The Metropolitan Life Tower is located on the east side of Madison Square Park at 1 Madison Avenue. It has quietly become one of my favorite buildings in the city; I find myself peering up at it whenever I’m in the area. (I took a photo of the building while in line at the Shake Shack last spring…it’s a lovely color in the late afternoon light.) Inspired by a photo posted recently to Shorpy that shows the tower under construction — and before the addition of the building’s iconic clock — I did some research and discovered three things.
One. Modeled after the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the Metropolitan Life Tower was completed in 1909 and at 700 feet, it was the tallest building in the world until the Woolworth Building was completed four years later.
Two. The NY Times ran a story in December 1907 about the eventual completion of the structure and how it would take over as the world’s tallest building, surpassing another then-unfinished building, the Singer Tower. In the era before widely available air travel, the building’s vantage point was remarkable.
The view from the top was of a new New York. No other skyscrapers obstructed the vista in either direction. Passing the green roof of the Flatiron Building, the gaze literally spanned the Jersey City Heights and rested on Newark and towns on the Orange Mountains, fifteen miles away.
To the southward the skyscrapers bulked like a range of hills in steel and mortar, the Singer tower rising in the midst, a solitary watch tower on a peak. This hid the harbor, but to the left beyond the bridges, reduced at this height to gray cobwebs, the eye caught the sunlight on the sea — a long strip of shimmering silver beyond Coney Island and the Rockaways.
Three. Star architect Daniel Libeskind is allegedly working on an addition to the Metropolitan Life Building, an addition that by some accounts would reach 70 stories. You can guess how I feel about the prospect of one of those residential glass monstrosities literally and emotionally dwarfing the existing 50-story clock tower, Libeskind or no. Of course, the Metropolitan Life Tower may never have become so iconic had Metropolitan Life’s plans for a 100-story tower one block north not been scrapped because of the Great Depression. They only finished 32 floors of that building, which today houses the celebrated restaurant, Eleven Madison Park.