This month in real estate history

The Real Deal looks back at some of New York's biggest real estate stories

Mar.March 03, 2008 05:16 PM

1963: Largest corporate office building opens

When it opened 45 years ago this month, the iconic Pan Am Building, now the MetLife Building, was the largest corporate office building in the world.

The 2.8 million-square-foot, 58-story skyscraper above Grand Central Station was originally built for Pan American Airways. Although it was widely criticized for blocking views down Park Avenue and 44th Street, the building was prized by tenants for its good location and innovative design.

In 1981, the insurance giant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company purchased the building for $400 million. A decade later, when the airline went out of business, MetLife replaced the Pan Am logo at the top of the structure with its own.

The building broke a record for highest sales price of a U.S. office building when it went for $1.72 billion in April 2005 to a group of investors led by Tishman Speyer Properties. The previous record had been Harry Macklowe’s purchase in 2003 of the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue for $1.4 billion.

The controversial structure was met with opposition before its debut on March 7, 1963 and took five years to build. It was designed by Emery Roth & Sons in consultation with leading architects Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi.

1940: Rockefeller Center officially opens

On March 28, 1940, Rockefeller Center, considered the largest private project of its kind in the world, was officially opened with the granting of a temporary certificate of occupancy for its 20-story United States Rubber Building, now known as the Simon & Schuster Building.

Although the complex first opened in November 1933, the city certificate for the last of 14 buildings in the three-block development in Midtown marked the completion of the Depression-era project, the New York Times reported.

Begun in 1930, the $100 million entertainment and commerce complex between 48th and 51st streets and Fifth and Sixth avenues was altered by the national economic downturn following the 1929 stock market crash.

The complex was expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has changed hands several times. In 1985, the Rockefeller family sold 80 percent of the complex to the Japanese company Mitsubishi Estate. But a recession forced Rockefeller Center into bankruptcy, and in 1996, a group led by Jerry Speyer and Goldman Sachs acquired it by paying $306 million for the mortgage and assuming $845 million in debt.

In 2001, a partnership led by Speyer bought out the other owners, including members of the Rockefeller family, for $1.85 billion. The sale marked the end of the Rockefellers’ involvement with the property.

1913: Hammerstein buys site for opera house

In March 1913, Oscar Hammerstein, grandfather of the great Broadway songwriter of the same name, purchased a former hospital property on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street to build a venue to compete with the Metropolitan Opera House.

The theater was not Hammerstein’s first challenge to the Metropolitan. In 1906, he had opened the Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street as an affordable alternative to the leading venue. Within four years, the Met paid him $1.2 million to stop showing opera for 10 years. In 1997, Manhattan Center Studios, which leases the space from the Unification Church, renovated the theater and renamed it the Hammerstein Ballroom in his honor.

Hammerstein, a cigar manufacturer and successful theater impresario, opened the Lexington Avenue Opera House in 1914, but the venue quickly ran into financial trouble. His investment in this second theater totaled as much as $1.5 million, the New York Times reported, but by 1918, creditors had moved to foreclose on a $450,000 mortgage made by Hammerstein Opera Co. and others, and sell the building. He died the next year at age 72.

The opera house was purchased by Loew’s Theaters, which produced vaudeville shows and later ran movies. Loew’s Theaters was acquired by Laurence Tisch in 1960. The theater was demolished that year and replaced by the Summit Hotel, now known as the Doubletree Metropolitan Hotel.

Compiled by Adam Pincus

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