The first decade of the 20th century was a sparkling time in American construction. Nowhere was its spirit more intense than in downtown New York, an aging colonial seaport that was fast becoming a center of industrial capitalism. Here, among winding narrow blocks, a Whitmanesque neighborhood of brick row houses and Protestant steeples was rapidly evolving into a concrete labyrinth of elegant white towers and steam-damp canyons. New York, with each new spire, signaled that America would no longer defer to Europe. Now, the future was being charted on this side of the Atlantic.
The Singer Building was an icon of this moment. Rising 612 feet above Broadway (at the corner of Liberty Street) its sheer ambition was proved by a fleeting reign as the world’s tallest building. Its artfulness was established by use of neoclassical and Renaissance design elements at a novel scale. And its authenticity was grounded in local industry: Manhattan then was a maze of textiles. Its industrial fabric comprised cloth workshops and showrooms, its tenements housed armies of piece workers and seamstresses, and its labor unions were dominated by needle-trades employees. For the city’s skyline to be topped off by a maker of industrial sewing machines was a perfect fit.
The Singer Building was an icon that came about quickly. In the fall of 1905, Frederick Gilbert Bourne, fourth president of the Singer Manufacturing Company, hired the Beaux-Arts-trained architect Ernest Flagg to draw plans that would expand upon Singer’s existing low-rise campus at the northwest corner of Broadway and Liberty Street—just east of where the World Trade Center complex stands today. The company was growing, and time was of the essence. With dizzying speed, blueprints were drawn, permits pulled, contracts signed, and a team assembled. Construction itself began in September 1906.
A historic record of the entire project is now available in public domain in a carefully illustrated guidebook, A History of the Singer Building Construction: Its Progress from Foundation to Flagpole. Written by Otto Francis Semsch, the project’s chief engineer, it was published contemporaneously with the building’s opening (as was tradition in those days). Following a 20-month whirlwind, the Singer Building was completed in May 1908. From the engineer’s narrative, we learn that the project encompassed a host of state-of-the-art ideas, from large-scale building techniques to bathroom faucets, from new methods of climate control to innovations in urban planning.
Keeping with the patterns of traditional urbanism, the lower floors formed street walls that extended along the sidewalks of Broadway and Liberty Street. This preserved the enclosure of adjacent streets. By day, the tower allowed sunlight to reach the streets below. Clad with neoclassical details and finished in stone and red brick, it rose much higher than the 14-story base to a height of 612 feet. The rounded spire was topped off with a bright lantern that pierced the night sky, signaling the city’s center, like a tall candle, to the surrounding harbor and hills.
In a 1907 New York Times oped, the Singer’s architect, Ernest Flagg, described how he had reconciled the continuation of old site-planning patterns (the product of traditional, low-rise European urbanism) with the challenges posed by the sudden advent of tall buildings:
The high part of the building occupies only about one-sixth of the area of the plot on which it stands. It depends on its own land for its light. It casts a shadow, to be sure, but it seriously interferes with the light of no surrounding property. It presents a finished façade to all points of view. It adds to the picturesqueness of the skyline of the city, and its bulk rises from a line well back of the street façade.
Flagg had alluded to an idea found in the English common law known as the doctrine of Ancient Lights, which holds that people can have a reasonable expectation of sunlight; and that when they do, their neighbors ought not to take it away. Flagg’s proposal to codify a version of the Ancient Lights doctrine, requiring some of the elements used in the Singer Building, would later influence New York City’s original 1916 Zoning Resolution.
One entered the Singer Building’s main entrance from Broadway. Once inside, one found a fusion of the newest construction techniques and technical accessories with a rich embrace of classical and French Renaissance design elements, in the Beaux-Arts tradition. The Singer Company, apparently, had spared no expense. The main hall was a deep arcade of finely sculpted plaster, polished brass, and perfectly hued blocks of Italian marble. Heavily decorated, the space was reminiscent of traditionally sacred architecture in Europe: an early affirmation (to be repeated) of the almost religious place of commerce in the heyday of industrial America.
When the Singer Building opened, tourists could ride a modern Otis elevator (manned by a live operator, of course!) to a sleek, glass-enclosed observation room at the 40th floor, where a panorama awaited, encompassing the canyons of the Wall Street district (which Flagg so detested) along with the surrounding blue harbor, the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the industries of the waterfront, and the green hills that ran off to rural America. In the time before air travel, the prospect was a novelty.
For pennies, tourists could get picture-postcards with color lithographs showing the slim, bulbous tower rising above a cluster of smaller buildings, horse carts still visible at street level. At flea markets around the city, it is still common to find vendors selling these old postcards, canceled before World War I, and inscribed with messages to loved ones, back home, mostly across the United States. In the small space afforded, visitors pen notes about their adventures in the city, comment on the weather, or promise to tell longer stories upon their return home.
Throughout the early- and mid-20th century, the Singer Building served as the headquarters of its namesake company and housed other tenants, like the Safe Deposit Company of New York and the Chatham and Phenix National Bank. Its reign as the world’s tallest building was short-lived, as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, bringing echoes of Venice to the edge of Midtown, exceeded the Singer’s height within a year. Next came the Woolworth, a World War, the Jazz Age … a Great Depression. In the decades after World War II, fewer people came to see the view, and the Singer faded in importance, until it eventually—almost—blended into the scrum of dingy, pre-war skyscrapers in downtown New York.
Alas, no commercial architecture, no matter its beauty, was sacred enough to defer the hunger of American business. By the late 1960s, the streets and alleys of Lower Manhattan had grown dusty and dismal. The textiles business was retreating from New York, and it was widely understood that the city’s center of gravity had long-since migrated north to Midtown. Companies soon began to envision new headquarters in the suburbs or the Sunbelt. A mindset took hold that the old Northeastern cities had to clear out their proverbial cobwebs if they hoped to survive. Everywhere, traditional urban neighborhoods were wrecked and bulldozed to make room for expressways, parking lots, Brutalism, and other emblems of progress.
And so, in this context, after just six decades, the Singer Building would be demolished and replaced, with little fanfare—when it was taken down in 1967, it was the tallest structure ever to be dismantled. Once envisioned as a durable monument to American commercial ingenuity, and still a landmark of architecture and urban planning, the Singer was unable to justify its continued existence amid the myopia of postwar America. The Singer Company had moved on. The marble and brass-work of the main hall were sold off to collectors and salvage dealers. The tower was dismantled piece by piece. And on the same site, a larger office building—providing more floor space and newer amenities, but far fewer design flourishes—would soon rise. Presumably, the city’s patriarchs were grateful that the new building’s developer and main tenant, U.S. Steel, hadn’t gone to Westchester or California.
The Singer’s fate represented a darker but no less historic moment in the life cycle of American cities—a harsh counterpoint to the rich, artful optimism that had glinted through the fading years of the Gilded Age in the works of men like Ernest Flagg. The loss of the Singer was but a single point in an unfolding narrative of urban destruction that also included (in New York, alone) the demolition of the neoclassical Pennsylvania Station in 1963, the unceremonious wrecking of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1967, and the years-long decline of the Art Deco masterpieces along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
Today, Americans have grown more cautious; when it comes to old buildings, we now have laws at our disposal that allow us to designate and preserve what we value. Yet the enactment of such laws, at such a late stage, illustrates how the Singer’s fate coincided with another milestone: an end to the idea that American industry might be trusted to build permanent things, without answering to the deeper values of law or community or tradition. Not only buildings, but individual lives, entire cities, had been built around American industries that projected permanence at one point in the 20th century—only to be gone in a fleeting instant. The fate of the Singer, and everything else, dashed what we now know to have been a naïve hope: a belief that the most audacious commercial efforts to produce something lasting would not, one day, fall prey to the intrinsic transience of commerce.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.