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From Light-Blocking Behemoth To Elegant Landmark: A Tour Of The Equitable Building

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The recent agita over supertalls is not unique to 2019; New Yorkers have always been outraged by tall buildings. To be reminded of that, just take a visit to 120 Broadway, where at 38 stories and 555 feet tall, the office tower known as the Equitable Building looks puny by today’s standards. Yet even before the project was built in 1915 (after the original burned down a few years earlier), the plans for a building of such height and size stoked controversy, prompting one real estate trade journal to call it a “‘startling example of how open our cities are to attack from the audacious.”

The writer’s fears were realized: when the 1.2 million-square-foot, H-shaped building was finally built, it cast a seven-acre shadow over the surrounding area. And unlike today’s slender skyscrapers, its wide girth meant shadows took much longer to pass.

The well-told story is, of course, that the Equitable spurred city officials in 1916 to come up with New York City’s first zoning rules, which included setback requirements intended to preserve certain degrees of air and sunlight on the sidewalk. But as a 2016 New York Times story pointed out, the truth was that wheels were already in motion. In the wake of the completion of the city’s first underground subway line, development was booming, and technological advances in steel-frame construction and innovations with the elevator were pushing buildings ever skyward. Altogether, the Equitable had 48 passenger elevators.

Eclipsed by a slew of other towers, the Equitable’s offensiveness wore off over the decades. The building, which was designed by Chicago architect Ernest R. Graham, was landmarked by the city in 1996; the commission called it both “elegant” and “one of the finest office buildings of the era.”


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Silverstein Properties bought the building in 1981 and undertook a series of upgrades, including the restoration of its deteriorating terra cotta exterior and marble-laden lobby, that took seven years. Then, last year, the owner embarked on a $50 million renovation that married historic restoration with necessary modernization. As an example, the lobby chandeliers are modeled on the originals, but the bulbs are LED. Security desks that had been installed at opposite entrances of the building after the 9/11 terrorist attacks were removed so that the airy and intricately-carved lobby could once again become a passageway open to the public. Less obtrusive security turnstiles now flank each elevator bank.

This past summer, one of the final pieces of the renovation—a 20,000 square foot rooftop—was opened for office workers to enjoy the (still) impressive 360-degree views of the Financial District, along with a revamped Bankers Club cafe, where Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill once dined.

Down in the basement, a massive vault, which once housed securities, stocks and bonds, has been meticulously maintained as a shiny novelty piece that is now often used for movie shoots.

Once the domain of insurance companies and investment banks, the occupants of the Equitable are now more varied. Among its tenants is the Department of City Planning, which moved in several years ago. Its newly built public hearing room, fitted with a generous seating area and cameras that live-stream the proceedings, is located one flight down from the lobby. In a perfectly fitting twist, it is here where New Yorkers can come to rage against the city’s latest architectural monstrosity, all the while standing inside the underbelly of one of its most legendary examples.



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