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A Sequel As Experimental Theater

There’s a tendency for new generations of skyscrapers to make the previous generations look small. The Met Life North Building, on the left, is shorter than the older tower, but still holds its own. (The photo is courtesy of Beyond My Ken.) The North Building fills the block, 24th to 25th Streets, Madison Avenue to Park Avenue South, and is over 2,200,000 square feet of interior space. To give a sense of how big that it, the North Building is 30 stories; the Empire State Building has 86 stories of ordinary space and is around 2,700,000 square feet.

The North Building’s construction required the demolition of the north-side-of-24th Street Met Life annex I mentioned yesterday as well as the demolition of the new Madison Square Presbyterian Church. The church moved to the Upper East Side, following its congregation, and is still in the new, new building. At (only) 450 in height, the North Building is notable for its late-1920s corporate Art Deco style and for a well-known story about an alternate design.

The story goes that the original design was for a 100-story tower that would have been taller than the Empire State, but that the beginning of the Great Depression convinced Met Life to cut the building short. There is some truth to the story, but it’s not clear how seriously the proposal for the tall building was, or exactly when in the design process it was abandoned. First of all, nothing has survived but sketches. If the full tower had been designed and abandoned after the stock-market crash, there’s little doubt that some of those drainage would have been circulating over the years. We have, for example, drawings from the early abandoned schemes for (the nearly contemporaneous) Rockefeller Center, including renderings of the opera house originally planned for the center of the complex. Second, there was a massive skyscraper boom in progress when the North Building was being planned, circa 1928, and I expect architects working on any new office tower with a large footprint sketched what maxing out the zoning would look like. Third, there’s a huge difference in the structure for the first 30 floors of a 100-story building and for a 30-story building. Paying for the much heavier steel required to support the unbuilt upper floors would make little sense, especially considering the huge floor size of what was built. The North Building is so big that it ended up being constructed in three phases over twenty years, which suggests that there was simply no need for another million or million and and a half square feet of space.

People have made retroactive renderings of what it might have looked like. My favorite was published in ArchDaily using an Irving Underhill photo as the background:

That’s…not small.