Friday, September 2, 2011

The 1910 Germania (Guardian) Life Insurance Building -- 201 Park Avenue So.

photo by Alice Lum
Early in September of 1906 the directors of the Germania Life Insurance realized that the settling of their headquarters building was serious.  The gradual movement at the northeast corner of the building had been monitored for some time, but now corrective steps were essential.

The six-story building, situated at the corner of Cedar and Nassau Streets in a district crowded with other insurance firms, had served as Germania's headquarters for around two decades.  It was a handsome Second Empire structure with a stately mansard roof.  The settling was now causing fissures in the joints between the stonework and cracks in window sills and copings.

Windows were shored up with heavy timbers to prevent stonework from collapsing.  The basement floor developed cracks, the ceiling at that level was sloping three to four inches and throughout the building doors were planed down and locks refitted due to the skewing of the doorways. 

The structural problems with the Victorian building no doubt contributed to the firm’s sale of the property on March 13, 1909.   The Fourth National Bank bought the structure for $1.5 million – the highest real estate price in the financial district up to that date – with plans to erect a modern office building on the site.  It was a tidy profit for the insurance company who had purchased the property at auction in July 1882 for $462,500.

The Germania Life Insurance Company was given two years to relocate.

Four months later, on July 27, 1909 the firm revealed its new location.  Land had been purchased at the northeast corner of 17th Street and Fourth Avenue across from Union Square Park where a collection of 19th Century brick buildings stood.  It was a bold move.  Only one other insurance company, Metropolitan Life, had dared to venture north of the insurance district.
The Guardian Life Insurance building anchored the northeast corner of Union Square Park in 1928 -- photo NYPL Collection

The New York Times announced that the firm “will erect there either a twelve or a sixteen story office building ready for occupancy, in part by the company itself, in July 1910.”  The Times, six months later, would mull that the move “is an interesting illustration of the tendency to commercial changes always prevalent to a greater or less extent on Manhattan.”

Germania commissioned the architectural firm of D’Oench & Yost (whose offices were conveniently located at 289 Fourth Avenue) to design the mammoth structure.  With a budget of around $1 million, they produced a 20-story building drawing on Renaissance Revival, but stirring in other styles as well; most notably the immense four-story mansard roof that harkened back to the firm's old downtown headquarters.
photo by Alice Lum
The rusticated, two-story base was unusually deeply-scored.  Above the second story, a belt of balconies wrapped the fa├žade and served as a visual support for the mostly innocuous 12-story midsection of the structure.  The mansard successfully served as the crown – tiled in reddish-orange terra cotta with dormer windows of various shapes and styles.  Above it all an enormous electric sign – far ahead of its time – announced the firm’s name.

The insurance firm occupied four floors – the second, mezzanine, third and fourth -- and leased out the remainder of the building to offices with retail space taking up the ground floor.  The building featured up-to-the-minute conveniences.  There were five passenger elevators “of the Otis type,” and three freight elevators.  The lobby was finished in marble, with a dome-lighted atrium and a grand marble staircase that led to the company’s main office.

The handsome Germania offices were outfitted in “marble, bronze, stone and wood in the best style and…fitted with a thoroughly systematic and up-to-date outfit throughout,” reported The Times.

The building had the unusual advantage of light and air on all four sides and on September 10, 1911 Germania Life Company moved to keep it that way by purchasing property on 17th Street, thus preventing any tall buildings from going up and blocking sunlight.

Among the early tenants was the Municipal Journal and Engineer newspaper.  The publication explained its move saying it would be more convenient for subscribers and “friends of the newspaper” since the building was “only one-half block from the 18th street subway station, while the Fourth avenue surface cars pass the door and the Broadway cars are but a short block away.”

As the United States prepared to enter World War I, anti-German sentiment was running high.   On February 27, 1917 Germania Life Insurance district manager Henry Abeles attended the annual dinner of the Life Underwriters’ Association of New York at the Astor Hotel.   At one point in the evening a telegram was being drafted to President Wilson that pledged the group’s support.

Abeles, who spoke in a decidedly German accent, attempted to put in his two cents.  He stood and said loudly “Peace, peace, for God’s sake work for peace!”  His words were answered with hooting and jeers.  Members booed Abeles and hissed until finally a number of men pushed him forcibly into a chair.

By the end of the year The Weekly Underwriter reported that the directors of Germania Life “voted to apply for an order authorizing the company to change its name to the “Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.”

The advisable change in name did not come easily, however.   The firm was immediately sued by the Guardian Life of Madison Wisconsin for stealing its name.   The courts decided that the addition of “of America” was enough to distinguish the two companies.  Guardian Life Insurance Company of America could now go about reprinting its stationery and having a new electric sign built.

The W Hotel carried on the tradition of the electric supersign in its transformation to a hotel -- photo by Alice Lum
With its movement into a diversified financial services company, Guardian left its headquarters in 1999 and went back downtown where it had been a century earlier.    A year later Starwood Hotels commissioned Rockwell Group to transform the building into the 270-room W Hotel.  

photo by Rockwell Group
While the exterior of the old Germania Life Insurance building remains essentially unchanged (the W Hotel even replicated the electric sign on the roof with its own name), the interiors are not.   Using what Rockwell Group called “an eclectic mix of contemporary decorative arts,” they successfully recycled a handsome vintage building for 21st Century use.

The Guardian Life Insurance building was designated a New York City landmark in 1988.

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