Sunday, May 3, 2009

Helmsley Building at Park Avenue

The Helmsley Building, designed by Warren & Wetmore, is a 35-story building positioned in the center of Park Avenue. Before being dwarfed by the 1960s Pan Am Building (now the Met Life Building), it served as a visual termination point for Park Avenue at 46th Street, immediately north of Grand Central Terminal. It was the tallest element of the vast Terminal City project of hotels, offices, post office and railroad terminal that began construction in 1912. The Helmsley Building was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1987.

Built in 1929 as the headquarters for the New York Central Railroad Company (founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt), it was originally called the New York Central Building. When New York Central sold the building to real estate mogul Harry Helmsley, he renamed it the New York General Building. His wife, Leona Helmsley, infamous for her well-publicized tax evasion indictment in 1989, later renamed it the Helmsley Building. Helmsley-Spear Management owned the property until 1998, when it was sold to Max Capital for $253 million. It was sold again in 2006 for $705 million to Istithmar, an investment firm owned by the royal family of Dubai. It was subsequently sold to Goldman Sachs in 2007 for over $1 billion; in nine years the value thus increased four-fold. Stipulations require the name to remain The Helmsley Building, regardless of the owner.

The cupola-capped pyramid roof is dramatically lit at night:

Before the electrification of the New York Central Railroad in 1912-1913, the neighborhood north of Grand Central Terminal was populated with open-air railway yards and tracks used by steam locomotives. The electrification and covering of the yards enabled the continuation of Park Avenue to the north and the construction of new buildings such as this.

The middle part of the building, flanked by 15-story wings on the sides, rises as a tower to the pilastered top and the pyramidal roof, crowned by a distinctive copper-clad cupola. At night the roof and cupola are illuminated. At the base of the tower, there are two large arched portals on either side of the lobby to provide access for traffic from Park Avenue through the building, to the elevated platforms past Met Life and Grand Central Terminal, and to Park Avenue South via the Pershing Viaduct. Similarly, pedestrian traffic moves through two tunnels with connections to retail space. It is thus a unique drive-through and walk-through building.

The ornate art deco clock was erected 68-feet above street level on the cornice above the portal in 1928. Edward Francis McCartan created the piece during his three-year appointment to the New York City Art Commission. Cut in limestone, the clock features two statues four times life size. The male figure on the left is Transportation, symbolizing the spirit of speed. He rests his arm on a winged wheel of Progress and holds the staff of Mercury. On the right is a female figure, Industry, who embraces a staff in her arm, while resting on a beehive. Several other smaller symbolic figures round out the design including the Liberty Cap, crowning the clock's top. The clock, 45 feet in width and 19 feet high , has a dial with a diameter of 9 feet. Helmsley had the figures gilded, but subsequent restorations returned them to their original stone finish.

The ornate entrance lobby has lavish white travertine and marble decor replete with mirrors and chandeliers. Bronze reliefs above the elevator doors depict a winged helmet surrounding a globe, symbolizing the American empire's global reach. The elevator car ceilings are painted to represent clouds.


Mafia murder: On September 10, 1931, capo de tutti capi Salvatore Maranzano was murdered in his ninth-floor office here by hit men sent by Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, ambitious underlings whom Maranzano had ordered killed by Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll.

A view of the Helmsley Building from the Met Life building:


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