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fresh York Central Building, today Helmsley Building

fresh York Central Building, today Helmsley Building

Midtown Manhattan, Manhattan, fresh York City, fresh York, United States

Prior to the construction of Grand Central Terminal and the electrification and submergence of its tracks (1903-1913) Park Avenue between 42nd and 52nd Streets blighted fresh York as an exposed rail yard. Noisy, grimy and dangerous, its locomotives tirelessly belched their waste into the air as crosstown traffic was stranded on either side of the maze-like rails. By 1929, however, in a spectacular application of skyscraper technology both above and below ground, revenue producing structures were erected on steel stilts over the yard, transforming the area into Terminal City, a prestigious mixed-use, multi-level enclave, integrated in its architectural expression and modes of transportation
– the finest realization of the City Beautiful Movement in fresh York.

The fresh York Central Building provided the Terminal City complex with a dramatic linchpin as well as a bridge to the rest of Manhattan. Through special negotiations with city officials it was constructed in 1927-29 astride Park Avenue, allowing for a continuation of the boulevard’s sidewalk- and street traffic via pedestrian corridors and vehicular tunnels burrowed through the building’s base.

The fresh York Central Building is the skyscraping counterpart of Grand Central Terminal. It was designed by the same architects in the same materials and Beaux-Arts style, simultaneously developing some of the depot’s most – innovative circulation systems- Swallowing Park Avenue traffic and thereby, relieving congestion around the terminal the building functions as an open gate to the "Gateway to a Continent."

With a distinction all but unique in grid- patterned Manhattan, it has a double focus, as powerful by day as it is dramatic , by night. Unobstructed by surrounding buildings, the fresh York Central’s" honeycombed base and slender tower dominate the street corridor while its glowing and wonderfully ornate roof, visible for miles, enriches fresh York’s constellation of illuminated peaks.

For its superb engineering, innovative, circulation systems and the consequent relief of traffic, the structure is exceptional. As a conspicuous and experiential urban monument it is unsurpassed. Identified by railroad officials as the "crowning achievement" of their urban redevelopment program, the fresh York Central Building, today the Helmsley Building, ranks easily among the finest and best known office towers in fresh York.
In 1863-67 Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired control of the fresh York & Harlem, the Hudson River and the fresh York Centra 1 Railroads (consolidated in 1869 as the fresh York Central & Hudson River Railroad), Rerouting the trains along a single line (the Harlem) for five miles south from the Bronx, Vanderbilt determined to build a fresh terminal at 42nd Street- He acquired most of the property between 42nd and 48th Streets (subsequently extended to 52nd Street), Madison and Lexington Avenues, and commissioned John B. Snook to design the depot (1871), with an impressive glass and metal shed by R. G. Hatfield immediately behind.

The land north of the fresh facility was used as a train yard: an exposed, noisy, cinder- and smoke-belching sprawl which made neighboring real estate uninhabitable to all but squatters. The paddle-shaped track network interrupted crosstown streets’, leaving then dead ends on either side of the yard.

Subsequent improvements lowered the rails several feet below grade and opened crosstown traffic with periodic elevated bridges. But by the turn of the century increased suburban and commuter traffic proved these palliative measures inadequate: the polluting locomotives thwarted seminal attempts at urban renewal while the still only — partially submerged tracks created an intolerable obstacle to the street traffic which the terminal inevitably generated.

Solutions to these and a panoply of related-problems came in 1903 when William J. Wilgus, the visionary chief engineer of the fresh-York Central, presented the railroad with a grand scheme — ultimately proved epochal — for the replacement of the existing Grand Central Terminal with a fresh, more technologically advanced facility. Key to the project was the electrification of rail lines.

Unlike steam locomotives, which required open air or ventilated tunnels for release of their combusted waste, electrified trains could be submerged below ground. The acreage thus reclaimed at ground level and above could be used, Wilgus foresaw, for revenue-producing structures. High profit buildings were erected on skeletal steel supports over the tracks: "And thus from the air [was] taken wealth." The alchemous plan repaid the enormous cost of the fresh terminal and the electrification many times over.

Realization of Wilgus’ scheme involved a design competition to which four firms were invited. Per requirements, each submitted a proposal for a skyscraping terminal in the center of Park Avenue but so arranged as to connect both north and south segments of the boulevard. The contest was won by Reed & Stem who had worked with Wilgus on previous railroad commissions (and to whom Reed was related by marriage). Their proposal called for a neo-Renaissance terminal surmounted by a 22-story hotel or office tower. Preceded on the north by a grand "Court of Honor," the depot was, in a stroke of genius, to be girdled by an "exterior circumferential elevated driveway" along which Park Avenue "would flow in divided north- and southbound streams. Architects Warren & Wetmore subsequently transformed the design into the current low, monumental mass, but many of its essential features survived.

Indeed, Reed & Stem’s tower proposal (together with that of unsuccessful competitors McKim, Mead & White) may be seen as the germ of the fresh York Central Building which Warren & Wetmore constructed to the north of the terminal some two decades later.

In 1903 plans were submitted to the Board of Estimate for the fresh train station as well as for the revenue-producers that Wilgus had imagined. In addition to the head house, the proposal included mail and express terminals, a post office, and hotels. Several of the structures were undertaken concurrently with the fresh terminal, but not until the 1920s (after the post-World War I depression) did the precinct assume the distinctive character of the planned enclave known as "Terminal City."

Building efforts initially focused on the construction of fresh hotels whose development, like most luxury buildings, had been stemmed by the war, and whose need near the depot was critical. Between the completion of the terminal in 1913 and the fresh York Central Building in 1927-29, more than a score of hotels and apartment buildings were added to the precinct, all of roughly the same height and classicizing style.

These were followed, after 1922, by the erection of fresh office buildings, which, although taller than the hotels, were nonetheless related in style, and frequently designed by -the same architects. In each case the fresh buildings marched north, perched on steel stilts over the rail yard. They transformed Park Avenue into a grand and cohesive urban corridor with a ribbon of spinal plantings. In the process they earned for this boulevard the Park Avenue name which, although official since 1888, had previously been little deserved.

The 34-story fresh York Central Building was the final addition to Terminal—City. Taller, more dramatic and conspicuously sited than any other unit in the complex, it became the riveting linchpin of "one of the most urbane groups, of commercial buildings in the world."

The creation of Terminal City was a direct outgrowth of the ,"City Beautiful Movement." Fostered by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, this movement sought to transform the haphazard development of American metropolises into clean, symmetrical urban centers, beautified by parks, public monuments and axial roadways, and guided in their future growth by a comprehensive plan for transportation and architectural integration.

Like other cities (most notably Washington, D.C. with its MacMillan Plan of 1902-03), fresh York attempted implementation. In a little-known effort beginning in 1902 and culminating five years later, the fresh York Public Improvement Commission submitted a comprehensive scheme for the city’s development "so designed that all its parts shall be consistent, the one with the other, and form a homogeneous whole."

This was initially since the establishment of Manhattan’s street grid in 1811 that a general urban plan had been proposed for fresh York; it met with unmitigated failure. Calling for parkways, subsidiary streets, pedestrian arcades and imposing vistas (all aspects of Terminal City), the municipal scheme was undermined by an over-emphasis of aesthetic concerns. It suffered from an unrealistic exclusion of economic and social forces and, perhaps most damagingly, from the inability of democratic government to consolidate its widely-diffused powers for urban renewal on such an imperial scale.

The degree to which city bureaucracy was incapable of action’ contrasted starkly with the position of the railroad at the turn of the century: a multi-million dollar private enterprise whose capital, organization and vast real estate holdings permitted — indeed, encouraged — a coordinated development policy. Moreover, the railroad’s massive physical needs, and its cultivated civic and philanthropic self-image found appropriate architectural models in the ancient. Renaissance and Beaux-Arts

public buildings which so inspired the City Beautiful Movement. Wilgus, Reed & Stem, and Warren & Wetmore, among others, were nurtured on Utopian urban visions. Their creation of the mixed-use, multi-level Terminal City, integrated in its architectural expression and modes of transportation, is one of the best, if not the greatest, legacy of the City Beautiful Movement in fresh York- The achievement was challenged — arguably equalled — only by Rockefeller Center which, built in the 1930s, followed the Terminal City prototype.

Architects of the fresh York Central Building

Charles Delevan Wetmore (1866-1941) received an A.B. degree from Harvard in 1889 and three years later, in 1892, graduated from its Law , School. He had also studied architecture, and before joining the legal firm of Carter, Ledyard & Milburn, designed for his alma mater the Claverly, Westmorly and Apley Court dormitories.

It was during a consultation about the design of his own house that Wetmore met his future partner, Whitney Warren (1864-1943), a graduate of Columbia College (1886), of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1887-94) and subsequently, a member of the fresh York office of McKim, Mead & White. Warren, impressed by his client’s architectural ability,, suggested that Wetmore leave the practice of law. The two men formed a partnership in 1898. Wetmore specialized in the firm’s legal and financial Affairs; Warren emerged as the principal designer.

Warren & Wetmore’s first major commission came just one year later when they prevailed in a contest for the design of the fresh York Yacht Club (1899). An enormously auspicious beginning, this celebrated project was nonetheless succeeded only "by lesser residential works and modest office buildings. Not until 1903 did the firm emerge on the forefront of fresh York architecture and then under suspect terms: despite the victory of Reed & Stem in the competition for Grand Central Terminal, and indeed, without the knowledge of that premier firm.

Warren & Wetmore submitted another scheme for the depot to William K. Vanderbilt, then chairman of the board of the fresh York Central (and a cousin and close friend of Whitney Warren). The strength of nepotism was proven, as were Wetmore’s skills as an attorney. In a (doubtlessly strained) compromise, Warren & Wetmore became associated with Reed & Stem on the terminal, but later assumed total control of design.

Over the course of a decade they combined their low-lying Beaux-Arts proposal with essential elements from Reed & Stem’s more innovative scheme. – _ * •

In the end, the eminently gifted, if opportunistic, Warren & Wetmore achieved the greater fame, and it was they who became the preferred architects of the fresh York Central. Engaged by the railroad almost continuously for a quarter-century, the firm was responsible for much of the development of Terminal City. Beginning with the Biltmore Hotel in 1911-13 (designed in association with Reed & Stem; demolished). Warren & Wetmore executed sere ox the most prestigious hotels in the zone, including the Belmont {1905; demolished), the Ritz-Carlton (1910; demolished), the Vanderbilt 1912), Commodore (1916), Linnard (1919; demolished), and the Ambassador (1921), as will as the post office adjacent to Grand Central, several service : • • , for the railroad, nearly a dozen Park Avenue apartment buildings, office buildings and numerous shops. Together with such notable (non-railroad sponsored) commissions as the Heckscher Building of 1920, the award-winning Aeolian Building of five years later, and the former Bonwit Teller department store of 1928 (all on Fifth Avenue), as well as Steinway Hall on West 57th Street (1925), Warren & Wetmore executed at least 92 buildings and building additions in fresh York, with more than a score of additional commissions elsewhere in the continent.

The fresh York Central Building was their final undertaking for the railroad and the last major project executed by the firm in fresh York. Completed in 1929, it preceded Warren’s retirement by only two years. The office closed a decade later upon Wetmore’s death in 1941.

The, fresh York Central Building

Between the completion of Grand Central Terminal in 1913 and the 100th anniversary of the fresh York Central Railroad in 1926, the number of passengers annually served by the depot nearly doubled, rising prodigiously from 23 million to 43 million in just over a dozen years.

During the same short period, in a historically unparalleled feat, the most formidable engineering problems had been solved, and Terminal City had risen triumphantly above the tireless rail yard. By 1926 the only open cuts in the precinct lay oh either side of Park Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets. Work on the combined sites began later in the same centennial year and in March 1929 — just seven months before the stock market crashed — fresh York Central’s executives relocated from their corporate offices in 466 Lexington Avenue into the top three floors of their fresh namesake building across the street.

Towering above its neighbors, the 34-story structure literally provided "the crowning achievement" to the railroad’s urban development plan. * So skilled were its design and execution and so magnificent its siting, that the railroad’s trade journal confidently predicted that the fresh York Central Building was "destined to become one of fresh York City’s landmarks."


Hardly less spectacular — and to the mind of city officials, Relief far more important — was the solution to a major source of fresh York traffic congestion. Although elevated drives around Grand, Central had been proposed by Reed & Stem and subsequently incorporated into the design of Warren & Wetmore, their construction did not begin until 1917, four years after the terminal’s completion. Not until 1919 (by which time negotiations for the fresh York Central Building had already commenced) did the road system open to the public, and then with only short-term and partial resolve.

Ascending/descending the Pershing Square Viaduct at 40th Street, both north- and southbound traffic continued along the west side of the terminal atop an elevated drive, superimposed like a second story over Vanderbilt Avenue. .(Depew Place, flanking the terminal on the east, also had an elevated level but this was a private way, reserved for baggage and freight deliveries). The western viaduct allowed vehicles to travel along busy 42nd Street without interruption by a north-south artery." Within a few short years, however, increased traffic created the most vexatious bottleneck three blocks north, at 45th Street, where the ramp descended to grade: 13 lanes of bi-directional traffic converged – from Park and Vanderbilt Avenues, 45th Street and the elevated drive, spilling into adjacent streets and Strangling the essentia I flow of this midtown commercial hub. Construction permits for the fresh York Central Building were withheld until a scheme to relieve this insufferable congestion had been submitted.


An agreement was reached in 1924 after five years of & Tunnels negotiation, during which time the railroad totally revised its plans. Instead of following through with its original intention to erect "one building on the west side of Park Avenue, the same size as the Postum Building [21 stories] and another on the east side of Park Avenue similar to the Park Lexington Building [also 21 stories]," the fresh York Central proposed to construct one large building astride the boulevard. – In exchange for the required variances, city officials requested, and received from the railroad, the extension of Vanderbilt Avenue two blocks north of its former terminus at 45th Street.

The fresh York Central also agreed to improve the elevated drive along the west side of the terminal and to construct a companion drive on its east (a transformation of the private delivery platform atop Depew Place) so that public traffic could flow around the depot as originally planned, in bifurcated one-way lanes (southbound on the west; northbound on the east). Instead of descending to grade amid the confusion of 45th Street, the elevated drives were to span that street on bridges and, through specially granted easements, continue north on ramps through the base of the proposed’ fresh York Central Building.

Cars emerging from its vehicular tunnels at 46th Street would proceed uptown along Park Avenue’s newly widened traffic lanes. A corollary of the same agreement provided for "a permanent and perpetual easement of passage on foot," namely the continuation of Park Avenue’s sidewalks through two open (shop-lined) corridors on either side of the tunnels.

Manhattan Borough President Julius Miller hailed the ingenious circulation system as "the biggest thing in traffic relief in twenty years." The masterminds behind the project were George A. Harwood, Ira A. Place and Amos Schaeffer, all of whom are memorialized by bronze plaques on the fresh York Central Building’s main facade. Execution of the tunnels required reinforcement by special girders and trusses for superstructure support, and, as a protect ion against vibration, their ‘ erection independent of the building’s frame. In addition, the two road-ways — both curved and banked — had to be supported on stanchions installed at a slope so that cars could climb to the elevated 45th Street bridges.

The innovative design allowed Park Avenue traffic to continue unimpeded between 46th and 40th Streets — a flow which, to this day, is still an exhilarating experience: one burrows through the fresh York Central Building negotiating its sharp turns, only to emerge above the city and descend, in roller coaster fashion, down the Pershing Square Viaduct (and, if one chooses, further south, through the subterranean Belmont tunnel — originally a locomotive cut — all the way to 33rd Street).

There was, in all of it, a comforting urban justice: the railroad supplied the brilliant remedy to the traffic jams which for so many years it had created. No less germane was the solution’s reliance on tunnels, particularly as the fresh York Central had achieved its mighty prowess by blasting and tunneling through so much craggy terrain, both along Park Avenue, and beyond.

Design Inspiration for the design drew obviously from the four Influences competitive proposals submitted for Grand Central Terminal in 1903. Excluding Reed & Stem’s preferred scheme with its circumferential viaducts, both Samuel Huckel and McKim, Mead & White provided for the continuation of Park Avenue via tunnels through the depot (as presumably did Daniel Burnham in his today lost entry).

McKim’s firm executed a variation of its unsuccessful terminal proposal for the 26—story Municipal Building at the head of Chambers Street. Designed in 1908. and completed in 1916., this City Beautiful skyscraper, like the fresh York Central Building of a decade later, includes a monumental arcade through which vehicular traffic originally flowed. Also similar are the projecting side wings which give the Municipal Building (and the more graceful 46th Street facade of the fresh York Central Building) a depressed U-shaped plan.

One can also perceive correspondences between Warren & Wetmore’s tower and the chaste classicism of Reed & Stem’s 22-story terminal proposal, but most conspicuous is Warren & Wetmore’s effort to complement their own earlier work on Grand Central. Like the terminal, the fresh York Central Building was constructed of. limestone with bronze grilles, ornamented by symbols of industrial progress, and crowned by a heroic clock. Bridging Park Avenue with imposing Beaux-Arts arches, both structures are enlivened at ground level by carefully integrated shops.

The correspondences are as binding and intentional as they were clearly stated in the fresh York. Central Building’s specifications. Similarly, and despite the almost exclusive priority of Art Deco design for contemporaneous skyscrapers, the fresh York. Central was articulated "along strictly classical lines."

The decision – to so thoroughly incorporate it with the depot and, by extension, with the rest of Terminal City reinforced the urbane cohesiveness of this "first planned precinct in fresh York."

Construction History

Contrary to the normal (and usually ineffective) course of development whereby the railroad erected its buildings and the city, in an independent effort, the surrounding streets, the fresh York Central assumed physical responsibility for every aspect of construction.

The arrangement proved particularly judicious because the entire campaign took place over double-level live trackage. In turn, city officials made every effort to aid and expedite the undertaking.

So successfully did the two parties interact that the enterprise was publicly hailed as a design of private and municipal cooperation.

Foundation preparations began in December 1926. Final plans for the structure were submitted on February 11, 1927, and three months later, on May 19th, 350 men from the James Stewart Construction Company anchored the last of the fresh York Central Building’s steel piers 50 feet into the ground.

The task of providing adequate support for the superstructure had been particularly demanding: the entire campaign took place amid double level tracks which serviced more than 700 trains daily (a locomotive passed through operations approximately every 1-1/2 minutes of each working day).

The problem was further compounded because the rails (today electrified) prevented any possibility of continuous foundation walls and even more perplexing, because the frequent non-alignment of upper and lower tracks prohibited the use of through-columns.

A solution was achieved through a cleverly staggered skeletal steel frame in which upper level supports were carried on girders spanning the lower tracks. The lower piers, in turn, were irregularly spaced and anchored into the ground as the maze of rails would allow. The building was insulated against vibrations from the rumbling trains with lead and asbestos mats, and further protected by the 4-inch compressed cork tubes which encased those piers adjacent to rails.

More than 9,000 tons of steel were used in the foundations and ground floor alone. The entire structure required some 26,000-tons, a "not bad deal of which went into construction of the vehicular roadways.

Work continued at a rapid pace and on April 5, 1928 — just hours after the death of Chauncey Depew, chairman of fresh York Central’s board of directors — the last rivet was driven into the 34-story steel frame. A temporary certificate of occupancy (# 11979) was issued in late December, and on September 25, 1929, building operations were brought to a close. Three years later the fresh York Central Building was acclaimed "the most remarkable office building in the world…even the wonderful Hudson Bridge [George Washington, 1931] required no greater engineering skill to construct.

Urban However brilliant, the fresh York Central Building’s engineering did Impact not fully account for its singular popularity. Even before completion, and continuing unstemmed until the present day, this "absolutely glorious structure has captivated fresh York like few others. Regarded by many as "the most beautiful and imposing tower" in midtown, it enjoys a distinction all but unique in grid-patterned Manhattan: the building has a double focus.

Unlike most fresh York skyscrapers whose ground floors are visible only at close range and which consequently depend upon distinctive crowns for recognition, the fresh York Central Building plays a commanding role at both street level and on the skyline. Spanning Park Avenue, its great triumphal arches not only complement and give passage to Grand Central, but echo one of the finest aspects of its original City Beautiful design.

Projecting from either side of the apse-like recess in the center of the 46th Street facade, the building’s 15—story wings embrace the Park Avenue corridor and realize — in however vestigial terms — the "Court of Honor" which Reed & Stem had intended to locate at the north of the terminal.

The impression was particularly imposing in the 1930s and 1940s when the nearly uniform base-, cornice- and roof lines of Park Avenue’s midrise buildings acted like powerful orthogonals, leading irresistibly to the focal fresh York Central Building.

Although the streetscape was radically altered in the 1950s and 1960s, convincing elements of this once truly imperial vista survive in the wealth of scrolls, fasces, flags and military insignia which decorate the fresh York Central Building’s (recently illuminated) triumphal arch in (today gilded) bas-relief.

Most compelling is the heroic clock which Edward McCartan framed with reposing gods four times life size. The sculptural composition provides the dramatic focus of the 46th Street facade, just as the entire building does for all of Park Avenue.

The Tower

In erecting the tower, a conspicuous symbol of the railroad’s might, fresh York Central officials made proud comparisons with the Washington Monument, noting with considerable pleasure that their building was 5-6 feet taller.

They might also have compared it to the obelisks of baroque Rome which, planted in open piazzas and visible from afar, served as exclamatory urban focuses.

At 567 feet the fresh York Central Building was tall enough to control Park Avenue’s 140 foot width, but sufficiently slender to allow the sky to slide by on either side of its shaft — just as it permitted the boulevard’s street traffic to flow through its base.

The building functioned as a bridge, not a barrier. And while this wonderfully urbane spatial flow was fatally smothered in 1963 when the much taller and wider Pan Am Building stole the sky the fresh York Central maintains a dignity and monumentality independent of size. For this, a not bad deal of credit belongs to its exuberant cupola-crowned roof, glistening by day with gold leaf, and illuminated like a fiery constellation by night.

The fresh York Central first appeared on the evening skyline on January 21, 1929. Batteries of flood lights illuminated all four sides of its tower "from base to top." Most of the building’s 100,000 candlepower lights, however, accentuated the intricately detailed roof, maximizing the reflective glow of its gold and copper sheathing (nearly 300,000 pounds of which were applied).

The building’s crowning feature, a marvellously ornate cupola, was literally designed as a beacon. Blazing with "32-marine-type fixtures," it housed a great glass ball (a 6,000 watt lantern) which, "amplified and "projected by a special system of reflectors," had the force of a coastal lighthouse.

Eight supplementary projectors threw flame-tinted light through the cupola’s oval openings, additional "flaming torches" burning on each corner of the tower’s octagonal roof. To the distinct pleasure of fresh York Central’s officials, their building had made a conspicuous mark on the land, visible "for miles up Park Avenue, and also from lower Manhattan, fresh Jersey and Brooklyn.

Recent Like other-skyscrapers in fresh York, "the fresh York Central Building History was blacked-out during the war, only to suffer a dark future with the failing finances, and finally the bankruptcy, of the fresh York Central Railroad. The structure was sold in the late 1950s / at which point it was rechristened the "fresh York General Building" — an economic change of name which required only two letters to be re-cut on the cornice.

Real estate magnate Harry Helmsley purchased the building in 1977 and conferred on it his name. In the following year, an extensive renovation program was undertaken, restoring and refurbishing the building from top to bottom, interior and out.

And if the gilding program was somewhat too ambitiously executed, it is to the great credit of the fresh owner that the fresh. York Central Building, today the Helmsley Building, has once again become’ a vibrant component of fresh York’s street and skyline.

– From the 1987 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

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