Yesterday, my brother walked over to my place during his lunch break, and I packed one of the kids into a stroller and walked back with him. “What is that?!?” I asked as we approached the corner of 42nd and 3rd Avenue. “Oh, It’s the Socony-Mobil Building, where I work,” he said. The building, which takes up an entire city block, is entirely covered in stamped stainless steel. Amazingly, I’d never noticed it before.
The story behind the building is pretty interesting (abridged from the NYTimes): In the 1950’s Goelet family, real estate developers, collected the real estate on the entire block. Two developers, John Galbreath and Peter Ruffin, persuaded the Goelets to accept their proposal for a first-class office building. It was designed by Harrison & Abramovitz and John B. Peterkin, but apparently because Galbreath and Ruffin had close connections to the United States Steel Corporation, an original design of brick over a granite base developed into one for stainless steel panels above a lower portion of glass. Steel priced out at one and a half times the cost of brick, but United States Steel, nervous about the inroads aluminum was making in the building-metals industry, offered to make up the difference.
The architects wanted the 0.037-inch-thick panels stamped with a raised pattern, both for architectural effect and for greater strength, and worked out different modular designs: picture frames, fields of teardrops, a clapboard-like design, bicycle chains and others. Apparently, the builders were concerned that flat steel panels would create glare, distracting people in other buildings.
They finally settled on one of irregular pyramids arranged in rectangles and rosettes.
By using steel panels on the 1.6 million-square-foot building the team gained several inches of floor space on the inside wall, greatly reduced labor costs on the skin, and saved weight — the panels weighed 2 pounds per square foot as opposed to 48 pounds per square foot for brick. 7,000 panels were used and it was the world’s first stainless steel skyscraper.
The building opened in 1956, and while some said it looked like the building had the measles, it was also known as ” The Waffle Building”. It was the headquarters of the Mobil Oil Corporation from 1956 to 1987, and in 2003 it was given landmark status and called ”one of New York City’s most striking skyscrapers.”
I think it’s a fascinating story. The how and why of the building is just as interesting as its stamped facade. More proof that we should all put down our cell phone and look around once in a while!