Skyscraper Rivals

July 30, 2001
A look back at some memorable buildings and the beginnings of facilities management

In every city, on every street, there are forgotten buildings - sources of architectural and facilities management history - which go unrecognized. Historian and Author Daniel Abramson, Medford, MA, has revealed some of these overlooked treasures. In his new book, Skyscraper Rivals, Abramson centers on four office buildings built in downtown New York City from 1928 to 1931. These buildings hold many previously untold stories, including the evolution of professional facilities management.

While horse-drawn carts still traversed New York's financial district, a monumental construction boom transformed lower Manhattan's landscape. Boxy low-rises gave way to the now familiar setback slender office towers. Abramson's research focuses on the striking 66-story AIG building, then known as the Cities Services building, as well as sister facilities: 40 Wall St., City Bank Farmers Trust Building, and One Wall St.

"My aim was to uncover what the client had in mind. Also I wanted the workers' perspective and how people perceived these buildings," says Abramson. The overall design of these buildings, as with most facilities in financial districts, complemented and accommodated the buildings' function to generate the maximum amount of revenue in the shortest possible time.

To accomplish this all-important mission required careful collaboration among building owners, architects, contractors, artisans, consultants, and fledging facilities management associations. "What I learned was the architects had to work very carefully with building owners and the owners' committees. The process of building these large skyscrapers was so complicated at this time in history that no one person or architectural firm had the technical expertise to manage all the engineering and space planning aspects," says Abramson. Moreover, because building owners had so much at stake financially, they insisted upon having as much technical expertise as possible, especially from rental agents, space planners, and engineers.

More people than ever were having an input in the creation of facilities. Chicago's National Association of Building Owners and Managers organized a facilities planning service, so that facilities managers would have a greater role in building design. Before this period, there was limited interaction between facilities managers, architects, and engineers during the initial design process. "Because groups, such as the building managers, began to see themselves as professional, they wanted to see some parity between themselves and the architects. They wanted to be more proactive," says Abramson. Much of the history of lower Manhattan's Art Deco towers was gleaned from early facilities management professional journals.

Discovering what the work environment was like in these buildings during those turbulent times was especially challenging. "There were no histories of the workers of these buildings. They didn't have a voice," explains Abramson. In addition to including social history research from the early 20th century, Abramson mined vintage newspaper and magazine articles. From the army of maintenance men, to the scrubwomen, to the junior executives, and to the comely female elevator attendants, Skyscraper Rivals offers glimpses of these workers' lives.

Designed as vertical cities, the towers sported various tenant-pleasing amenities, such as restaurants, health clinics, beauty shops, drugstores, and even a gentlemen's gymnasium. Crowded secretarial pools surrounded by generous private offices, spectacular lobbies designed to attract crowds, grand conference rooms designed to impress clients - each space tells a story of the citizens who peopled these office-cities. "To me the lives of those people are as much a part of those buildings as the architects and builders," says Abramson.

As a native New Yorker, Abramson approached this project with a long-time affinity for exploring the rich history of Wall Street. Adds Abramson, "My grandfather worked on John St. [in the financial district] for an insurance company in the 1930s, so I felt a personal connection to the subject." Illustrated with photographs, engravings, and nostalgic picture postcards, Skyscraper Rivals details the unique nature of each office building, bringing the past to life.

Though now dwarfed by young upstarts, such as the World Trade Center, these office buildings have lost little of their original beauty and interest. Much of their original interior design elements remain in the buildings' public areas. Skyscraper Rivals recovers these pieces of architectural and facilities management history, showing the commercial buildings community its long-forgotten roots.

Regina Raiford ([email protected]) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.

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