Former Citicorp Center, at 38, New York’s Youngest Landmark

The base of 601 Lexington Avenue at East 53rd Street, which when it opened in 1978 was known as Citicorp Center. | JACKSON CHEN
The base of 601 Lexington Avenue at East 53rd Street, which when it opened in 1978 was known as Citicorp Center. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | The city has a new youngest landmark as of December 6, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously designating the former Citicorp Center building at 601 Lexington Avenue at East 53rd Street.

The property, completed in 1978, was included in a bundle of a dozen Midtown East buildings that the LPC deemed worthy of designation. The commission expedited the landmarking of the buildings — with all but 601 Lexington approved on November 22 — because they are located within the Midtown East rezoning district currently being established. The rezoning, covering an area between East 39th and East 57th Streets from roughly Fifth to Third Avenues, is aimed at promoting modern office building construction through landmarked buildings’ sale of their air rights to developments with greater density than the guidelines would otherwise allow. The specifics of the district’s rezoning are now being ironed out by the Department of City Planning.

“I want to thank the commissioners but also the [LPC’s] East Midtown team for finally accomplishing our goal,” the LPC’s chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, said at the designation hearing. “This is really a critical piece of the agency’s initiative, and I want to comment on the fact that this is a part of a multi-agency effort of the area.”

The 601 Lexington Avenue building was left out of the group landmarked on November 22 because LPC felt there was additional research to be done. Two of the 11 that earlier won designation were from what the LPC terms the Pre-Grand Central Terminal era, built prior to the construction of the transit hub in the early 20th century, while the other nine were classified under the Grand Central/ Terminal City Era, which extends from early last century until 1933. The designation of 601 Lexington Avenue, built between 1973 and 1978, came under what is known as the Post-Grand Central/ World War II Era.

The building is architecturally important, but it also has alarming historical significance as well, given a major construction gaffe uncovered only after its completion — and, because of very special circumstances, unknown at the time by the public. According to a 1995 New Yorker article, the structural engineer for the project, William LeMessurier, came to realize he had miscalculated the impact of strong winds on the tower, making the prominent new skyscraper in the heart of Midtown structurally unsound in the event of extreme storm conditions.

As the New Yorker article details, a newspaper strike at the time allowed LeMessurier, the building’s architect, Citicorp, and city officials to secretly scramble to correct the blunder by welding steel plates onto the joints throughout the tower’s structure. Journalists never got wind of the fact that a 59-story building in use was technically at risk of calamitous failure — even when, with the repair only half done, a hurricane took aim at New York before diverting out to sea. The story only came to light with the New Yorker piece 17 years later.

Now standing for nearly 40 years, the tower, along with an adjoining six-story office and retail building and St. Peter’s Church, has been designated a landmark. The LPC staff report noted that the tower, roughly 910 feet tall, has a roof angled at 45 degrees, making it a distinctive feature of New York’s modern cityscape.

“With this designation and the additional 11 buildings, we have made our commitment and accomplished our goal to designate these buildings prior to the Department of City Planning’s certification of the rezoning,” Srinivasan, said. “This will ensure that historic preservation is robust… in New York City’s premier central business districts.”

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