70 Pine Street, 1930–32

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Viewed from Brooklyn or the East River, the 66-story Cities Service Building is one of Lower Manhattan’s most prominent skyscrapers. At 950 feet, it was the world’s third tallest building in 1932. From the narrow surrounding streets, however, this handsome setback tower is difficult to fully appreciate. Crowded between neighboring buildings, one struggles to view the Cities Service Building in its entirety. Early 20th century architects and owners certainly understood this quandary and often tried to resolve the problem by incorporating an image (or might we say portrait) of their building in a prominent place. For instance, the lobby of the Chrysler Building includes a colorful ceiling mural, as does the entry hall of the Empire State Building, which displays a large aluminum bas-relief.

The Cities Service Building, by contrast, incorporates two large limestone portraits that allow us to visualize whole tower, from setbacks to spire. Installed on both Pine and Cedar Streets, these slightly chunky representations guard the east portals that lead to the main and lower lobbies. Not only can we discern the building’s general profile and massing but we can connect this image to views of the downtown skyline. Though the sculptor has not been definitively identified, Carl Jennewin, who created the silvery elevator doors that decorate the main lobby, may have been responsible. The Cities Service Company (later Citgo) was founded in 1910. A leading producer of petroleum and electricity, by the late 1920s it controlled more than 150 subsidiaries in the United States and Canada. The company’s trefoil logo, carved in limestone, appears above most of the entrances. Built as the company’s headquarters, as well as the never-inhabited residence of founder and financier Henry L. Doherty, one of the structure’s more unusual features was an indoor observatory, reached by a small private elevator that ascends through a pop-up hatch in the crowning floor.

Designed by Clinton & Russell, Holton & George, both the building and the glorious yellow marble lobby are New York City Landmarks. Located on two floors, tenants were able to access the double-deck elevators from Pine, Cedar, and William Streets. This innovation allowed tenants to enter or exit on two floors simultaneously. In addition, the first six floors were originally served by pairs of “moving staircases.” It was the first office building to use escalators on such a large scale. Neither circulation system, however, proved popular with tenants and both were eventually discontinued. From 1976 to 2008, the building was owned by AIG, the American International Group. At present, a retail-residential conversion is planned.

Matthew A. Postal