Monday, September 9, 2013

The Lost 1908 Singer Building - No. 149 Broadway


An early postcard shows horse drawn vehicles, omnibuses and motorcars passing the colorful Beaux Arts wonder.
In 1906 when the Singer Sewing Machine Company announced its plans for a new headquarters building, engineering and technological advances had already changed the face of downtown Manhattan.  Steel skeletons made higher buildings possible and passenger elevators made them feasible.   But not everyone was excited about the prospect of skyscrapers.

In 1902 A. J. Bloor warned in The Architects and Builders’ Magazine that “calamity is also in store for the public” and later that year wrote to the editor of the New-York Tribune saying “firemen are ‘afraid’ of the skyscraper.  They have good reason to be.”  Despite it all, the skyscraper was here to stay.

The rush was on to build taller and costlier office buildings.  On July 22, 1906 the New-York Daily Tribune wrote of the $75 million worth of new buildings going up in Downtown—including the soaring Singer Building.  In an article titled “Vast Sums, Vast Piles” it singled out the planned structure.  “The Singer Building is to be the one that the visitor to New York will go to see on his first day in town…[It] will be thirty-six stories high, but what will make it yet more remarkable is the fact that twenty-five of these stories will rise up like a tower, almost as high in itself as the Washington Monument, from a fundamental building of eleven stories in height….The architect, Ernest Flagg, says that there will be no exposed woodwork throughout the building.  Its cost will be $1,500,000.”

Flagg had designed the existing Singer Building at No. 561 Broadway.  A proponent of providing adequate sunlight and ventilation, he worried about the shadowy “ravines” that could eventually result from sheer walls of masonry lining the narrow streets of the Financial District.  His design for the new Singer Building would exemplify his push for towers narrower than the base, allowing sunlight to filter onto the streets.

A postcard pictured the building in 1910 
The newspapers were quick to draw comparisons to existing buildings.  “With the exception of the Eiffel Tower the Singer Building will be the loftiest structure in the world,” asserted The New York Times.  “It will be nearly 60 feet higher than the Philadelphia City Hall, more than 200 feet higher than the Park Row Building or The Times Building and over 100 feet higher than any of the famous spires of Europe, with the exception of those of the Cologne Cathedral, which rise 512 feet above the ground.”

A sketch in 1908 showed the tower in relation to other landmarks like the Washington Monument -- A History of the Construction of the Singer Building (copyright expired)
Construction would take two years to complete and New Yorkers followed the progress with riveted interest.   By January 2, 1907, as the skeleton rose, plans had changed and an additional five floors were added to the height.  “The tower of the Singer Building will have forty-one floors containing offices, and will be thirteen stories higher than any other structure now standing in the city,” said the New-York Tribune.

Flagg’s Beaux Arts design—sometimes tagged “Second Empire Baroque”—was lavished with ornamentation.    At every seventh story, on all four sides of the tower, were cast iron balconies supported by ornamental wrought iron brackets.  The window openings were graced with ornamental iron railings with French scrolled designs.   The architect used dark red face brick, combined with 1,500 cubic feet of North River bluestone for the base courses, windowsills, entrance steps, and other trim; as well as 4,280,000 pounds of limestone.   Terra cotta details went so far as to include three entire balconies of the material on each of the four facades fabricated by The New Jersey Terra Cotta Co.
Construction continues a week before the Prince of Sweden would visit the site -- A History of the Construction of the Singer Building (copyright expired)
Even before construction was completed the Singer Building was an attention-getter.   On August 29, 1907 Prince Wilhelm of Sweden was taken to the 29th floor.  The prince stayed for half an hour taking in the panorama.  “It is simply magnificent,” he told reporters.  “Beyond all doubt it is the grandest sight I have ever beheld in my life.”

The prince was especially interested in visiting the rising skyscraper because most of the ironworkers were Swedish-born.  “He was told by the Engineer that, probably on account of their early training on ship masts and other high places, Swedes were found to be the safest men on the ‘tail jobs’ of any of the nationalities which work at them.”

Less than two months later crowds on the sidewalk below gazed in amazement as not a Swede, but an Italian, was raised 612 feet from the pavement to install the ball on the top of the flagpole.   “The highest point above the sidewalk ever attained by a man outside of a balloon in New York was reached yesterday by Ernest Capelle, steeplejack, who placed the golden ball on the top of the flagpole that surmounts the Singer Building in lower Broadway,” reported the New-York Tribune on October 11, 1907.

A miniscule Ernest Capelle can be seen at the top of the flagpole on October 10, 1907 -- New-York Tribune October 11, 1907 (copyright expired)
Prior to going up the flagpole Capelle dismissed questions of fear.  “Afraid!  Why, it’s no better—or worse—to fall off a little country church steeple than it is to fall off this pole.”

Having affixed the ball onto the flagpole, Capelle then had to gold leaf it.  “With the ball once in place, the crowd saw him puttering about the top as he lay back in the rope sling that held him.  He was putting the gold leaf on the ball, but this was not evident until he had finished and slipped down a few feet.”

Inside the building, Flagg lavished the public spaces with costly materials.  According to the building’s chief engineer Otto Francis Semsch “Nowhere…in recent work has greater advantage been taken of the possibilities of the enrichment of marble by the use of decorative bronze than in the Singer Building.”

Bronze railings and medalions compliment the several different types of marble.  At the end of the hall is the bronze-cased Master Clock that regulated all the "secondary clocks" throughout the building.-- A History of the Construction of the Singer Building (copyright expired)
The entrance “doorway” was a 24-foot high bronze grille.  Inside, the marble columns and walls were embellished with more than 3,600 lineal feet of cast bronze molding plus 80 bronze medallions bearing the trademark of the Singer Manufacturing Company.  The elevator doors, stair railings, interior balconies, office doors and the master-clock on the main stairs in the lobby were all of bronze.  Thirty-eight tons of ornamental bronze were used.

The executive offices of the Singer company covered the entire 34th floor.  Here were Oriental rugs, custom-designed Empire-inspired mahogany furniture and carved woodwork.  Semsch commented “Such furniture appeals to the discriminating man and creates the right impression upon all who see it.”

The Directors' Room upon opening in 1908 -- A History of the Construction of the Singer Building (copyright expired)
The building was completed in 1908 and the newspapers scrambled to print lists of staggering figures couched in hyperbole.  “It contains 136 miles of various kinds of metal piping,” reported The Sun on June 28.  “The telephones, elevators electric lights, fans and clocks require 3,425 miles of wire, which if stretched out would extend from the top of the Singer Building to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, with 300 miles left over.

“The steel used in the construction of the Singer Building if made into ¾ uinch wire cable, would reach from New York to Buenos Ayres, a distance of 7,100 miles.  The total length of the steel bearing columns in the building is about ten miles.

The lobby ceiling was a masterpiece of plasterwork.  The "skylights" in the domes were electrically lighted.  A History of the Construction of the Singer Building (copyright expired)
“The terra cotta floor blocks in the building, if spread out on a plane, would cover 8.96 acres.  Placed end to end they would extend 97 miles, or further than New York to Philadelphia.”  And so on.  For eighteen months it  would proudly hold the title as tallest building in the world.

The observation tower opened on the 42nd Floor on July 1 of that year.  Never before had New Yorkers seen the city from so lofty a perch.  The Evening World remarked “It gives a sightseeing radius of thirty miles in all directions and being the highest observation tower in the world, it affords a vew never before possible except from an airship.”

The Safe Deposit Company of New York took about 10,000 square feet in the basement of the new building, signing a 20 year lease.    The term “basement,” however, was misleading.  Ornate columns and arched vaults upheld a series of domes in the cathedral-like space.  Semsch said that the specially-designed and constructed level “offers its patrons the most secure, elaborate and convenient means for the safe keeping of valuables.”

The Singer Building was the first in New York to be dramatically lit at night.  This postcard's boast "Highest building in the world" would last only 18 months.
Meanwhile, upstairs, tenants enjoyed ultra-modern conveniences.  There was a central, building-wide vacuum system, a refrigerating plant for the cooling of the drinking water (which was filtered), and an amazing electric clock system.  “Secondary clocks” were installed throughout the building and were actuated by the master clock in the lobby.   The master clock was wound daily by an electric motor that was powered by the electric plant in the building.  “The magneto apparatus is released every half minute, thus generating a positive and strong current, and operating the secondary clocks throughout the building,” explained Otto Semsch in his “A History of the Singer Building Construction.”

Not everyone loved the building.  The New York Globe scoffed “For anyone but an eagle, the occupancy of a perch over 600 feet up is a matter of sentiment rather than reason, and until there is a balloon fire-rescue service established, there ought to be some limit to our real estate owners’ appropriation of the skies.”  The newspaper called it an “architectural giraffe.”

Unfortunately, extremely tall buildings not only offered a stunning view, they offered a convenient means of suicide.   Albert Goldman, an agent for the Mutual Life Insurance Company, was one of the early victims.  On August 10, 1916 Police Headquarters received a letter from Goldman.  “The writer said he had decided to end his life by jumping from some high building down town, and begged the Police Commissioner to forgive any annoyance he might cause by his act,” reported The New York Times a day later.

With scores of “high buildings” as possible choices, orders were sent from headquarters to post guards at all skyscrapers in the Financial District.  A few minutes before a policeman arrived at the Singer Building, Goldman flung himself from the observation platform.

The Times was a bit lurid in its details.  “Lower Broadway and the cross streets were thronged at the time, and thousands saw Goldman’s body in the last hundred feet or so of its drop and heard it strike the pavement, their attention having been drawn by the shrieks of persons who had happened to be looking at the tower when the man made his leap into space.  The body struck the mansard roof at the thirteenth story, bounded over the eave and almost across Broadway to the sidewalk in front of the windows of McCue Brothers & Drummond, opposite the entrance to the Singer Building.”

It was the first suicide from the Singer Building and it unnerved the Superintendent, A. J. Bleecker who ordered the tower closed to visitors for several days.  “This is the first occurrence of its kind we have had here,” he told reporters, “and as all such deeds are known to prompt others to similar acts, we have decided not to risk a repetition through morbid suggestion.”

It was not the observation platform that served as the jumping point for Austin Adams, Jr.  The 59-year old wheelbarrow manufacturer visited his attorney at the offices of Douglass Moore and Grover C. Snifflin regarding business matters on October 15, 1930.  The firm had its offices on the 24th floor.  When Adams arrived, Moore was out of the office so, according to The New York Times, he “put aside his coat, hat and umbrella and began reading a magazine to wait for his lawyer.”  When Sniffin, who was sitting at a desk in the same room, walked out for a few moments, he returned to find Adams missing.

The man had thrown himself out of the office window, falling to his death on the 14th floor setback.  “The police said that Adams was apparently depressed over business difficulties.”

Despite the newspaper-selling tragedies, the glorious Singer Building drew little undue attention.  For decades it served as one of New York’s foremost tourist attractions and indisputably one of the handsomest structures in the city.    Then on November 16, 1961 the Singer Manufacturing Company announced that after more than half a century in its iconic headquarters, it had leased six floors at 30 Rockefeller Center.  The Singer Building was put on the market.

Two years later United States Steel assumed control of the property.  The firm bought up surrounding structures and on August 22, 1967 The New York Times said “The first signs of demolition activity are marking the beginning of the end for a historic office building in downtown Manhattan.”  In its place United States Steel planted a 50-story tower.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission had been established in 1965.  But it was still testing the legal and preservationist waters.  In September 1965 it had designated the Jerome Mansion on Madison Square a landmark, deeming it “priceless.”   Now, the same year that the Singer Building was schedule for demolition, the Jerome Mansion was bulldozed to the ground.

Alan Burnham, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission praised the Singer Building.  “The building held the seeds of modernity,” he said.   But he excused the Commission in its resistance to landmark the structure.  “If the building were made a landmark, we would have to find a buyer for it or the city would have to acquire it.  The city is not that wealthy and the commission doesn’t have a big enough staff to be a real-estate broker for a skyscraper.”

So as the head of the LPC spoke like a businessman rather than a preservationist, demolition continued.  On March 27, 1968 it was well under way.  “Yesterday the lobby looked as if a bomb had hit it,” remarked The New York Times.  “The Italian-marble surfacing and the bronze medallions with the Singer monogram were stripped from many columns and were being offered for sale.

“Holes pocked the elaborately sculptured pendentives that support the series of domes forming the ceiling.  Plaster flaked onto a floor strewn with wood, shattered brick and discarded coffee cups.”

Since the last brick was removed from the site, the Singer Building remains the tallest building in the world to be purposefully demolished.  On the site rose the 54-story U.S. Steel Building, later renamed One Liberty Plaza.
photo by Alice Lum

6 comments:

  1. I recently bought Robert A.M. Stern's book "New York 1960" an it gave me a greater appreciation for the dozens of new modern buildings that replaced these baroque and vernacular-styled buildings of the past. Yes it is a great loss to lose the 2 skyscrapers that once dominated that block but I really love that we now have plenty of documentation and pictures to rely on.

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  2. hopefully one will never grow fond of the black Darth Vader like, hulking presence of the US Steel Building, a brutal monstrosity that replaced such an elegant early skyscraper. Shame on the Landmarks Commission for their inept handling of this and many other buildings in their early days.

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  3. I read in the History of the Singer Building Construction that a brick made of silver was placed at the top of the tower. This was to celebrate that it was the highest brick in the world. I wonder whatever happened to that brick. Did a lucky demolition worker realize what it was, or was it dumped down the elevator shafts like all of the other debris and is sitting in a landfill somewhere.

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  4. My grandfather, Robert Wallace Crawford, was the proud manager of all of Singer's real estate from the late '30's until his death in 1963. Our family has a smattering of Singer memorabilia; slabs of marble from the grand lobby, random bricks from the demolition, a bronze medallion from a folding elevator gate, the oriental rug shown in the photo of the director's room, window washer grommets made into paper weights, a number of colored prints of the original Flagg rendering of the building, but, sadly, not the silver capstone brick.

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  5. During the early 1950's I worked for Manufacturers Trust Company, which had rented the 'mezzanine' space, just up the marble stairs that are visible in the lobby of the Singer Building. On the occasion of Douglas MacArthur's ticker-tape parade, (April 20, 1951), I was fortunate enough to be able to stand on the parapet just above the entrance to the building, and witness the parade.

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  6. I recently acquired what from afar I thought was a painting. However, upon closer inspection, it was actually a cityscape embroidery highlighting the Singer Building. The brass plaque on the bottom edge of the frame holding the picture states that it was embroidered completely using a Singer Family Sewing Machine with no special attachments. I was advised that it had hung in the lobby of the Singer Building in lower Manhattan before it was demolished. I was wondering if anyone was ever in the building and could verify this, or if anyone, in fact, remembers this kind of wall decor in the lobby or any other place in the building. My email address is emeralite@aol.com if you can offer any information. Needless to say, I would be pleased to send pictures if that would jog your memory. Thanks.

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