Although our Home Office building didn’t open its doors until December of 1928, we discovered some historic photos of it during the early days of its construction in July of the previous two years before that, almost 90 years ago. The photos capture the building as it developed over the course of the two years it took to build at a cost of $21 million dollars.
In March of 1928, E.B. White, the essayist, poet, humorist, and author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, visited the construction site of New York Life’s then new Home Office building at 51 Madison Avenue and wrote about his experience in a brief article in The New Yorker, entitled “Ascension.”
After taking a freight elevator up 23 floors, E.B. White writes, he climbed up “dark stairs through interminable garrets that should have been full of old trunks and bats,” and stepped out onto a deck 500 feet above the street, where the building’s pinnacle was still under construction. White describes “blocks of limestone pendulous about [his] head...workmen trundling barrows of mortar,” and “the canvas guards of the scaffolding bellying like sails in the breeze.” He likened the view to a dream.
To White, New York Life’s Home Office, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed New York’s Woolworth Building and the U.S. Supreme Court Building, was “a very tangible and very beautiful” building that had arisen to dispel the memory of the old Madison Square Garden, the entertainment venue that had occupied the site since 1889. The new 40-story building, with almost 1 million square feet of working space, 38 elevators, 2,200 windows, and 72 gargoyles, opened in November 1928 with a speech by company president Darwin Kingsley that was broadcast on NBC. President Calvin Coolidge pressed a button in the White House that unfurled a U.S. flag in the new building’s lobby.
In 2000, the Home Office building was designated a historic landmark by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. According to the commission, “The New York Life Insurance Company building has special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York City.” As White puts it, the building is a “modern pyramid—erect and without flaw and high,” constructed for all the people on the ground, “to whom life, to be sweet, must be insured.”
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