Manufacturers Hanover Trust Branch Bank

The Manufacturers Hanover Trust Branch Bank, located at 510 Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) in 1953.

Contents

History

This building was constructed in 1953-54 as a branch of the Manufacturers Hanover Bank. The client, Horace “Hap” C. Flanigan, chairman of the board of the Manufacturers’ Trust, requested that the building be designed so that it could easily accommodate other uses in case of the bank branch’s closure as was common during the Great Depression. After plans for the building were shown to a publisher and a department store owner, who both said it could serve their businesses’ needs, Flanigan was satisfied. Bunshaft said of Flanigan that he was “the sort of man who - once he understood what you were designing and had faith in your judgment - would leave you alone unless you asked for comments.”[1]:49

The initial scheme for the building was designed by architect Charles Evans Hughes III in a competition among the young designers working at SOM. They were asked to spend a weekend sketching their ideas for the bank, and the winner would receive a prize of fifty dollars. Hughes’ design was chosen as the winner, and Gordon Bunshaft took over the development of his initial concept. Originally the plans had included an entrance on both Fifth Avenue and East 43rd Street, however the Fifth Avenue entrance was removed to allow for an uninterrupted facade.

The first two floors were the main banking areas. Escalators led from the ground floor to the second floor, which was cantilevered and appeared to be floating when viewed from the outside. The third floor housed administrative offices, and the fourth floor was a penthouse for visiting bank managers from other locations, and a meeting room that could also be converted to a dining room.

Bunshaft suggested that contemporary art be displayed in the bank, setting a precedent for banks to include works of art. He also suggested that the bank tellers have movable stations, to let them move through the space as necessary to conduct their business and to increase their visibility to the patrons, in line with the ideas of transparency embodied in this building. It was noted soon after the opening of this branch that the number of new accounts rose three times what it was and the tellers were more well groomed than in other banks.[1]:51 Both facts are most likely because of the openness and welcoming atmosphere of the bank.

In December of 1991, after a few previous mergers, the Manufacturers Trust Company merged with JP Morgan Chase Bank, and this building until recently housed a JP Morgan Chase Bank Branch.[2] Other parts of the building such as the upper floors and a portion of the ground level currently house other retail companies.

Site and context

Surrounded by skyscrapers, around the corner from the New York Public Library and Bryant Park, located on the most high-end shopping street in the world, the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank branch building is just 60 feet high. This is due to a carefully planned strategy. It was a rare opportunity for S.O.M. to design a building on Fifth Avenue, and no less with a client as daring as Horace Flannigan. It was believed by those involved that rather than giving the building its prestige through its height, its significance could be achieved through other, more innovative solutions, which did indeed prove successful upon the bank’s opening.

The Manufacturers Hanover Trust branch was a retail bank, and therefore its managers’ interests were in catching the attention of the public to stay in business. The location of this bank in midtown Manhattan, right on Fifth Avenue, was a sure spot for attracting potential customers. In fact it also caught the attention of David Rockefeller who enviously followed its success, and took inspiration from it in the design of 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, also designed by Bunshaft.[3]:78

The original sketch by Charles Evans Hughes III had included an entrance on Fifth Avenue. This was eventually removed in the final plans to allow for an uninterrupted facade on the side of the building with the most pedestrian traffic, and clear view of the large stainless steel vault door. This strategy emphasized the philosophy embodied by the bank building: security through transparency and not secrecy.

Materials and construction

The building is a 100 x 125 foot rectangle, with a structure of 8 steel columns covered in concrete. They are located in the interior of the space, freeing the facade from needing to provide structural support. The second floor is cantilevered, floating free with a distance of seven feet from the facade, giving the illusion of the ground floor being 40 feet high. Additionally, the concrete floor slabs were made as thin as possible to heighten this appearance of weightlessness and fragility.

In line with the client’s desire to “open” the bank up to the public, the Fifth Avenue facade can be understood as a transparent billboard, expressing the bank’s intentions and welcoming in the visitors. Thus this side is kept free of an entrance, and the façade is composed just of uninterrupted curtain wall and a view of the vault door. The entrance on the East 43rd Street side is small and almost unnoticeable.

Another strategy employed to heighten the sense of transparency and modernity - in addition to the thin mullions, large panes of glass, and cantilevered floors - is the luminous quality of the building. The interior lighting and materials were mainly the responsibility of Eleanor Le Maire. She carefully chose these materials to make the building a brilliant, shining beacon of modernity. In fact this is also an example of how the building employed department store merchandising techniques, as it was noted in Architectural Forum: “if you have a store window and you want the contents seen from the outside, you have to put more foot-candles inside the glass than there are foot-candles of natural light outside the glass, or it mirrors.”[3]:78 Thus the already minimal glass face of the building almost completely disappeared with these innovative lighting techniques. The ceilings are made of corrugated plastic panels, which cover the cathode lighting behind them, and appear to glow and emit light from almost as if they themselves were translucent planes of light.

The glass facade, described as “more like jewelry than building” by the contractor[1]:51 is composed of the largest panes of glass available at the time. The glass hangs in tension, rather than under compression. The mullions were kept to a minimal thickness of 4 inches, with a greater depth of 10 inches, heightening the sense of fragility and thinness of the glass.

Significance

Horace Flanigan’s hope for the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank branch was influenced by the Great Depression, when banks were seen as untrustworthy and secretive. He strove for a bank building that renounced this image, that was open and welcoming and therefore more secure. The S.O.M design for this became an example for other banks after, as it broke with the historicist, fortress-like tradition in many bank buildings at the time.

There was no better architect for this job than Gordon Bunshaft of S.O.M. He was a pioneer of modern architecture in tune with how it could provide a hopeful future for a society burned by two World Wars and a Great Depression. Eleanor Le Maire’s expertise in interior design assured the building’s success in attracting new, forward thinking customers. The proof of the significance and success of this building is in the numbers. The New York Times reported that 15,000 people visited it on its first day open (October 1954) and 40,000 by the end of its first week. “New customers came for both the intangible sense of modernity and to experience a new form of access to their own money.”[3]:76

This building still remains today as a key reference for modern architecture, and its importance was marked by its designation as a New York City Landmark in 1997.[4]

References

  1. ^ a b c Krinsky, Carol Herselle. Gordon Bunshaft: Of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill. 
  2. ^ "Commercial Banks, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company". Bloomberg Business Week. http://investing.businessweek.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapId=2125963. Retrieved December 20, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c Adams, Nicholas. Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill: SOM Since 1936. 
  4. ^ "Manufacturers Hanover Trust, 510 Fifth Avenue". Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. http://www.som.com/content.cfm/manufacturers_hanover_trust_510_fifth_avenue. Retrieved December 20, 2010. 

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