Air rights

New York Central Building [now Helmsley Building] and Pan Am Building [now MetLife Building], New York City (1981)

New York Central Building [now Helmsley Building] and Pan Am Building [now MetLife Building], New York City (1981)

I recently came across Meredith L Clausen’s book The Pan Am Building and the shattering of the Modernist dream (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2005).  It’s obvious from the title that she doesn’t much like the building.  She tells in great detail the story of a Manhattan building that symbolises the over-ambition of financiers seeking to make money out of transport.

This huge Modernist block sits astride the railroad tracks that lie in tunnel beneath Park Avenue, separating Grand Central Terminal (Reed & Stem, Warren & Wetmore 1903-27) from the former New York Central Building, now the Helmsley Building (Warren & Wetmore 1929).

Emery Roth’s original design, which would not have interrupted the Park Avenue vista, was altered, enlarged and turned 90° by Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius, who proposed, unsuccessfully, to demolish the New York Central Building to create a public park.

The development was commissioned by the New York Central Railroad in a desperate attempt to shore up their finances as traffic leached from rail to air.  The building reeks with irony, a hubristic symbol of the age of air-travel, no longer owned by the luckless company that built it.

Completed in 1963, it became the Pan Am Building because it was tenanted by Pan American World Airways, the last company to claim the right to have their logo on the outside of a New York skyscraper.  Initially the airline occupied fifteen floors of offices and ran a booking hall at street level.

The roof of the Pan Am Building was designed as a helicopter landing-pad offering rapid transfer from mid-town to JFK Airport for up to eight passengers at a time.  This grandiose scheme was unpopular from the start for obvious reasons of noise and danger.  Eventually, a fatal accident on May 16th 1977 put a stop to it:

The design is apparently derived from an unbuilt Le Corbusier design and the Pirelli Tower, Milan (Gio Ponti & Pier Lugig Nervi 1959) [].  Its distinctive footprint is repeated in Britain in the 331ft Portland House, Westminster (Howard Fairbairn & Partners 1960-3) [], and echoed by the 253ft Taberner House, Croydon (H Thornley 1964-7 – due for demolition) [] and the 656ft Alpha Tower, Birmingham (Richard Seifert & Partners 1969-73) [].

Pan American Airways came to grief, driven to bankruptcy in the face of the 1973 oil crisis, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the destruction of Flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988 and the effect on oil prices of the First Gulf War of 1991.

In 1990, Pan Am gave up their remaining four floors of the building and shortly afterwards the owner, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company changed the name to the MetLife Building and replaced the Pan Am name and logos with their own.

Though the airline ceased to exist in 1991, the Pan Am brand still functions.  It now belongs to a railroad company:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City’, please click here.


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