Cass Gilbert Society


New York Life Building, New York, NY

New York Life Building, Nick Marcucci

New York Life Building

51 Madison Avenue, New York, New York
Design & Construction:
1925-1928 [1925-1928 Irish-1999]
Cass Gilbert 

The thirty-four story New York Life Building is Gilbert’s third and final version of the neo-Gothic skyscraper in New York City, following his successful use of the style for the West Street Building (1905-1907) and the Woolworth Building (1910-1913). Gilbert had long had an indirect association with company’s buildings. By the 1880s, New York Life had gained prominence as one of the major life insurance companies in the United States. Not only did it expand its New York City office headquarters at 346 Broadway in 1894-1899 to a design by Gilbert’s mentors, McKim, Mead and White, it also built branch offices in cities throughout the United States and Canada including Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The construction of the Saint Paul office (1889-1890, demolished), designed by New York architects Babb, Cook and Willard, was superintended by Gilbert. (The massive eagle sculpture above the entrance, designed and executed by Augustus and Louis Saint-Gaudens, was rescued and has been installed in Summit Overlook Park in Saint Paul.)

In 1912, New York Life assumed the mortgage for Madison Square Garden, which declared bankruptcy in 1917. Subsequently, New York Life acquired the building located at the northeast corner of Madison Square. In 1919, Darwin Kingsley, the company president, approached Gilbert about designing a new headquarters. While Gilbert’s office spent the next three years working on designs, the company did not choose the Madison Square site until 1923. [Heilbrun-2000 p. 147] The proposed building was to occupy an entire city block, bounded by Madison Avenue, East 26th Street, Park Avenue South, and East 27th Street, and conform to the recently adopted New York City zoning regulations for tall buildings that required setbacks. A design was presented and approved in 1924 and excavation began. Then in April 1925 with the excavation over 60 percent complete and structural steel fabrication well underway, Gilbert was ordered to abandon the design because the bids on construction costs were much higher than anticipated. The building was redesigned and construction resumed the following year. The new design substituted limestone cladding for the original marble that had been proposed, incorporated more setbacks, and added the gilded pyramidal roof with six stories for mechanical services. The new building was dedicated with a gala ceremony in December 1928. From the beginning, the building has been presented as a corporate symbol and a powerful advertising image. [Irish-1999 p. 151]

Because of its location on Madison Square and the prominent tower, the building has a highly visible presence on the New York skyline. While much of the interior incorporates office arrangements for the insurance company, these office floors rise above a grand arcade on the first floor that extends through the building from Madison Avenue to Park Avenue South with links to the New York City subway system. The painted decorations were executed by Paris and Wiley who had worked with Gilbert on the West Street Building. [Heilbrun-2000 p. 152]

The building has remained the headquarters of New York Life. The tower roof was reconfigured in 1966-1967 and the original copper and gold-leaf roof was removed and replaced with gold-toned ceramic tile. Major exterior rehabilitation work took place in 1994 in preparation for the New York Life’s 150th anniversary. [NYC-Landmarks-2000 p. 7-8]

See Also