Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower

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Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower

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Location: One Madison Avenue, New York City
Completed: 1909
Architect: Napoleon LeBrun & Sons
Height: 700 feet
Stories: 50
Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance
Construction Materials: 1909 Tuckahoe marble; 1964 limestone
Architectural Significance:
Tallest building in the world 1909-1913
Completed in 1909, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower in New York City, reigned as the world’s tallest building until completion of the Woolworth Building in 1913. Rising 700 feet the Tower was surpassed in height only by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The building draws its architectural inspiration from the famous Campanile of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The fifty-story Italian Renaissance tower consists of a base, shaft, and capital, culminating in a pyramidal spire, cupola, and lantern. From its base, the tower shaft (which is organized into three bays of three windows each) rises thirty-one stories to a setback and a four-story arcade loggia. The arcade forms the base for the pyramidal spire that supports the tower’s belfry-like dome. Above the arcade a pyramidal roof with ocular windows is crowned with a gilded cupola and glazed lantern. The 41st floor of the Tower serves as an observation deck.

In addition to serving as the home office of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company the building provides time, light and music to the surrounding city.

Among the Tower’s most distinctive architectural features are its massive four-dial clock, chimes, and beacon. Four clock faces, measuring 26 feet in diameter, span the 25th, 26th and 27th floors of the tower. At the time of construction the Tower’s four-dial clock was the largest in the world, rivaled only by London’s “Big Ben”. Between the hours 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., four chimes sound a measure by Handel on the quarter hour.

After 10 p.m., an octagonal lantern measuring eight feet in diameter takes over for the chimes, flashing the quarter hours and hours. Known as the “Light That Never Fails”, the lantern can be seen some fifty miles into neighboring states.

Just as the Tower is more than building, the “Light That Never Fails” became the symbol of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Reflecting on the Tower’s commercial symbolism, architecture critic Paul Goldberger writes, “To the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the tower confirmed its stability and suggested that qualities of past cultures had somehow been passed along to it, it was possessor of it, . . . as its ability to replicate the tower at a scale larger than the original proved.” (Goldberger, p. 39)

In 1980, illumination of the Tower’s crown began. The 35th to 48th floors are lit nightly from dusk to midnight. For traditional holidays colored lighting is employed. For example, on Independence Day the Tower is bathed in red, white and blue light, and on Christmas with red and green light.

The Tower’s first major renovation took place between 1961 and 1964, after the completion of Metropolitan’s new South Building. In order to maintain harmony between the adjoining structures, most of the ornamentation was removed from the Tower facade, and the Tuckahoe marble was replaced with limestone.

Today, nearly a century after its construction the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower remains a distinctive element of the New York skyline.

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