock like yours, General Hubbard and I would have found it years ago."

The Metropolitan Life Tower would hold the title of worlds' tallest building for only four short years. On April 24th, 1913 the Woolworth building would open on Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street across from City Hall. It would stretch fifty-seven stories into the air , cost $13,500,000 and be paid for in cash by Frank Woolworth.

Only a mere twenty-two years previously the tallest building in New York had been Trinity Church built in 1846 at a height of 284 feet. Now, in the first decade of the twentieth century the tone had been set for the New York of the future.

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