Seven decades after designing Lever House, SOM is overseeing its restoration

Pull The Lever

Seven decades after designing Lever House, SOM is overseeing its restoration

Lever House as it stands today (Photo © Lucas Blair Simpson / SOM)

Seven decades after designing the Lever House, the early International Style office tower in midtown Manhattan, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is working on it again, this time as the restoration architect.

SOM partners Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois designed the 21-story building to serve as headquarters of the Lever Brothers soap company, and it was constructed from 1950 to 1952 at 390 Park Avenue. Now SOM has been retained by new owners who want to restore and upgrade the building for continued office use in the 21st century.

Last week on July 20, representatives for new owners Brookfield Properties and WatermanCLARK, presented their plans to New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which designated the building a city landmark in 1982. While the bulk of the project involves interior infrastructure upgrades that won’t be seen from the outside, the owners need the preservation commission’s approval for any exterior alterations because Lever House is on the city’s individual landmarks list.

Meeting in person for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, the commissioners approved most of the proposed changes, including plans to replace non-original paving and to add some signs for tenants, with stainless steel letters in a “Lever House font.”

One exception was a proposal to create openings in a black limestone wall at plaza level, an idea the design team was asked to reconsider. Along with critiquing specific changes, the commissioners praised the owners for going back to the original architect.

Commissioner Fred Bland said he couldn’t recall any other design firm that has been involved in the life of a building for as long as SOM has been with Lever House.

rendering of the lever house plaza with black wall in the background
A rendering of the plaza with new black limestone wall openings (Courtesy SOM)

“I can’t think of another building that’s 70 years old that’s been under the care of the same architect or architectural firm,” Bland said. “I think the new ownership is to be commended [for] not breaking that chain and having Skidmore continue to be the preserver of their own work.”

“It’s great to see a restoration work of this magnitude and the tender loving care and amount of detail and thoughtfulness that went into this presentation,” added commissioner Wellington Chen.

Lever House is also significant for being “one of the few buildings that actually has been overseen by the landmarks commission longer than it has not been” by virtue of being a designated a city landmark practically as soon as it became eligible, said Historic Districts Council Executive Director Simeon Bankoff, who testified at the meeting.

Located on the west side of Park Avenue between 53rd and 54th streets, the building is “a remarkable icon of modern architecture” and “a notable triumph of preservation,” Bankoff said. Its designation just 30 years after it opened “was groundbreaking, not only for the preservation of modern buildings but for preservation citywide. This is a very special site for many reasons and must be treated as such.”

SOM was also involved when paving stones on the front plaza were replaced in 1985 and when the building’s curtain wall was replaced in 2001.

Scott Kirkham, Vice President of Design for Brookfield Properties, told the commission in a letter that the development team wants to restore the landmark while making it more competitive in today’s real estate market.

“We acquired the building in the second half of 2019 and are very excited to be the new stewards of this modernist icon,” he stated in a letter that was read to the commissioners. “You don’t acquire a building like Lever House without having a great respect for the building and its history.”

That respect for history is largely the reason SOM was hired, Kirkham explained.

When it opened on April 29, 1952, Lever House was one of the first curtain wall skyscrapers in the United States and the second in New York City after the United Nations Secretariat Building. Lever House president Charles Luckman, who had an architect’s license, assisted with the design himself.

The building’s construction marked the beginning of Park Avenue’s change from a street of masonry apartment buildings to one with International Style office buildings. Its design featured blue-green glass with stainless steel mullions and gave the impression that the glass box was floating above the street; a feature later copied around the world.

In 1982, the LPC moved to add the 260,000-square-foot building to the city’s landmark list because Lever Brothers were getting proposals to replace it with a larger skyscraper. When the city’s Board of Estimate narrowly voted in 1983 to ratify the preservation commission’s suggestion, Lever House became the “youngest” building ever designated an individual city landmark in New York City. It was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Unilever, the parent of Lever Brothers, moved most of its offices out of the building in 1997 and it was renovated by RFR Realty for use as a multi-tenant office tower.

The application before the preservation commission this month was to replace paving and terrace pavers, modify walls at the plaza and third-floor terrace, and install signs and railings.

Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, a consultant on the preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties, and Integrated Conservation Resources, Inc. are working with SOM on this project. Frank Mahan of SOM and Elise Quasebarth of Higgins Quasebarth presented the plans to the commission.

Much of the discussion involved proposed changes to a solid black limestone wall at plaza level. SOM’s Mahan proposed two openings, a large one and a smaller one with two doors, so patrons and staff from a restaurant with outdoor seating, Casa Lever, can gain access to restrooms and the kitchen area without going through the office portion of the tower.

Chen questioned the idea of breaking into the limestone wall.

“This is such a classic, monolithic slab,” he said, “The way that you are proposing right now, it is almost a puncture. The continuity stops.”

For those who spend time eating lunch in the plaza, “that wall is really the dominant feature,” said commissioner John Gustafsson. “You do see the beauty of that background when you spend that much time there. So I can’t accept the large opening but I could accept the smaller.”

Representatives from local preservation groups had reservations as well.

Interior courtyard rendering with black limestone wall at the back
Another rendering of the proposed plaza renovation (Courtesy SOM)

John Arbuckle, president of the New York/Tri-State chapter of Docomomo US, applauded SOM for the “carefully researched” restoration-oriented aspects of the project but questioned the amount of signage proposed and the plan to create openings in the limestone wall. He also lamented the removal of marble seating designed by the artist Isamu Noguchi and questioned whether that was approved by the commission.

“The proposed new openings within the black limestone are the interventions which we find the most troubling and problematic,” Arbuckle said. “An apparently monolithic wall entirely uninterrupted across the entire width of the plaza is an important element of the original composition, providing a strong background and contrast to the other elements within a surrounding plaza[…] The fact that the outdoor dining, which these new openings would support, is seasonal, and that the programmatic use of this space could change in the future, lead us to further question whether these prominent and permanent changes are appropriate.”

Bankoff also expressed concern about the “over-abundance” of new signs, the absence of the Noguchi benches, and the proposal to create openings in a wall that has stood for nearly 70 years without any.

“Cutting into the blank black wall is utterly unacceptable,” he said. “The wall was conceived as a neutral space and a dramatic backdrop for the plaza. Punching gaping holes into it completely violates the original design intent.”

The local community board, the New York chapter of the Victorian Society in America, the New York Conservancy, and the national and international divisions of Docomomo also recommended denial of proposed openings in the limestone wall. The director of New York’s Skyscraper Museum, Carol Willis, supported SOM’s proposal as presented.

LPC chair Sarah Carroll said the Noguchi sculptures weren’t original to the building and weren’t eligible for review by the staff or commission members.

In response to the comments about the wall, Quasebarth said the openings were carefully designed using architectural language elsewhere on the property. Bland noted that the wall changes were potentially reversible if the restaurant space were converted to another use.

Of the six commissioners at the meeting, one found the larger opening in the wall acceptable but not the smaller two-door opening. Two found the smaller opening acceptable but not the larger one. Three, including the chair, said they could approve both openings.

Because there was no consensus about the wall openings, Carroll said the panel would take no action on that part of the application and asked the architects to think about the comments they heard and come back.

The panel voted 6-to-0 to approve the rest of the project, contingent on the applicants working with the LPC staff to limit the tenant signage and make certain other modifications suggested by the commissioners.

Before last week’s resumption of in-person meetings, the LPC conducted business by holding virtual hearings that were live-streamed on YouTube so applicants and members of the general public could participate remotely. Ironically, the return to in-person meetings meant that it wasn’t possible last week for anyone not at the meeting to follow the proceedings in real-time or testify. Staffers said they hope to implement a hybrid procedure soon that will allow for both in-person meetings and remote participation.

Quasebarth, who participated in a number of virtual hearings over the past year, complimented the LPC staff for keeping the agency functioning throughout the pandemic. Her remarks triggered a round of applause for the staff and commissioners.

“I’d like to thank the LPC staff for their creativity and diligence” in running the agency over the past 18 months, she said. “They made a very complicated and difficult process look easy…They set a high bar for civil service.”