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When Are Big Buildings Too Big?

When the 807 ft. MetLife Building in Manhattan's Midtown opened half a century ago, it was viewed as an 'assault' on it's iconic neighbor, Grand Central Terminal. However, it was indicative of what the real estate market wanted in the 1960s.
March 26, 2013, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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While Grand Central Terminal celebrated it's centennial on Feb. 02 and has received wide attention - with new books, newspaper articles and radio reports, gone relatively unnoticed was the 50-year anniversary of it's massive neighbor - originally known as the Pan Am Building. Ginia Bellafante, who writes the "Big City" column for the New York Times, gives the building's semicentennial the attention it deserves, even if it is not positive.  

What is to be marked, really, is a half-century of evinced distaste, though some of it waning under the grip of nostalgia, for a building that existed as an assault on Grand Central Station (sic), its visual foundation bifurcating and marring views of Park Avenue and casting dark shadows on crowded streets beneath it.

Built as the world’s largest corporate structure, with 2.4 million square feet of floor space, the building in its planning phases was known as Grand Central City. The idea was that it would function as a self-sustaining universe — a shopping mall of more than 100,000 square feet. In many ways, the building presaged ...the excesses of the 1980s, both corporate and consumer...

While the Pan Am Building was renamed the MetLife Building in 1981 after it was sold to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, "the building was meant to signal the glamorous arrival of the jet age. In 1966, Pan Am began offering rooftop helicopter service to John F. Kennedy International Airport", even if that service only lasted two years.

In contrast to the 1960s, which saw limited public input into planning and resulted in the destruction of New York's original Penn Station and the near-demolition of the now-landmarked 1913 Grand Central Terminal, planning has come full circle as illustrated by the MidTown East plan - "the rezoning of the the area bounded roughly by Fifth and Second Avenues and 39th and 57th Streets". As a result, planning along Park Ave will receive the attention and input from more than just the commercial sector that it received when the initial construction of the Pan Am Building began in 1958.

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Published on Sunday, March 24, 2013 in The New York Times - New York
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