Thursday, January 24, 2013

The 1907 United Engineering Societies Building--29 W 39th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1903 Andrew Carnegie conceived of a unified headquarters building that would consolidate the offices and meeting rooms of the city’s various engineering groups.  The philanthropist offered to donate a substantial amount towards the construction of what would be known as the United Engineering Societies Building.

At the time, the American Society of Civil Engineers had outgrown its headquarters on West 57th Street.  Carnegie’s offer of a new building seemed to some members to be both timely and financially advantageous.  Others, concerned about the society’s autonomy, voted against the grand plan and chose instead to enlarge their existing structure.

The Society’s somewhat surprising decision did not scuttle the project, however.  On March 17, 1904 The New York Times reported in an awkwardly-worded notice, “It will be a source of great gratification to all who are interested in the progress of engineering science to learn that the decision of the American Society of Civil engineers not to participate in the enjoyment of the liberality of Mr. Andrew Carnegie has not deprived those who are desirous of availing themselves of these facilities of the advantages of Mr. Carnegie’s offer.”

As a matter of fact, Carnegie had increased his offer to $1.5 million three days earlier.  The participating groups—the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Institute of Mining Engineers, the Engineers’ Club and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers—would be responsible for contributing the balance of the cost which was anticipated to be $2.5 million.

The decision was quickly made to house the Engineers’ Club in a separate building on West 40th Street facing Bryant Park and nearly back-to-back with the United Engineering Societies Building on West 39th Street.  A committee of twelve engineers, three from each was formed to oversee the plans.

West 39th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was still lined with brownstone residences and the new building would replace three of them, nos. 29, 31 and 33.   With stunning forethought, the Conference Committee purchased the adjoining brownstone at No. 27.  A restriction was written into the deed which prevented the erection of a building more than 60 feet high on the site—ensuring that the Engineering Societies’ building would have windows and sunlight above the third floor to the east.

American Architect and Architecture reported, “It then became necessary to select an architect.  The worldwide fame of the donor, the magnitude of his gift, the national character of the engineering societies, and the great cost of the contemplated edifice, made the selection of an architect a semi-public matter of more than ordinary importance.”   As a result of Carnegie’s wishes, six architects “of high reputation” were paid $1,000 to submit plans and any other architects who cared to participate were invited to do so—without compensation. 

The competition stipulated that the Engineering Societies Building be of “a handsome but not too ornate treatment” with the side and rear walls “to be reasonably conformable in architectural treatment with the front elevation”   A pair of architects won the commission—Herbert D. Hale of the Boston firm Hale & Rogers, and New York architect Henry G. Morse.

The architects released the above sketch in 1905 -- The Railroad Gazette, December 31, 1905 (copyright expired)

The committee dictated several important requirements.  A large auditorium, capable of seating an audience of at least 1,000, would be incorporated into the first floor, eliminating the need of an elevator for access.  The upper two floors would be devoted to the libraries of the various societies.  The top floor was to be dedicated to reading and reference rooms, “working alcoves,” and rooms for photographic reproduction, drawing and similar library work.  The Railroad Gazette reported that the reading rooms “will be quiet, cool, airy, and free from dust.”  The floor beneath the reading rooms was to be devoted to the book stacks.

The committee envisioned the later inclusion of additional societies, so the building was planned with extra space.   Engineering World, in April 1905, listed such possible groups as the New York Electrical Society, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Heating and Ventilating Engineers, and Society of Chemical Engineers among them.

The cornerstone was laid by Mrs. Andrew Carnegie on May 8, 1906.  On New Year’s Day 1907 the building was ready for occupancy, although still not totally complete.  Constructed of “hydraulic-pressed gray mottled brick, with limestone and terra cotta trimmings,” the resulting structure was subdued yet monumental.   Above the rusticated limestone base, massive stone columns framed grand arched windows.  The treatment was repeated nearly brick-for-brick at the top two floors. 

The newly-completed building interrupted a block-long row of nearly identical brownstone residents.  By securing the air rights to the house next door, the committee enabled the all-around design of the facade above the third floor -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Engineering News-Record commented in June 1907, “An unusual feature of the United Engineering Society Building is the treatment of the side walls so that they harmonize with the front of the building.”  Most structures were designed with unfinished brick side walls in anticipation of other large buildings rising next to them.  The New York Times glowed, “New York is to be congratulated upon this important addition to its array of monumental structures devoted to the arts and sciences.”

Members entered into a large foyer tiled in Tennessee marble girded by twelve large Swiss Cipolia marble columns.  “Gold ornament is used sparingly for architectural accentuation, and the woodwork is in dark oak.  Large chairs and lounges in red leather furnish the foyer, and similar furniture is used in the writing-room, smoking-room, reception-room and administration-room,” said American Architect and Architecture.

The auditorium seats were upholstered in red leather, matching the red carpeting of the aisles.  A glass ceiling was lit by incandescent lamps.  “There is also a fine stereopticon equipped with connections for moving pictures,” said American Architect.

photo by Alice Lum

On the second and third floors were seven lecture rooms, while on the sixth floor there were smaller lecture rooms.   This provided facilities for groups of many sizes.  As the Railroad Gazette had promised years earlier, the library (capable of housing 300,000 volumes) was a calm retreat.  American Architect described it as “Commanding magnificent view of Greater New York and vicinity in every direction, the library is retired, quiet, free from noise and dust, an ideal haunt of the student and man of research; while open at all times to any reader.”

Andrew Carnegie delivered an address at the dedication ceremonies on April 16, 1907.  The New-York Tribune called the opening of the building a “significant affair.”   Letters from the President of the United States, the President of the Republic of Mexico and the Governor General of Canada were read.  The nearly week-long ceremonies ended “with an informal smoker and vaudeville for the members of the founder societies on Friday,” said the New-York Tribune.

On the day following the dedication, the John Fritz Medal was presented to Alexander Graham Bell in the auditorium.  The medal, first awarded to John Fritz in 1902 on his 80th birthday, signified “outstanding scientific or industrial achievements.”  Bell would be the first of a long line of illustrious inventors and engineers to receive the award in the building.  Among the others would be Thomas Alva Edison the following year, Alfred Nobel, Orville Wright, Guglielmo Marconi, Elmer Ambrose Sperry, and Charles F. Kettering.

The broad array of uses of the building for the engineering and scientific communities was evidenced when in November 1910 the American Museum of Safety and Sanitation opened its permanent exposition here.  The museum was founded with the intention of illustrating “how invention has demonstrated the possibility of conserving human life through the production of safety devices,” reported The New York Times.    The exhibition displayed “inventions which automatically protect man from himself.”  The article said “It would seem to be impossible to invent a gasolene can which would be safe in the hands of a servant whose duties include lighting the kitchen fire.  Yet such a receptacle is to be found in the Museum of Safety.”

photo by Alice Lum

The building became home to the annual International Congress for Testing Materials.  In 1912 over 600 scientists worldwide attended the convention.  When a national railroad strike crippled transportation the following year, the Engineering Societies Building was used for conferences and from here a telegram was sent to President Wilson asking for mediators.

On December 17, 1917, the American Society of Civil Engineers finally relented and gave up its headquarters on 57th Street to join its related societies on 39th Street.  The move prompted a later addition of two floors atop the Engineering Societies’ Building to accommodate the new member.

The various engineering societies remained in the building until September 5, 1951 when they moved into the United Engineering Center at No. 345 East 47th Street near the United Nations. 

A century after its dedication, the building is home to Thor Equities -- photo

Now the home of Thor Equities, the grand building has been lovingly preserved if sadly overlooked.   The Trust for Architectural Easements calls the structure a “handsome reminder of the role that engineering played in the creation of New York City—which would have been inconceivable without the engineering triumphs of its bridges, subways, water works and skyscrapers.”


  1. This is where the dictaphone recording was made on July 28, 1945 of the plane crashing into the Empire State Building 5 blocks away.

    At the end of the following news report is the short audio made from the offices of the American Society of Civil Engineers to Dean Crawford of the University of Michigan. You can hear the plane approaching and then crashing.

  2. Thanks for the great article. It was very interesting to learn about the society of civil engineers. Previously, they used to gather in buildings like this, but now these days engineers are usually searched for on different engineering platforms like Engre. Perhaps it is more convenient, but some kind of atmosphere has been lost, you can say romance, in my humble opinion.