In April 1952, architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill unveiled its newest office building in New York City’s Midtown to spectators, business leaders, and fanfare from the press. ”It’s something strikingly new,” the New York Times wrote on the day of the opening. Built as the new headquarters for soap company Lever Brothers, it brought a facade of glass and steel to a Park Avenue dominated by brick and stone. Seventy years later, a redevelopment project is hoping to turn this icon of the past into a workplace for the future.
With its large outdoor space and air conditioned office floors, Lever House was lauded for bringing unprecedented access to light and air to the 1,200 employees of Lever Brothers. One 1952 press release billed it as “the answer to problems of modern city planning.” The building, featuring a curtain wall of blue-green glass and an open street-level plaza, was also Manhattan’s first example of the International style of architecture, which in the following decades would become the dominant style of corporate architecture in the US.
“It’s hard to underestimate the significance of Lever House when it appeared on the scene in 1952—there was really nothing like it,” says Elihu Rubin, an associate professor of urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture. “Park Avenue had been built up with these heavy stone-fronted buildings that created a unified facade, and Lever House cut that away and introduced a new attitude towards the street.”
The current project, led by development firms Brookfield Properties and WatermanClark, is reimagining the building as an amenities-filled multi-tenant commercial space. When it opens in 2023, the building will have 250,000 square feet of rentable space. The tenants will have shared access to Lever Club, a co-working and conference space with onsite food and beverage service; health and wellness facilities; and a terrace with 15,000 square feet of outdoor space.
The problem: An aging landmark
Even as glass and steel took over Manhattan, Lever House remained an icon in the history of architecture and urbanism. In the 1980s, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis personally lobbied city politicians to prevent its demolition. Today, it’s a featured stop on many a New York City architecture tour. “There’s probably hardly a survey course in American architecture that doesn’t mention Lever House,” says Rubin.
But by the turn of the century, the building was showing its age. “So many of the technologies were so new and experimental,” says Frank Mahan, a principal and senior architect at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. but “some 50 years later, they were beginning to fail.” In 2001, SOM led a renovation of much of the curtain wall after water infiltration had caused the steel to rust and expand, cracking many of the glass panels. At the outset of this current project, the list of updates grew: The HVAC system was outdated, finishings required cleaning or replacement, the landscaping within the building’s central oculus needed to be refreshed. And of course, the building lacked many of the amenities that have become commonplace in high-end office buildings today, like a fitness center and on-site dining.
The opportunity: ‘A loving restoration’ for a new era of work
Decades after Lever Brothers moved into Lever House, the factors that made the building so pioneering are again in demand among office workers: Fresh air, ample natural light, and outdoor access, trends that had started before Covid, have become even more important features in office design as a result of the pandemic.
For Mahan, this project is an opportunity to invite a new generation of workers to enjoy Lever House’s original design principles. “it’s a loving restoration, which will paradoxically breathe new life into the building and make it more vibrant,” he says. Continuing the vision of the original architects, he adds, “ensures that the building continues to contribute to its city as a good urban citizen.”
Planned new amenities in the shared spaces include on-site dining, health and wellness spaces, and a concierge service—all offerings that have become increasingly popular as developers and workplace leaders attempt to lure workers back to the office.
The plan: A plan for the future of work that learns from the past
Many of those planned amenities will be found in Lever Club, a new hospitality space on the third floor of the building that will be shared among tenants. Originally the site of a recreation room and restaurant for Lever Brothers, the area had since been converted to office space.
Once completed, Lever Club will be a multi-use space, with a bar area at the center, reservable conference rooms, access to the 15,000 square foot terrace, and lounge seating throughout. During the day, a grab-and-go cafe will give tenants an on-site dining option.
In an effort to court more wellness-conscious tenants, the project’s plans also include a health and wellness center, where tenants can book one-one-one personal training or physical therapy sessions; a bike locker; and on-site showers.
“What we’ve created is an environment that you usually see in larger buildings, that smaller tenants can take advantage of,” explains Ric Clark, Co-Managing Partner at WatermanClark. “A 11,000 square foot tenant”—the size of one of Lever House’s tower floors—“is never going to build these amenities within its space. It just wouldn’t make economic sense to do it.”
The question: Can an icon of the past lure back remote workers in the present?
Now a third of the way done, the building is set to open in the first quarter of 2023. WatermanClark is hearing proposals from prospective tenants, who can begin construction on their floors starting this summer.
The construction is occurring amid a sluggish return to office. Office occupancy in major U.S. cities hit 44% in mid-June, according to employee keycard-card swipe data collected by Kastle. In New York City, office vacancy “remains stubbornly high and is relatively unchanged compared to a year ago,” with 120 million square feet of empty office space, the city comptroller’s office reported at the beginning of June. Still, newer, higher-end buildings have rebounded much more quickly than older ones with fewer amenities.
It’s one more way in which Lever House’s redevelopment remains true to its roots: According to Yale’s Rubin, the building was originally constructed amid similar doubts about the value of Manhattan office space, as the post-war office boom took many companies to the suburbs.
“At the same time that SOM was designing Lever House on Park Avenue, they were designing the headquarters of Connecticut General, the Hartford-based life insurance company, out in the suburbs,” he says. “In 1952, Lever’s investment back in the city was significant by saying, ‘We believe in the city. We believe that Midtown Manhattan will continue to be the most significant business district in the country, if not the world.’”
Rubin calls the original plans for Lever House an “expression of corporate confidence” in its bold design, Midtown location, and lack of revenue-generating retail or multi-tenant space. In a different way, the redevelopment project is its own expression of confidence: that workplace leaders will continue seeing physical offices as worthwhile investments, and that by designing workplaces around workers’ needs, they’ll again see employees return to the office.