Does 270 Park Avenue Deserve to Be Saved?
When J.P. Morgan Chase announced last month that it would demolish its 52-story headquarters at 270 Park Avenue in Midtown, preservationists and architecture fans were up in arms. The bank said it would tear down the 1961 modernist skyscraper to build a new 70-story headquarters that would house 15,000 employees and 2.3 million square feet of office space.
Architecture writers were quick to point out that 270 Park Avenue—also known as the Union Carbide Building—was an important example of mid-century corporate architecture. More importantly, it was perhaps the first high-rise designed by a woman, according to Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange. Natalie de Blois helped lead the team of architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) that designed Union Carbide, under the supervision of Gordon Bunshaft, partner at SOM. De Bois, one of a handful of high-profile female architects at the time, also played a pivotal role in designing two other corporate icons of the 1950s and ‘60s: the Pepsi-Cola Building and Lever House (both of which are now landmarked).
Since de Blois and Bunshaft’s other well-known Midtown East works have landmark protection, critics argue that 270 Park should be designated a landmark, too.
“The point is not that she did it solo, but she was part of the team that designed this building and was instrumental in the design,” Lange said. “And she wasn’t talked about enough in her lifetime.” She added that the building was unique because in its early years, Union Carbide left the lobby open to the public and organized exhibits on art and finance there.
On Curbed, Lange explained that the building’s gridded exterior was “coated in one of Union Carbide’s latest products and thus, like Lever House’s window-washing apparatus, became a showcase for the company’s chemistry.” (Union Carbide has produced a slew of chemicals and household products since its founding in 1917, including antifreeze, Glad bags and plastic wraps, Energizer batteries, rocket fuel and asbestos. It occupied 270 Park until 1983, when it moved its operations to Danbury, Conn.)
In his write-up on the demise of 270 Park, New York magazine’s Justin Davidson argued, “The Union Carbide Building deserves to continue existing, not because it was in the vanguard of a movement with a dubious urban legacy, but because it’s among the finest of its kind. The clear glass membrane, stainless steel fins, and slender bones combine to give it a texture and personality that so many imitators lack.”
And 270 Park is one of several architecturally significant structures in the neighborhood that deserve historic protection, preservationists argue. As the city was gearing up to rezone Midtown East in 2016, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) assembled a collection of properties that could merit designation. Although a dozen buildings were ultimately landmarked, advocates said there are several more properties that should have been seriously considered. Union Carbide topped the list, as well as the Universal Pictures Building at 445 Park Avenue (Kahn & Jacobs, 1946-47), the former Girl Scouts of America headquarters at 830 Third Avenue (SOM, 1957), the MetLife Building at 200 Park Avenue (Emery Roth & Sons, 1963), the National Distillers Building at 99 Park Avenue (Emery Roth & Sons, 1953) and the Lipstick Building at 885 Third Avenue (Philip Johnson, 1986). The landmark commission put another Johnson-designed office tower at 550 Madison Avenue on its calendar last fall after its owners threatened to dramatically renovate the building, but it hasn’t been officially voted on yet.
“Further consideration of [270 Park] as a landmark is not among the commission’s priorities at this time,” an LPC spokeswoman said in a statement. “As part of the interagency East Midtown rezoning initiative, the commission evaluated buildings in the area, including this one. As a result, we prioritized and designated 12 iconic buildings that represented the key periods of development in the area as individual landmarks, but the J.P. Morgan Chase building at 270 Park Avenue was not among them.”
Not everyone believes that 270 Park is worthy of being saved. Matt Shaw of Architects Newspaper contended that the tower “represents the worst of midcentury American corporate architecture, something that at the time was totalizing, banal, repetitive and dogmatic.” Shaw added that Union Carbide should be remembered as the company responsible for the worst industrial accident in history, the Bhopal disaster in India, a toxic gas leak that killed 16,000 and exposed hundreds of thousands to a lethal gas in 1984. He asked in his publication: “Why not just let 270 Park die a natural death at the hands of the 21st century equivalent of Union Carbide: a multi-national bank? It’s really a beautiful story if you think about it correctly.”
The disassembly of buildings like Union Carbide is exactly what the city intended when it dramatically upzoned Midtown East in August 2017. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration hoped that the new zoning would encourage the redevelopment of the area’s century-old office stock, which has been eclipsed by newer buildings in hipper parts of Manhattan. When J.P. Morgan Chase made its announcement about a new headquarters, the mayor crowed in a press release: “This is our plan for East Midtown in action. Good jobs, modern buildings and concrete investments that will make East Midtown stronger for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who work here.” The development is expected to generate $40 million in improvements for streets and subway stations, which was one of the primary aims of the rezoning.
Still, preservationists were shocked to hear that 270 Park would meet the wrecking ball. “270 Park was not even identified as a development site” because the building already took up much of the site’s potential floor area, said Simeon Bankoff, the president of the Historic Districts Council. “Honestly it took everyone I know by surprise. The rezoning really changed the rules for development in East Midtown.”
When Union Carbide bites the dust early next year, the 1.3-million-square-foot structure—which occupies a full block between Park and Madison Avenues and East 47th and 48th Streets—will be the world’s largest voluntary demolition. It will take that title from the Singer Building, the 47-story, 612-foot tall skyscraper at 149 Broadway that was constructed in 1908 and torn down in 1967 to make room for One Liberty Plaza.
Chase will have to invest considerable time and money in knocking down 270 Park. And the decision to redevelop it comes only six years after America’s largest bank pumped tens of millions into renovating the building, adding eco-friendly features and bringing it up to LEED platinum status. Critics charge that the development will be a big waste of cash, especially since the financial institution already spent untold millions on the renovation in 2012.
“Above and beyond the landmark preservation process being kind of bent for this to happen, this strikes me as a deeply conspicuous consumption and something I find shocking on that level,” Bankoff said.
However, Robert Knakal, the chairman of New York investment sales at Cushman & Wakefield, pointed out that once the bank considered the cost of land in Midtown, it was cheaper to demolish and rebuild at 270 Park than to buy another site and try to develop it.
“If that was a vacant lot today, the land value would be arguably approaching $1,000 a square foot,” he said. “So by the time they demolish the building, their land basis is going to be less than that. And that’s a heck of a lot less than it would be today.” (Land basis equals what you paid for the property, plus the cost of capital improvements and construction.)
The proposed demolition of Union Carbide also ignited a wave of fear, among preservationists and architecture enthusiasts, that the rezoning would inspire other landlords to knock down large, unique office properties in Midtown East. Knakal argued that probably wouldn’t happen for decades, given how challenging it can be to vacate big commercial buildings and cobble together development sites in Manhattan.
“A number of people have called me and asked, ‘Bob, is this a wave of this happening?’ Of the 16 sites the city projected to take advantage of the Midtown East rezoning, many have seven and eight owners, so it will take a decade to assemble those sites. And then you have to deal with the tenants. There might be 30, 40, 60 tenants. You can’t just say I want to knock the building down, please leave. Unless owners have a very particular set of circumstances with their tenants, it likely isn’t going to happen.”
J.P. Morgan Chase hasn’t released any details on the architects, contractors or developers involved in either the demolition of its old headquarters or construction of the new building, which is expected to be complete in 2025.
Construction experts predict that it will take at least a year to demolish the 700-foot-tall property, which will have to be torn apart mostly by hand.
First, in order to prevent dust and debris from affecting neighboring buildings or people walking by, the project’s contractor will shroud the building in scaffolding or netting. Then workers will have to remove any harmful materials, like asbestos and lead paint, and use hand tools to remove windows, fixtures and doors. The deconstructing of the building comes next. Metal facade panels would be carefully removed by hand. Excavators—like BobCats—and smaller tools would likely be used to break apart the concrete slabs of each floor, although some projects have deployed demolition robots to accomplish the task. In the final steps of the demolition, workers would take acetylene torches to the steel beams and superstructure, cutting the steel into smaller pieces floor by floor.
Ken Colao, of CNY Construction, explained the demolition of such a large building offers an opportunity to think about more efficient ways to take apart skyscrapers. “New regulations need to be developed with the building department to address the demolition of large-scale developments,” he said. “The current method—to enclose it with scaffolding and dismantle it by hand with small equipment—would be too time consuming.”
The contractors on 270 Park could use cranes to remove large pieces of the building. And disassembling the steel frame could be faster if workers cut through pieces of steel, and then a crane lifted the steel onto a truck, he said.
Developers in other countries have used even more unconventional methods: In 2013, a Japanese construction firm demolished a building by jacking up the steel columns with a hydraulic lift, cutting each column with a torch simultaneously, roughly two feet at a time, and then chopping up each floor of a 35-story tower.
Besides the usual worries about dust and noise, construction firms working on 270 Park will have to avoid cutting off the building’s standpipes. If a fire breaks out, firefighters connect hoses to the pipes, which link each floor of a building to the city water system. During the demolition of the 41-story Deutsche Bank Building at 130 Liberty Street—the second-largest building to ever be taken apart in New York—two firefighters died battling a 2007 blaze because they couldn’t reach a working standpipe. The building was heavily contaminated and damaged by the Sept. 11 attacks. Then the fire, sparked by a worker’s dropped cigarette, halted its decade-long, $160 million demolition. The incident forced the Department of Buildings to institute several rule changes, including prohibitions against smoking on worksites and regular inspections to make sure standpipes are maintained.
“When the fireman tried to hook up their hose to the standpipe, there was no water because the standpipe had been cut,” explained Richard Lambeck, chair of the construction management program at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. “The building department was supposed to inspect the building but they didn’t do it in the periodic way they were supposed to.”
There are also concerns about tearing out the building’s foundation, because it sits atop the Metro North tracks along Park Avenue and could contain asbestos, like many buildings from the 1960s. Colao suggested that the old foundation could be kept, at least partially, and then decked over with a new foundation to support the weight of the new, larger building.
Even with the issues surrounding the demolition of the Park Avenue tower, its replacement will have much more energy-efficient facade panels, windows and building systems.
“These curtain walls have a useful life, they don’t last forever,” said Richard Wood, the head of Plaza Construction, which handled the building’s renovation. “And no one would go back to the 60s era of single-pane glass [windows].”
And protecting buildings like 270 Park may simply be holding the neighborhood back, preventing it from competing with more modern office developments Downtown and on the West Side.
“There’s nothing beautiful about these 1960s buildings,” Wood continued. “[Preservation efforts] are just a way to stop growth and development. I would argue that maybe you would save the facade if it’s an old stone building with hand carving that’s hard to recreate, but I’m sure what they put there will be a lot more beautiful than what’s there now.”