400 Madison Avenue (detail)
400 Madison Avenue
H. Craig Severance, 1929
Constructed during the speculative building boom of the late 1920s, the 20-story office building at 400 Madison was one of several rental office buildings—in aggregate, over 3 million square feet of space—added to the particularly booming “Grand Central Zone” in 1929 alone. It replaced two six-story apartment buildings as the neighborhood was transformed into the business center of Manhattan. The unusual footprint—188 feet long on Madison and only 44 feet deep along 47th & 48th Streets—allowed for extensive street frontage along the avenue, offering prime retail space. The second floor was originally designated for a bank, with upper floors rented out as commercial office space. A selling point of the design was that “[n]o portion of usable floor area will be more than 27 feet from a window,” and that no space was wasted with light wells or rear courts, efficiencies that would not have been lost on investors or renters. All service portions of the building were located along the rear wall, away from daylight.
The tiered upper stories of 400 Madison take advantage of the light & air zoning requirements to deploy a richly textured program of boldly geometric Gothic-revival-inspired terra cotta ornament, including crenellation, pinnacles and tracery elements topping an otherwise restrained facade. At street level, the original bronze and glass storefronts remain remarkably intact, a rarity in ever-changing Midtown. The unusual form of the building—masterfully turning an odd footprint into a selling feature based on natural light and retail frontage; coupled with the intactness of its elaborate terracotta decoration and street-level storefronts reflecting the boom years of the late 1920s in Midtown Manhattan, qualify 400 Madison for consideration as a New York City Landmark.
H. Craig Severance studied in France before beginning to practice architecture in New York City around 1900. After a brief stint with Carrère & Hastings, Severance established his own practice in 1907. Severance partnered with William Van Alen between 1914 and the early 1920s, before returning to his own practice. In the 1920s, Severance became one of the most successful and well-know commercial architects in New York real estate circles. Just after designing 400 Madison, the architect engaged in what many observers of the period called the “altitude race” between Severance and his former partner, Van Alen, to build the tallest building in New York. Severance’s commission, 40 Wall Street (1929) was beaten out on a technicality by the spire of Van Alen’s Chrysler Building (1930) before the Empire State Building (1931) overtook both.
“Bank of Manhattan Designer Had ‘Altitude’ Building Race With Van Alen. . .” New York Times September 3, 1941.
Demorest, William J., “Millions of Feet of Office Space Added to Grand Central Zone,” New York Times January 20, 1929, 1.
“Tall Building on Narrow Plot,” New York Times February 10, 1929.