Building of the Day: Lever House

SOM Classic

Building of the Day: Lever House

This is the twentieth in a series of guests posts that feature Archtober Building of the Day tours!

Standing street level at the corner of 53rd and Park Avenue among the towering steel and glass office buildings packed together creating the dense built environment we have known for decades as Midtown Manhattan, it is easy to forget that the earliest innovators of the curtain wall skyscrapers had different goals.

Lever House, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) in the international style, completed in 1952, was one of the very first modernist colossuses to rise in New York City. Built to be gazed upon as a structure and to be inhabited by the employees of Lever Brothers, the iconic building balances a tall, vertical volume with one that is horizontal, features open interior spaces, and attains, through engineering, visual weightlessness—all of which creates an elegant, airy and comfortable place to work, dine and socialize.

Archtober visited Lever House on Sunday for a tour lead by technical architect Sam O’Meara of SOM. He made connections between the design of the building and the desired experiential effects including the human scale of the spaces and rhythm of components on the ground floor, which is established by the strategic dimensionality of the column grid.

Since taking over leasehold position in 1998, Aby Rosen, whose firm RFR Holding LLC is housed on the terrace-adjacent 3rd floor of Lever House, has activated the fluidly visible ground floor lobby with museum-quality presentations of blue chip artists including Jeff Koons, Damien Hurst, Tom Sachs, and Rachel Feinstein under the curatorship of the recently late Richard Marshall.

Lever House underwent an important renovation in 2001 to repair its façade. The steel mullion system had corroded and pushed on the spandrel glass panels, which were cracking all over the building and irregularly replaced. New aluminum mullions were installed along with uniformly hued glass panels, a process that has successfully renewed the look and feel of the original design. Interestingly, the original window washing system was left in place—innovative in its time and still in use today.

The group toured the stunning offices of Hellman & Friedman LLC on Floor 21 and Sanders Capital on Floor 17. It was striking how comfortable these spaces were—because of the relatively slender footprint of the vertical tower, the generous use of glass on the exterior walls and interior designs, and modest ceiling heights (under 10 feet), the offices were light-filled and human-scaled.

Floor 2 of Lever House, a 34,056-square-space located directly under the elevated southern terrace, which originally housed an employee lounge, medical suite, and operational facilities, is available for rent. To accommodate the build-out needs of a new tenant, the space is bare—accentuating its awesome capacity and potential.

Two generous terraces are placed on the north and south sides of the tower. From here employees can get air and enjoy the sights of the city from a comfortable perspective.

Special thanks to Steven Samuelsen of RFR Holding LLC and Sam Cross of Lever House. Tour of Lever House sponsored by Kramer Levin.

About the author: Anne Shisler-Hughes is the Development Manager at AIA New York | Center for Architecture.