1929–1930

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

The Manhattan Company Building was erected spectacularly fast – in less than a year, during 1929-30. Commissioned as an investment, this speculative office tower was originally named for the Bank of the Manhattan Company (the city’s second oldest bank, now part of J.P. Morgan Chase), which occupied the lower six floors as its headquarters until 1960. Many memorable setback skyscrapers were built in the financial district during the late 1920s and early 1930s. While most featured the very latest in stylish Art Deco-style details, such as 20 Exchange Place and the Cities Service Building, the classical and geometric ornament found on this building’s limestone and tan brick elevations is not easily categorized and was described by contemporaries as “modernized French Gothic.” This aesthetic is, perhaps, more apparent on the upper stories, which rise to a multi-story pyramidal roof and spire recalling a medieval cathedral. Though fairly difficult to appreciate from street level, this striking pinnacle remains an important part of the Lower Manhattan skyline.

Height was clearly important to the syndicate that financed the building and architect. H. Craig Severance, the project’s lead architect, had been partners with William Van Alen, architect of the Chrysler Building, which was also under construction. This previous professional relationship, combined with the unique real estate market conditions of the time, spurred a memorable vertical rivalry. Though planned as the world’s tallest building (927 feet), the 71-story Manhattan Company building was promptly surpassed by Chrysler, which reached 1,046 feet in May 1930.

Shreve & Lamb, who collaborated with Severance on 40 Wall Street and later designed the Empire State Building, asserted that the Chrysler Building’s slender metal-clad spire (which was assembled secretly on the upper floors) was a mere decorative feature that served no practical function and should, therefore, not be counted. Today, similar debates surround One World Trade Center, with its critics likewise claiming the exposed 408-foot antenna-mast should not be used to calculate the total height.

Inside 40 Wall Street, the second floor contained a block-long banking hall with 28-foot-tall ceilings. Converted to retail use by the pharmacy Duane Reade in 2013, for many years this impressive room sat vacant and unused, leaving a significant stretch of this fabled financial thoroughfare (as well as part of Pine Street) empty. Though the interior entrance stairs, lighting fixtures and murals were removed, this impressive interior retains many handsome architectural features, including the marble archways, columns, and door enframements. For a ubiquitous chain store, it is a remarkably handsome place to do business, one that is certainly worthy of a detour.

– Matthew A. Postal