The McGraw-Hill Building, New York, 1930, by Raymond Hood

Deutsche Bauzeitung, October 1993, pages 129 - 132.

Chicago and New York are the protagonists of two radically different visions of the skyscraper.  In classic histories such as Leonardo Benevolo's Modern Architecture, which define architecture in terms of the "modern project" and industrial rationalization, Chicago figures as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper.  In these accounts, the development of steel frame construction by William LeBaron Jenney in the 1880s is the technological breakthrough which opens the way to the modern office building as it was first conceived by Holabird & Roche, John Root, Louis Sullivan and others.

It is true that the first vital contributions to this evolution proceed from New York and more than a generation earlier  --  the first cast iron building by James Bogardus dates to 1848, and Elisha Graves Otis invented the elevator there in 1853.  But New York is generally excluded from the beginnings of modernism for the perseverance there of an ornamental historicism which is regarded as a regressive denial of the skyscraper's "will-to-form."

With the exception of Cass Gilbert's 1913 Woolworth Building and works by Chicago architects  --Sullivan's 1898 Bayard Building or Daniel Burnham's 1902 Flatiron Building-- New York's skyscrapers scarcely enter the history of modernism until after the Second World War, with the introduction of European models: the United Nations Secretariat (1947-53), Skidmore Owings & Merrill's Lever House (1952), and the Seagram Building (1958), Europe's homage to the Chicago School.

On the other hand, New York is the chief protagonist of an entirely different vision of the skyscraper, which is mythic rather than historical in character.  Our sources for this vision range from the popular media of the 1930s and 40s to the work of certain realist artists, from the monstrous Metropolis of Batman's Gotham City and King Kong to the gritty realism of B-grade detective movies, the paintings of Edward Hopper, or the Manhattan photographs of Andreas Feininger.

While the city of these sources is largely imaginary, their vision is based on a concrete group of buildings, built within a remarkably short period of time by unknown commercial architects, which form the legendary image of the New York skyline: the Empire State (Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, 1931), the Chrysler (William Van Alen, 1930), the RCA Tower of Rockefeller Center (Reinhard & Hofmeister; Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray; Hood, Godley & Fouilhoux, 1933), and the anonymous spires that make up the pinnacle of the downtown skyline: the pyramid-topped Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall, precursor to the Chase Manhattan Bank (Severance & Matsui, 1929), the 57-story City Bank Farmers Trust Company at 22 Williams Street (Cross & Cross, 1931) and the slender tower of the Cities Service Building at 70 Pine (Clinton & Russell, Holton & Georges, 1932).(1)

This more popular vision of the skyscraper was revindicated by post modern critics such as Vincent Scully and Robert Stern in the 1970s and 80s, although the best treatment of the popular myths and subconscious currents associated with these towers is Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York (1978), the most intriguing conceptual alternative to traditional histories of the modern skyscraper.

Vincent Scully, in American Architecture and Urbanism, traces the architectural development of this vision through the fantastic drawings of Hugh Ferris, which are in turn an artistic assumption of the 1916 New York zoning laws requiring progressive setbacks in building massing for light and air, in the same sense that Sullivan's designs are "rationalizations" of the steel frame.  The nearest built approximation to the mountain-buildings of Ferris is the mayan-gothic-moderne New York Telephone Building at Barclay and Vesey Streets by Ralph Walker of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker (1926), but all the skyscrapers of the early 1930s share its vision.

The 34 story McGraw-Hill Building by Raymond Hood (with Frederick Godley and Jacques-Andrés Fouilhoux), built on 42nd Street west of Eighth Avenue between 1930 and 1931, has the distinction of being claimed by both of these conflicting visions.  With its ribbon windows and minimal industrial detailing, it was the only New York building to be included in Hitchcock and Johnson's 1932 International Style show, while at the same time its vivid color and profile make it an essential reference for popular works on Art Deco.  

Raymond Hood's career is at the center of the United States' tardy intersection with European modernism.  Born in 1881 in Rhode Island, Hood was educated in the Beaux-Arts tradition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1903), the first school of architecture in the United States.  He worked in the neo-gothic style for the firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, particularly with Bertram Goodhue on the design of the West Point Military Academy in New York, before finishing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1908-11).

Hood opened his own office in New York in 1914, but his career did not begin to prosper until he won (with John Howells) the international competition for the Chicago Tribune Tower in 1922, at the age of 41.  The jury chose his conventional neo-gothic spire over the designs of a host of European modernists, including Gropius, Taut, Hilberseimer, and Loos.  But by the end of his short career (he died in 1934 at the age of 53), Hood himself was the leading exponent of a particularly American and commercial brand of modernism that flourished after the war.  (One of Hood's indirect successors is the firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, associates with him on Rockefeller Center; Hood's partner Fouilhoux was an early member of the firm).

The Chicago Tribune competition thus marks a decisive point of transition for American architecture, whose effects were not seen until years later, in McGraw-Hill, Hood's Daily News Building (1930), or Howe and Lescaze's PSFS Tower in Philadelphia (1932).

The Daily News and McGraw-Hill make an interesting pair, two contemporary towers at opposite ends of 42nd Street, one built for a newspaper and the other for a magazine publisher, both designed to house printing plants on their lower floors and editorial offices on the tower floors above.  Between them, they define the future of postwar American skyscraper design.

The vertical organization and asymmetrical massing of The Daily News is a modernist, expressionist abstraction of the neo-gothic style.  Scully notes that The Daily News lacks a crown, and instead "dissipates its mass in an uninterrupted, open-ended dispersion of energy upward.(2) Its design concept was boldly developed in the RCA Tower, and it established a prototype for many postwar towers, from Eero Saarinen's 1965 CBS Building to Yamasaki's 1973 World Trade Center.

The staggered profile of McGraw-Hill steps back symmetrically from 41st and 42nd streets, creating a dramatic silhouette when seen from the heights across the river, where the regular east-west streets of Manhattan, designed in 1811 for townhouses and gardens, cut through the masses of buildings from river to river.  Hood made a similar play on Manhattan's geometry with the contemporary Beaux-Arts Apartments (1930), two symmetrical buildings built face-to-face across East 44th Street.

McGraw-Hill's massing is thus a dated reflection of the 1916 zoning laws, which gave way in 1961 to the tower-in-a-plaza typology inspired by the Seagram Building (and anticipated in the RCA Building).  But in other respects McGraw-Hill is a only an evolutionary step away from the Miesian tower.  Its ribbon windows approach the postwar glass curtain wall  --  according to Hood, only city code requirements for masonry fire separations between the floors led to the use of terra cotta block spandrels below the windows.(3) Similarly, the windows are divided by horizontal mullions, instead of the single sheets of postwar towers, because of code restrictions on maximum glass areas and because the windows are operable  --  the building wasn't air conditioned until 1957.(4)

Hood's architectural philosophy is similar in some ways to Robert Venturi's Learning From Las Vegas, using the pragmatic functionalism of a man of business (rather than a idealized European functionalism) to demolish conventional ideas of architectural design.  He pioneered in the use of plasticene models to study the massing of his towers, replacing the Beaux-Arts shadow studies that assumed construction in deep-relief stonework; at the same time, he claimed that zoning and function determined their form.(5)  He promoted the use of color as "the most simple and direct way to get an effective exterior."(6) As a consequence, he noted to The New York Sun in 1931, "more can be done in decorating a building through the window shades than through any carving in the masonry."(7) Referring to the large rotating globe he designed for the lobby of the Daily News Building, which has entered into popular legend as the model for Superman's Daily Planet or the 1940s detective thriller The Big Clock,  he observed, "...$150,000 spent in one place, at the entrance, might give a satisfying effect; but spread thin over the whole exterior, it would amount to almost nothing."(8)

Hood's 1924 American Radiator Building, a neo-gothic tower on West 40th Street in Manhattan, is thus built of black brick (with gold-painted details) to submerge the windows in the building's mass.  At The Daily News, white brick piers alternate with vertical bands of windows separated by red and black brick spandrels; the original window shades were also red.  

The McGraw-Hill Building, on the other hand, used contrasting colors: blue-green terra cotta and golden window shades.  In Hood's description, the terra cotta is "Dutch blue at the base, with sea green window bands, the blue gradually shading off to a lighter tone the higher the building goes, till it finally blends off into the azure blue of the sky.  The final effect is a shimmery, satin finish, somewhat on the order of the body of an automobile."(9) The metal window frames were also painted with a thin horizontal band of "vermillion" across the top jamb, while the metal column covers were painted a "dark blue-green, almost black."  The entry lobby is finished in alternating horizontal bands of turquoise and dark blue enameled sheet metal, separated by "silver" and "gold" finished metal tubes like automobile trim.(10)   

For the expensive decorative programs of other thirties skyscrapers, Hood substituted large-scale McGraw-Hill signs, one over the entrance and another crowning the building in eleven-foot terra cotta letters, 488 feet above the street  --  in emulation of Times Square electric signs, according to Hood, rather than Russian Constructivism.(11)

Like the dirigible mast of The Empire State and the automotive motifs of The Chrysler, Hood's use of metal, terra cotta and signage distances the building from conventional masonry structures, suggesting something much more dynamic, linking the skyscraper in image, materials and scale to the great trans-Atlantic ships that then still filled the New York harbor.  The skyscraper rising out of the lower buildings of the city, like a stationary turbine in the prevailing winds (on gusty days, the building's steel skeleton groans and suspended light fixtures sway on upper floors) and the ocean liner moving majestically through the great space of the crowded harbor are images of a monstrous, fascinating power which captured the popular imagination.

Here we encounter an element in Hood's businesslike philosophy which has nothing to do with Venturian irony.  Hood shared with other architects of his generation a limitless optimism and unfailing belief in the future, which not even the Crash of 1929 had shaken.  The architects of New York's 1930s skyscrapers were riding out the last great wave of the speculative tide of the 1920s.  Like Ferris, Hood published visionary drawings in 1931 of a future Manhattan crowded with skyscrapers at its transportation centers and with skyscraper-bridges crossing its rivers.(12) He affirmed in the same year that buildings would soon be built taller than the Empire State, and that there would be a shortage of office space in a year and a half.(13)   

This apparently innocent and foolish optimism was a normal part of the prevailing boosterism of American capitalism, a by-product of the rapid industrialization of the United States in which cities actively competed to capture future development.  These struggles could effectively determine the triumph of one city over another  --of New York over Philadelphia, Chicago over Saint Louis, or in the 1920s, Los Angeles over San Francisco--  but they also gave rise to feverish cycles of expansion and depression.  Architecture was always an important tool in these struggles  --  we recall the "White City" of Daniel Burnham at the 1893 Chicago Fair, which coincided with the economic Panic of 1893, and his fantastic 1909 project for Chicago's future growth.

McGraw-Hill is thus in many ways an architectural folly, although "sound business principles" were used to pick the site and plan the building.  The company, which had outgrown its nearby headquarters on Tenth Avenue in the 1920s, planned to integrate editorial, production, printing and shipping operations in the new 500,000 square foot structure, with an employee cafeteria on the second floor, a street level retail bookshop, and a small company auditorium on the 34th floor.

City zoning only permitted industrial usage west of Seventh Avenue and east of Second, far from the center of business activity.  But 42nd Street was the principal cross-street of the city at that time.  Grand Central Station was a short walk away from the site, the Eighth Avenue Elevated Subway was on the corner, and an active Hudson River ferry crossing operated from the western end of the street.  It was considered a good bet  --a calculated risk--  that the city's business center would eventually reach the site, despite the tough neighborhood of dockfront tenements which surrounded it (the notorious Hell's Kitchen).(14)  

The budget for the building was in keeping with its modest site.  It was built for the cost of an industrial loft building, at $6.47 per square foot, or a total of 3.3 million dollars.  These costs reflected its true economic value, as it commanded rents of 90 cents per square foot(15) when prime office space near Grand Central went for $4.00.(16) Like other buildings of the time, it was built quickly, in 14 months, to minimize the gap between financing costs and revenue (the Empire State, with two million square feet of space, was built in 18 months).

But the Depression quickly caught up with these projections.  McGraw-Hill sold its printing presses in 1933 for lack of work to justify their maintenance, effectively eliminating the rationale for the site.  By 1939, its occupation of the building had declined from 75 to 34 per cent.  When McGraw-Hill sold the structure thirty years later, in 1970, the city's office center still had not reached it, and it remains underoccupied and marginalized to this day.

The McGraw-Hill's bad luck contrasts with the fate of the Daily News, which was built on the eastern end of 42nd Street in a similar search for industrial zoning.  The Daily News saw the nearby East River slaughterhouses transformed into the United Nations after the war, while McGraw-Hill suffered the decline of the Times Square movie houses and theaters with the flight of the white middle class from the city in the 1960s, and the decline of Hell's Kitchen industries and neighborhoods once Manhattan's piers were abandoned.  The opening of the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937 and the commuter bus terminal at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street in 1950 only contributed to the area's fragmentation over the following decades.
Thus, while the Daily News hired Harrison & Abramovitz to expand its building in 1958, McGraw-Hill sold the adjacent lot it had owned for a possible expansion in 1951.  In 1970, it moved into a 50-story, 175 million dollar building by Harrison & Abramovitz on Sixth Avenue, part of an extension of Rockefeller Center, at what was at that time the western limit of the midtown office district.  

Massive office development only reached Seventh Avenue and Broadway under a special zoning law in 1986 which permitted, for a limited time, the highest construction in the city.  Today almost every available site in the area is filled with a new tower, most of which remain vacant, caught in the massive real estate collapse which soon followed.

At the same time, a 1981 state/private project to restore the 42nd Street theaters and build 4.l million square feet of office space in Times Square (with Philip Johnson as the architect) is on indefinite hold, after 180 million dollars was spent to vacate all the buildings in the area.  In 1992, Robert Stern was hired to install restaurants, shops and other diversions in the empty buildings, to recreate a semblance of the area's former vitality, minus the sleaze, while the developers wait for the market to recover.

Other plans to redevelop the nearby waterfront, with the rebuilt Westside Highway as the animating state investment, are also on hold.  For the moment, the McGraw-Hill building still stands alone, beyond Eighth Avenue, with magnificent views of the forlorn, empty towers lining Broadway.

From this perspective, the reductive functionalism of the postwar American office building could appear to be an act of contrition for the excesses of the 1920s and the nightmare of the succeeding Depression.  At the same time, none of the post modern towers that followed in the 1980s have been able to match the vital energy of the McGraw-Hill Building or its companions, for the simple reason that no one today can share the blind, fervent faith in the future of the builders of that era.  Our nostalgia for the thirties is a symptom of paralysis, of our lack of vision and direction, as is our love for abandoned industrial sites, for ruins and follies, for the spent symbols of past convictions.  In this sense the United States is still suffering for the excesses of the 1920s, still bound to the belief that the only possible faith, the only possible vision of a future, must take a colossal, monstrous form.


1. This and other information on New York, Elliot Willensky & Norval White, AIA Guide to New York City, Third Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1988.
2. Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism, page 154.
3. David G.Bareuther, Why Decorate Mountains? Asks Raymond Hood, The Sun (newspaper), New York, January 10, 1931.  My thanks for this and other McGraw-Hill sources to Peter Warner, Nyack, New York.
4. Bareuther, Why Decorate Mountains?
5. Rayne Adams, Raymond Hood, Architecture, 63, March 1931, pages 126-136.
6. Raymond Hood, The News Building, Architectural Forum, 53, November 1930, pages 531-532.
7. Bareuther, Why Decorate Mountains?
8. Hood, The News Building.
9. Raymond Hood, Comfort, Daylight & Air: Architect's Aim -- Raymond Hood Tells How He Designed New Building, McGraw-Hill News, August 1931.
10. Arthur Tappan North, Contemporary American Architects: Raymond M. Hood, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1931, pages 13-14.
11. See for example North, Contemporary American Architects, pages 86-87.
f12. Bareuther, Why Decorate Mountains?
13. Bareuther, Why Decorate Mountains?
14. This and following information, New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, McGraw-Hill Building (Report for Landmarks Designation), September 11, 1979.
15. This and previous economic data, James D. Morgan, A Tale of Two Towers.
16. Bareuther, Why Decorate Mountains?