The Pan Am tower came into being in the mid 1950s. As America’s transportation needs shifted from railroads to automobiles and airplanes, the owners of Grand Central Terminal and the surrounding Terminal City needed to find ways to increase revenue. After rejecting plans for a skyscraper that would have required demolishing the station, developer Erwin Wolfson proposed a three million-square-foot tower to stand between the terminal and the railroad’s headquarters, the 1929 New York Central Building. In 1958, Emery Roth & Sons submitted designs for a slender tower for that spot in keeping with their other Park Avenue skyscrapers, such as the Uris and Colgate-Palmolive buildings. Wolfson, fearing this new tower lacked architectural panache, brought in Gropius and Pietro Belluschi to enliven the 49-story building.* Gropius and Belluschi changed the building's massing, created its unusual octagonal shape, and, most noticeably, shifted its axis so that it stood completely blocking views up or down Park Avenue.
The building was derided from its opening. Then New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable famously called it, "gigantically second-rate." In 1987, New York magazine conducted a poll of New York City leaders to discover what was the worst building in the city. Pan Am topped the list. In 1991, the airline--which was already on life support and occupied only a fraction of its original office space--left the building, and the skyscraper's owners, the Metropolitan Life Insurance company, replaced the iconic Pan Am logo with their own. Though that logo remains, Met Life sold the building in 2005 for a record $1.72 billion to a consortium headed by Tishman Speyer, but which also includes the New York City Employees' Retirement System and the Teachers' Retirement System.
So, if you are in midtown today, instead of raising your fist at the shadows cast on Park Avenue, raise a glass instead to this monument to modernity.
* Pan Am stands 808 feet tall -- approximately 59 stories -- but the bottom ten stories don't exist in order for it to float over Terminal City.
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