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Manhattan’s lost gem: the Singer Building

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

It was built in 1908 and demolished 60 years later. The Singer Building was such an architectural beauty during its era and one of the tallest skyscrapers in New York City. A gem that should have been preserved.

Each era has had its tallest skyscraper of all time and the Singer building is a good example. In 1908, it was named first skyscraper in the world with its 187 meters height holding the record, however briefly, as the tallest and undeniably impressive. Built in the architectural style of the Belle-Epoque, it was the administrative headquarters of the famous sewing machine company Singer. Two pioneering inventions from the second half of the 19th century made this construction possible: the steel frame and the elevator. In 1902, in the need to expand its facilities at the northwest corner of Broadway and Liberty Street, the Singer Manufacturing Company, bought all the buildings surrounding its construction in order to build a building that would originally be 35 stories and that would meet the office space needs it required. For the epic work (for the time), the company, headed by Frederick Bourne, entrusted the architect Ernest Flagg, famous for being one of the main exponents of architecture American Beaux Arts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the design of the new tower.

It owes its particular shape to its architect's concern for savings. He used to develop buildings that met his taste for architectural restrictions in terms of height and floor space. Mr. Flagg believed buildings more than 10 or 15 stories high should be set back from the street. It was a belief literally set in stone in the Singer Building’s most unique feature, a narrow 35-story tower that protruded from the structure’s lower floors. The construction of the Singer tower was the result of the desire for expansion presented by many large American companies, who did not hesitate to build ever higher buildings in an effort to advertise their companies, and incidentally, outshine their competitors.

The Singer Building opened in May 1908, making it the tallest skyscraper in the world. At the top of the building, an observation deck was installed where the company's employees, as well as their visitors, could see New York City in the same way as the birds saw it, which was, for its visitors, a wonderful experience. The dizzying height of the skyscraper was an excellent billboard for Singer, and the building was a resounding success in terms of company sales.

For the ornamental elements and the roofs they opted for the French Renaissance style used for the elegant castles of France at the time of Louis XIV. This architectural style can be seen in the lobby of the skyscraper, completely covered in marble giving it a solemn and regal look and very high columns covered in marble ending on bronze capitals with the Singer shields that supported large vaults also covered in marble.

The columns rose to meet small, delicately plastered domes. In addition, the lobby was described as having a “celestial radiance,” in the vein of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition architecture of the time.

However, this unconventional architecture was also Singer Tower's downfall in the face of more modern buildings to come. In 1961, Singer Sewing Machine Corporation decided to move uptown and out of the building because it had become obsolete. Demolition had commenced by September 1967, despite protests by the Architectural Forum magazine and other preservationists. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), created in 1965 in the wake of several notable buildings in the city having either been demolished or threatened with demolition, never considered designating it as a landmark, which would have prevented the building's demolition. Even though the building was considered to be one of the most iconic buildings in New York City.

The building was torn down in 1968, to be replaced by the larger U.S. Steel Building. Several magazines and reporters described this to be New York City’s greatest loss.

"The Singer fell victim to a malady called progress."

- New York Daily News, March 2, 1969

“What was lost in the demolition of the Singer Tower was not only a vital part of the city’s architectural past but a telling lesson in the humanistic urbanism of the tower-base skyscraper type.”

- Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman, New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1997)

The Singer Tower was not only a masterpiece of architecture and engineering, but also a work of art. Its demolition is considered by many one of the greatest failures of the early preservation movement. They demolished a very iconic building, just like they did by tearing down of the Roxy Theater, the old Met and the magnificent Pennsilvania Station as well.


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