Lever House

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Lever House
Lever House 390 Park Avenue.jpg
390 Park Avenue (at 53rd Street)
General information
Location390 Park Avenue
Manhattan, New York City
Coordinates40°45′35″N 73°58′21″W / 40.75959°N 73.9725°W / 40.75959; -73.9725Coordinates: 40°45′35″N 73°58′21″W / 40.75959°N 73.9725°W / 40.75959; -73.9725
OwnerOmnispective Management
Technical details
Floor count21[1]
Design and construction
ArchitectGordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois, both of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill[2]
Main contractorGeorge A. Fuller Company
Lever House
Lever House is located in New York City
Lever House
Lever House is located in New York
Lever House
Lever House is located in the United States
Lever House
Coordinates40°45′34″N 73°58′23″W / 40.75944°N 73.97306°W / 40.75944; -73.97306
Architectural styleInternational Style
NRHP reference #83004078[3]
Significant dates
Added to NRHPOctober 2, 1983
Designated NYCLNovember 9, 1982

Lever House is a glass-box skyscraper at 390 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Built in the International Style according to the design principles of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the building was designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Completed in 1952, it was the second curtain wall skyscraper in New York City after the United Nations Secretariat Building.[4] The 307-foot-tall (94 m) building[1] features a courtyard and public space.

The construction of Lever House marked a transition point for Park Avenue in Midtown, changing it from a boulevard of masonry apartment buildings to one of glass towers as other corporations adopted the International Style for new headquarters.[5] The building's design was copied by Ankara's Emek Business Center in 1959; the Minneapolis bank headquarters One Financial Plaza in 1960; Paris Orly Airport's Terminal Sud in 1961; and the high-rise tower of Berlin's Europa-Center in 1965.

The building was designated a New York City landmark in 1982[5] and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.[3]


The Lever House was built in 1950–1952 to be the American headquarters of the British soap company Lever Brothers. It was the pet project of Lever Brothers president Charles Luckman, who had been identified on the cover of Time Magazine as a "Boy Wonder". Luckman would leave the company before the building's completion to achieve a notable architecture career on his own, including the design of Madison Square Garden, the Theme Building and master plan for Los Angeles International Airport, Aon Centre, and initial buildings of the Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center.[6]

The 1916 Zoning Resolution, which required skyscrapers in New York City to have setbacks as they rose, was designed to prevent new skyscrapers from overwhelming the streets with their sheer bulk.[a] However, these setbacks were not required if the building occupied 25% or less of its lot, and it was this provision which allowed Lever House, and the other glass boxes which followed it, to be built in the form of a vertical slab.[5]

The building featured a 24-story blue-green heat-resistant glass and stainless steel curtain-wall.[8] The curtain-wall was designed to reduce the cost of operating and maintaining the property. Its curtain-wall is completely sealed with no operating windows. This meant that much less dirt from the city would get into the building. The heat resistant nature of the glass also helped to keep air conditioning costs down. Additionally, "the company draped a $50,000 'window-washing gondola' from the roof, a publicity stunt that used Lever-brand Surf soap to scrub the windows clean every six days."[9] The curtain wall was fabricated and installed by General Bronze Corp, the same facade contractor that had recently finished the Secretariat Building curtain wall at the United Nations Headquarters.

Ground Floor from 54th and Park Avenue

The ground floor contained no tenants. Instead, it featured an open plaza with garden and pedestrian walkways. Only a small portion of the ground floor was enclosed in glass and marble. The ground floor featured space for displays and waiting visitors, a demonstration kitchen and an auditorium. The second and largest floor contained the employees' lounge, medical suite, and general office facilities. On the third floor was the employees' cafeteria and terrace. The offices of Lever Brothers and its subsidiaries occupied the remaining floors with the executive penthouse on the 21st floor. The top three stories contained most of the property's mechanical space.


In 1982, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Lever House as an official landmark. By that time, however, much of Lever House's original brilliance had been dimmed by time. The building's blue-green glass facade deteriorated due to harsh weather conditions and the limitations of the original fabrication and materials. Water seeped behind the stainless steel mullions causing the carbon steel within (and around) the glazing pockets to rust and expand. This corrosion bowed the horizontal mullions and broke most of the spandrel glass panels. By the mid-1990s, only one percent of the original glass remained leaving the once glimmering curtain wall a patchwork of mismatched greenish glass.[citation needed]

In 1985, the land under the Lever House (fee position) was acquired by Sarah Korein from the Goelet estate. Unilever, the parent company of Lever Brothers, continued to lease the building.

In September 1997, Unilever announced it was moving its Lever Brothers division to Greenwich, Connecticut. Following the announcement, Lever Brothers slowly began vacating the building, eventually leaving Unilever on only the top four floors.

Upper stories


In 1998 the leasehold position was acquired from Unilever by German-American real estate magnates Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs. The Korein/Kleinhans family retained the fee position, and signed a new lease with Rosen's firm, RFR Holding LLC, requiring RFR to perform a comprehensive restoration of the building's facade (curtain wall). RFR negotiated a lease-back deal allowing Unilever to remain on the top four floors. Immediately following the acquisition, RFR Holding announced a $25 million capital improvement program including a restoration of the building's curtain wall[10] and public spaces as well as repositioning it as a multi-tenant property.

The deteriorated steel subframe was replaced with concealed aluminum glazing channels, which is identical to the original in appearance. All rusted mullions and caps were replaced with new and identical stainless steel mullions and caps. All glass was removed for new panes that are nearly identical to the original, yet meet 1990s energy codes. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the building's architect, also performed the curtain wall replacement.[10]

The renovation project included the addition of marble benches and an Isamu Noguchi sculpture garden to the building's plaza – elements in the original plans for the building which were never realized. In 2003, Lever House Restaurant became the first business to operate as a restaurant at Lever House and later won New York Magazine's Best Service award in 2004. Lever House Restaurant closed in early 2009. As of October 2009, restaurant Casa Lever occupies the former Lever House Restaurant space.

Metals processor Arconic is headquartered in Lever House. As of 2005, the building's tenants included Thomas Weisel Partners LLC, which maintains a trading floor on the second floor of the building. And what was once the building's cafeteria and kitchen is now the headquarters of RFR Holding LLC.

Public art space[edit]

Since the completion of the Lever House renovation, the building's plaza and lobby have been used as a gallery for the Lever House Art Collection. Exhibitions have included such works as Virgin Mother by Damien Hirst, Bride Fight by E.V. Day, The Hulks by Jeff Koons, The Snow Queen by Rachel Feinstein,[11] Robert Towne by Sarah Morris[12] as well as several sculptures by Keith Haring. Tom Sachs' Bronze Collection was exhibited in May 2008; Sachs' bronze Hello Kitty and Miffy sculptures remain displayed in the Lever House plaza as of 2014.[13]



Explanatory notes

  1. ^ As per the 1916 Zoning Act, the wall of any given tower that faces a street could only rise to a certain height, proportionate to the street's width, at which point the building had to be set back by a given proportion. This system of setbacks would continue until the tower reaches a floor level in which that level's floor area was 25% that of the ground level's area. After that 25% threshold was reached, the building could rise without restriction.[7]:8 This law was modified in 1961.[7]:11–12


  1. ^ a b Lever House at Emporis
  2. ^ Dunlap, David W. "An Architect Whose Work Stood Out, Even if She Did Not" The New York Times (July 31, 2013)
  3. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  4. ^ The first glazed facade in the U.S. was probably the Boley Clothing Company Building, Kansas City, Missouri (1909), designed by the Canadian architect Louis Curtiss.
  5. ^ a b c New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; Dolkart, Andrew S.; Postal, Matthew A. (2009), Postal, Matthew A. (ed.), Guide to New York City Landmarks (4th ed.), New York: John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 978-0-470-28963-1, p.115-116
  6. ^ Muschamp, Herbert (January 28, 1999). "Charles Luckman, Architect Who Designed Penn Station's Replacement, Dies at 89". New York Times. Retrieved September 4, 2009.
  7. ^ a b Kayden, Jerold S.; The Municipal Art Society of New York (2000). Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-36257-9.
  8. ^ "Lever House" Archived 2009-07-25 at the Wayback Machine on the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill website
  9. ^ Sisson, Patrick (May 9, 2017). "How air conditioning shaped modern architecture—and changed our climate". curbed.com.
  10. ^ a b "Lever House Curtain Wall Replacement" Archived 2009-07-25 at the Wayback Machine on the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill website
  11. ^ "André Leon Talley on Rachel Feinstein's 'The Snow Queen'", Vopgue (January 28, 2011)
  12. ^ Sarah Morris: Robert Towne
  13. ^ Tom Sachs website


  • Dupré, Judith. Skyscrapers – A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, New York 1996, ISBN 1-57912-787-8
  • Stichweh, Dirk. New York Skyscrapers. Prestel Publishing, Munich 2009, ISBN 3-7913-4054-9

External links[edit]