Cross Streets: Broadway between Cedar and Pine Streets
This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
Perhaps the ideal location to contemplate the significance of the Equitable Building is from Pine Street, standing between Broadway and Nassau Street. Though the main entrance is at 120 Broadway, here we become uncomfortably aware of how close it stands to the neighboring American Surety Company Building at 100 Broadway. Together, these towers epitomize the early development of the skyscraper. Not only do they share conventional tripartite elevations (base/shaft/column) and neo-classical details, but both rise straight up from the ground without interruption, creating a steep vertical slot where hardly any direct sunlight falls during the day.
An earlier building on the site, built as the headquarters of the Equitable Insurance Company, was one of the city’s earliest skyscrapers. Completed in 1870, it was the first office building served by an elevator, making the uppermost floors extremely desirable and valuable. Significantly rebuilt in the late 1880s, this structure was destroyed by fire in 1912. When plans for a new Equitable Building were announced in 1914, height remained important to the owner but not as much as total square footage. Though just 38 stories tall — far fewer than the 57-story Woolworth Building — it contained more office space than any structure in the world. The Equitable Building was sharply criticized for its bulk, so much so that city officials took almost immediate steps to regulate future high-rise construction. Though increasingly dark streets had long concerned city planners, few architects had taken this issue into account in their designs. Consequently, the Equitable Building was the last major skyscraper erected in New York City prior to 1916 when a new zoning resolution was adopted that regulated height and use, while encouraging buildings with setback profiles that allowed more air and light to reach the street.
The Equitable Building was designed by Ernest R. Graham & Associates. Both Graham and the partner in the charge of the project, (William) Pierce Anderson, began their careers in the office of the noted Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who oversaw the design and planning of the Worlds’ Columbian Exposition of 1893, which helped the classical style gain prominence in the United States. A handsome piece of design, the Equitable Building is shaped like the letter H; tenants enter through a large arch and the dramatic barrel-vaulted lobby extends through the entire ground floor to Nassau Street. Nevertheless, the Equitable Building was not designated a New York City Landmark for aesthetics alone but mostly for what it inspired in years to come. Without this building and the 1916 resolution, Manhattan’s built environment would be considerably different. While some contemporary critics opposed the introduction of such regulations, in the end these fair and flexible rules produced tangible benefits and some of the most recognizable buildings of the 20th century.
– Matthew A. Postal