Lever House Would Lather You Look Beyond Its Famed Sheath to Its New Interiors
Seventy years after becoming the first office building in New York City to have glass walls on all four sides, Lever House on Park Avenue has gotten a detailed historic restoration from the firm responsible for its initial design: SOM.
Owners Brookfield Properties and WatermanClark took over the property in 2020, after a protracted court battle with Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs of RFR Holding, who controlled not only Lever House but also the famed Seagram Building across the street. Rosen had his office on Lever House’s third floor and used the sprawling, third-story outdoor terraces as his personal patio. He lost control of the building after a rent reset on RFR’s ground lease with the Korein family — which owns the land beneath the building — caused the annual rent payment to more than triple overnight, from $6 million to $20 million.
Brookfield and WatermanClark approached the Korein family about renegotiating the ground lease in May 2020, and the rest is history. The two firms kicked off a $100 million soup-to-nuts renovation of the 21-story tower in early 2022, and completed the work earlier this month.
RFR undertook a modest restoration of the building’s glass curtain wall in 2000, but much of the building’s interior was still in rough shape 20 years later. There were cracked pavers in the public plaza, pitted travertine floors in the lobby, a yellow glass accent wall filled in with ugly grout, and white marble by the elevators coated in a thick, yellowed polish. The once tony and modern headquarters of the Lever Brothers soap company—the predecessor of Unilever—wasn’t looking so fresh and clean.
To restore the building to its original glory, SOM’s Frank Mahan and Brookfield’s Scott Kirkham did some painstaking detective work, tracking down the original stone quarries for the lobby walls and floors, stripping off decades of aging lacquer, and putting broken pieces of stone back together.
“The original SOM drawings were pretty minimal,” said Kirkham. “The specifications from the 1950s aren’t the same as what we’d have today. Working with SOM and a restoration consultant, we did an enormous amount of investigation about where the stone came from.”
For the lobby’s black stone walls, “we were able to identify the quarry on an island on Lake Champlain,” Kirkham continued. He said that although that quarry had closed, “we were able to find the people that owned the quarry, and they had a facility in Knoxville. One of the blocks there was a remarkably good match, and it was just a lot of hard work to put the pieces together.”
So the lobby has been restored to its original, mostly monochromatic grandeur, with nearly floor-to-ceiling glass windows, little suspended display cases holding models of Ellsworth Kelly sculptures, stainless steel-clad structural columns, muted midcentury furniture, and a bright yellow accent wall near the elevators composed of Murano glass.
On the third floor, the designers at Marmol Radziner created a new lounge for tenants, with dark green marble floors and walls; dark brown, square pedestal tables; custom couches and armchairs in soft browns and green-grays; and a long bar separated by a wall of translucent glass panels. Sant Ambroeus, the hospitality group that runs the Casa Lever restaurant downstairs, will serve a selection of coffee, light snacks and cocktails from the bar throughout the day. The large terraces overlooking Park Avenue on both sides of the floor have been furnished with off-white upholstered couches and chairs, low metal tables, and plenty of plantings.
All of the office floors have been whiteboxed, and the mechanical systems are new. A dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS) provides heating and cooling, and the elevators have been renovated and brought into the 21st century with a destination dispatch system.
The building’s 240,000 square feet of office space remain up for grabs through CBRE and WatermanClark. A Brookfield spokesperson said the building had been generating plenty of interest from financial services tenants, and that asking rents for space were floating “north of $200 a square foot.”