445 Park Avenue: Universal Building

(3) Universal Building, 445 Park Avenue Kahn & Jacobs, 1946 Built FAR: 17.5 proposed 21.6

Universal Pictures Building
445 Park Avenue
Kahn & Jacobs Architects, 1946

The first post-war office building on Park Avenue (and the first fully air-conditioned commercial structure in New York City), 445 Park Avenue set the stage for future development along Park Avenue. The prominent architecture firm Kahn & Jacobs, architects of the landmarked Municipal Asphalt Plant (1941-44), designed this building. The rectilinear glass and limestone structure, with its dark granite base, is composed of four setbacks, adhering to the 1916 zoning law. Continuous ribbon windows and limestone spandrel panels give the building a sleekness in stark contrast to its contemporary buildings. Lever Brothers Company, Schweppes, Ford Motor Company, Monsanto Chemical Company, and Universal Pictures Corporation all leased space in the structure in the 1940s.

The architects Buchman & Kahn, later the office of Ely Jacques Kahn were responsible for numerous office buildings, loft and industrial buildings in New York City, many in the garment center. They were unsurpassed in their use of classical ordering to re-align the setbacks mandated by the 1916 zoning regulation into coherent compositions. It is significant that in this post war building they address these very same requirements in a completely different manner: that of the international style. Thus, here as in the Look building we see architects used to working in a different mode working out the possibilities of a new language. All such midtown buildings tell the story of the development of modernism in the US.

The LPC designation report for the LOOK building (Emery Roth & Sons, 1948-50, NYC Landmark 2010) identifies the Universal Pictures building as a precursor and an inspiration for the design of the LOOK building: “Of probably greater importance was the Universal Pictures Building, 445 Park Avenue, completed in 1947. Designed by Kahn and Jacobs, the project architect was Elsa Gidoni, who trained in Berlin and was later described as ‘highly attuned to the International Style work of Erich Mendelsohn’. Built on a comparable block-long site, this 21-story office building has similar bulk and massing, ribbon-like windows, terraces and air conditioning. It was a great success and entirely rented prior to completion. Developer Paul Tishman asserted these amenities would increase ‘working efficiency’ and ‘make it possible for tenants to obtain maximum use of space on each floor . . . there just won’t be any unusable areas’.”

The building is highly significant for its place in the development of the office building in Midtown in the post World War II period, as a precursor to the Look Building and as the work of a very important architect.

References:

DoCoMoMo New York/Tristate statement.

Postal, Matthew, Look Building Designation Report (New York City: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2010), 6.

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