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Redefining Downtown: One Chase Manhattan Plaza

Our Historic Image Archive includes thousands of images from the late 18th through the early 21st centuries. While most of our images show Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, we have a wide range of images from across the five boroughs, particularly of historic landmarks around the city. Today we focus on one of those that may not fit the stereotypical image of a “historic landmark” — One Chase Manhattan Plaza (originally the Chase Manhattan Bank Headquarters and now 28 Liberty Street), an iconic skyscraper of lower Manhattan that both helped define modernism in New York City and kickstart the redevelopment of the Financial District in the postwar era.

One Chase Manhattan Plaza amidst the otherwise pre-War skyline in 1961. Image via JPMorganChase Archive

One Chase Manhattan Plaza was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and was designated a New York City landmark on February 10th, 2009. It is considered by many one of the most important late 20th century skyscrapers in New York City, and appears in numerous places in our Historic Image Archive.

This 1997 photo of One Chase Manhattan Plaza is part of our Meredith Jacobson Marciano Collection of our Historic Image Archive

History and Development of the Site

This lot just two blocks north of Wall Street has been in use for hundreds of years. One of the first documented buildings here was the Middle Collegiate Church, built in 1731. In 1892 the Middle Collegiate Church built a new church on Second Avenue in the East Village, which tragically was lost to a terrible fire in late 2020.

The 1731 Middle Collegiate Church and the Old Sugar House Many American prisoners under the British occupation of the city during the American Revolutionary War died here in captivity or shortly after.

During the Revolutionary War, the buildings on this site were occupied by the British, who used it at various times as a prison, a hospital and a riding school. It reverted to being a church after the war. From 1844 to 1875, the site served as the city’s main post office. The building was then used by the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York starting in 1884, and a new 38-story headquarters for Mutual Life was completed here in 1928. By 1950, however, Mutual Life moved away.

In 1955, Chase National Bank merged with the Bank of the Manhattan Company. This giant new company needed a giant new headquarters.

One Chase Manhattan Plaza at right, as seen from 55 Liberty Street, looking east in 1998 from the Meredith Jacobson Marciano Collection of our Historic Image Archive.

David Rockefeller played a leading role in the project. At that time, Rockefeller was the Executive Vice President of the bank, and he would famously serve as Chair from 1969 to 1981. He convinced Chase to remain downtown, consolidating 8,700 employees from nine locations to the new headquarters. This went hand in hand with the efforts to develop the new World Trade Center and revitalize lower Manhattan’s financial district, after losing ground to midtown during the mid-century decades. These efforts were largely understood to be led by David and his brother Nelson, who was Governor of New York State from 1959-1973, and other leading members of the business community.

This 1960s image from the Carole Teller Collection of our Historic Image Archive shows demolition from north of Water and Fletcher Streets with 80 Maiden Lane on the left and One Chase Manhattan Plaza in the background.

Construction began in 1957. When the Chase Manhattan Bank Headquarters opened in 1961, it dramatically altered the city skyline and character of the financial district. Very few buildings had been built in the area since the 1930s. Its huge and boxy new glass and aluminum façade stood in sharp contrast with its slender elegant masonry neighbors. It was the sixth tallest skyscraper in New York at the time, the third tallest in the Financial District, and the tallest post-war building in the city as well as far and away one of the largest, at 60 stories and 813 feet tall and 2.3 million square feet (the Chrysler Building, by contrast, was 77 stories and 1,046 feet tall and a mere 1.2 million square feet, illustrating the vastly different proportions of the Chase Manhattan Bank and its pre-War skyscraping brethren).

Prior to the Chase Manhattan Bank Headquarters, most New York City skyscrapers were built with the steady setbacks encouraged by the 1916 Zoning Resolution to allow light and air to filter down to streets no matter how tall the buildings. However, these setbacks were not required if the building occupied 25% or less of its lot, and thus the Chase Manhattan Bank Headquarters was designed as a single boxy slab with lots of open space around it. Buildings like Chase Manhattan and Midtown’s Seagram Building (1958), with their elegant modernist towers set within open public plazas embellished with fountain and art, were so popular that New York City changed its zoning code in 1961 to encourage or require similar forms — tall towers set within open space.

This image from the Meredith Jacobson Marciano Collection of our Historic Image Archive is not of One Chase Manhattan Plaza, but taken from a high floor of it, looking down on the 50-story One Wall Street in the foreground looking southwest towards Ellis Island.

The south plaza (officially known as the David Rockefeller Plaza since 2008) and basement levels were dedicated in 1964, incorporating a “Sunken Garden” by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who previously had a studio at 33 MacDougal Alley, as well as the beloved four-story tall sculpture “Group of Four Trees” by Jean Dubuffet. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable praised the design in the New York Times: “These are ambitious structures of character and quality, surrounded by the most expensive urban luxury money can buy – space. In a remarkable duality of purpose, reconcilable only in this commercial age, they aspire to the dual role of company trademark and work of art.”

Not all were fans. Many at the time claimed the new building “ruined” the New York City skyline, by inserting this large boxy mass into what had previously been a delicate, jagged skyline of spires and towers. But over the decades, as more boxy buildings came to define the New York City and Lower Manhattan skyline (indeed, architecture critic Paul Goldberger once pithily called it “the box all the others came in”), One Chase Manhattan Plaza has come to seem less like a disruptive anomaly, and more like a classic and dignified progenitor of forms to follow, even if all its progeny didn’t necessarily live up to its high standard of design.

On October 18, 2013, JPMorgan sold the building to Fosun, a Chinese investment company, for $725 million. Fosun rebranded One Chase Manhattan Plaza as 28 Liberty Street in 2015, and have invested in upgrading the building to modern standards.

Click here to see more amazing images on our Historic Image Archive.

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