MetLife Tower – a Piece of Venice in New York

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower (right) and North Building (left) as seen from the Madison Square Park
The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower (right) and North Building (left) as seen from Madison Square Park.
  • The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Building
  • Architect: Pierre LeBrun of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons
  • Date: 1909
  • Height: 700′
  • Floors: 50

Where in the world does the prosaic practicality of an insurance company come in the shape of a Venetian campanile? In New York City, right around Madison Square Park! The MetLife Building, and subsequently its tower, was built to house the headquarters of the Metropolitan Insurance Company – one of the largest and the most successful insurance providers in the turn-of-the-century US. The building was supposed to represent the company’s success and serve as its advertisement. It was expected to be beautiful and tall — preferably, the tallest in the world.

The MetLife Tower took its inspiration from Campanilla De St Marco in Venice. More than just an inspiration, it was very close to its replica but was over twice as tall. In 1902 the beloved 16th-century tower, which graced Piazza St Marco in Venice for about 400 years, collapsed. This news made global headlines and added a special sentimental value to its New York tribute. The campanile was restored in 1912 which means, strangely enough, that the MetLife Tower, completed in 1909, was finished before its original model. As a part of a 1964 remodeling, the MetLife Tower was sadly stripped of its original Renaissance ornamental details, making it challenging to see the resemblance to its Venician inspiration today.

Not only was the MetLife Tower tall but by reaching 700ft height, it stood as the tallest building in the world. As the manic race to build the tallest in the world swept New York City, a new “tallest-in-the-world” record seemed to have been broken every few years. The MetLife Tower held on to its title for four brief years before being surpassed by the magnificent Woolworth Building (1913). The MetLife Tower was not the first “tallest in the world” to be erected in New York, but it remains the first building to break the tallest-in-the-world record that still stands.

The Clock on the MetLife Tower
The Clock on the MetLife Tower

The most notable feature of the tower is its gigantic four-faced timepiece. Each of the four enormous clocks on the tower measure 26.5 feet (8 meters) in diameter. Just for reference, they are larger than the Kremlin clock in Moscow, at 6.12 meters, and London’s Big Ben, which measures 6.9 meters. Each minute hand weighs half a ton.

The lantern at the top of the tower could be seen at night for miles ahead before being overshadowed by the numerous skyscrapers built in the coming years. For decades the lantern was featured as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company logo and referenced in its advertising slogan “The light that never fails.”

The MetLife still towers over the neighborhood, even though it was supposed to be dwarfed by its neighbor to the north. The awkwardly truncated building next to it, MetLife North, was supposed to rise to 100 stories and be the tallest in the world but fell victim to the Great Depression. The work on the building was stopped in 1933 and finished in 1950, assuming its present shape. Never completed as planned, it still stands as a “could-have-been.”

Rendering of 11 Madison Avenue (right) just to the north of the Metropolitan Life clock tower, right, shows setback scalloped plan by Harvey Wiley Corbett and Dan Everett Waid for 100-story building on which construction was stopped at the 29th floor because of the market crash in 1929.
Rendering of 11 Madison Avenue just to the north of the Metropolitan Life clock tower, right, shows setback scalloped plan by Harvey Wiley Corbett and Dan Everett Waid for 100-story building on which construction was stopped at the 29th floor because of the market crash in 1929.

The MetLife Insurance Building and tower served as the world headquarters of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company until 2005. Now it is living its life of extravagance as the fancy Edition Hotel, which according to its website features “sophisticated accommodations, Michelin-starred dining at The Clocktower, … and stunning 360 views.”

Additional info:

St Mark’s Campanile In Venice

  • Construction started 1173
  • Completed 1514
  • Collapsed 1902
  • Reconstructed 1912
  • Height 98.6 meters (323 ft)

Tallest in the world before the MetLife Tower

  • New York World Building was a skyscraper on Park Row in Civic Center. It was constructed in 1890 to house Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper. It was the tallest in the world from 1890 – 1894 and was demolished in 1955.
  • The Singer Building or Singer Tower was a 41-story office building, built in 1908 as the headquarters of the Singer Manufacturing Company. It was located at Liberty Street and Broadway in the Financial District and stood the tallest in the world from 1908 until 1909 when the MetTower was completed. It was torn down in 1968 to be replaced by One Liberty Plaza. Until 2020 it had a dubious distinction of being the world’s tallest structure to be intentionally demolished.

MetLife North Building

  • Construction started in 1929
  • Stopped in 1933
  • Finished in 1950

A list of largest clock faces in the world

References:

Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins “New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars”, Rizzoli (October 27, 2009)
CARTER B. HORSLEY "Skyline Wars: Accounting for New York’s Stray Supertalls", 2016 https://www.6sqft.com/skyline-wars-accounting-for-the-new-yorks-stray-supertalls/
Roberta Moudry "The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories", Cambridge University Press (May 9, 2005)
"METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY TOWER", Landmarks Preservation Commission, June 13, 1989, Designation List 217 LP-1530
"Metropolitan Life Clock Tower", Flatiron 23rd Street Partnership, 2014 https://www.flatirondistrict.nyc/discover-flatiron/flatiron-history/1/metropolitan-life-clock-tower
"Metropolitan Life Tower" Emporis, https://www.emporis.com/buildings/115458/metropolitan-life-tower-new-york-city-ny-usa
"Metropolitan Life Insurance Company", New York Architecture, https://www.nyc-architecture.com/GRP/GRP019.htm
"THE CAMPANILE", Basilica di San Marco, http://www.basilicasanmarco.it/basilica/campanile/?lang=en
"St Mark's Campanile" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mark%27s_Campanile
"New York World Building" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_World_Building
Benjamin Waldman "The NYC that Never Was: What The Metropolitan Life Insurance Building Could Have Become", 
"Metropolitan Life North Building", Emporis, https://www.emporis.com/buildings/115331/metropolitan-life-north-building-new-york-city-ny-usa
Christopher Gray, "Ghost Buildings of 1929", The New York Times, Apr 26, 2009
http://www.dismuke.org/aynrand/selections.htm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s