Hearst Tower

Saturday, July 29th, 2006 | All Things, NYC History

Much has been written about the new Hearst Tower, designed by Lord Norman Foster, the Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, whose body of work includes renovation of the British Museum and the reconstruction of the Reichstag in Berlin. The distinct 46-story office tower was completed this Spring and serves as the corporation’s world headquarters.

Foster’s design preserves the design of the original Hearst building, which was built in 1928 and landmarked in 1988. The addition emerges as a shaft of four-story high diamond-shaped bands of steel with no vertical columns around the perimeter frame — a design known as a diagrid, which, in addition to giving the form a dramatic and crystalline shape, uses one fifth less steel than a standard design. The views from within the cantered floor-to-ceiling windows offer a unique perspective: tipped down towards the ground, or tilted up towards the sky.

Hearst Tower

William Randolph Hearst is best known as an American publishing magnate (and one of the inspirations behind Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.) In 1928, at his empire’s peak, he had 28 major newspapers, 18 magazines, 2 news services, several radio stations and a movie company under his ownership. Hearst was also a fledgling real estate developer, with extensive holdings in New York City and a vision for making his stamp on the city’s landscape. He acquired other properties near the Eighth Avenue and 57th Street site, eventually taking over six lots around Columbus Circle, which he envisioned transforming into his own Hearst Plaza, to supplant Times Square and Herald Square as the city’s publishing hub.

At the heart of the plan was the Art Deco limestone International Magazine Building designed by Joseph Urban, an architect also known for his Hollywood and Broadway set designs. The six-story building at 959 Eighth Avenue was designed to structurally support a larger tower to be added on. When the stock market crashed in 1929, however, Hearst’s prospects declined and plans for the intended tower fell through. The low-rise base is the only remnant of Hearst’s ambitious plan.

The yellow cast stone structure, with its pylons, pedestals and sculpted figures was dismissed by The New Yorker architecture critic as “theatric architecture.” For years, the too grand building seemed out of place in its environs, set upon what was not particularly prime Hells Kitchen commercial real estate: too far west from the elegant heart of 57th Street, and until the late 1990s gentrification, neighboring tenements and adult video shops on a somewhat seamy stretch of Eighth Avenue.

Hearst Tower Entrance

The arched main entrance is flanked by figures representing “Comedy and Tragedy” and “Music and Art.” “Sport and Industry” and “Printing and the Sciences” wrap around the other walls. In his redesign, Foster gutted the original building – interior walls, floors and all – preserving only its outer shell to enclose the glass-roofed “urban plaza.” Through the archway, you can peek a sliver of “Ice Falls,” the three-story, glass sculpted water wall, designed by James Carpenter. In addition to serving as the stunning, sparkling centerpiece of the building’s atrium, the feature serves an environmental function by humidifying and cooling the lobby as necessary. It runs entirely on recycled rainwater collected from the tower’s rooftop — water which is also used to feed into a special pumping system to irrigate plants and trees around the building. Nice!

The view from my Saturday seat:

Hearst Tower

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