Zoning at 100

July 25, 2016

As David Dunlap notes in his New York Times article, “Zoning Arrived 100 Years Ago. It Changed New York City Forever,” the Equitable Building was not the only structure that motivated the creation of New York City’s first zoning resolution, which was passed into law 100 years ago today. But it was certainly the largest and most prominent, and it has accepted its assigned notoriety with stately and stoic elegance. The Equitable Building celebrated its own 100th anniversary last year, and has been a designated New York City landmark since 1996. Following the direction of their conservative insurance company clients, architects Graham, Anderson, Probst and White of Chicago (the successor firm to Daniel Burnham) suppressed their instinctive urge to design a signature skyscraper, and instead focused their creative energies into producing the largest and most efficient building that could fit onto the site. When complete, the building was fully modern on the inside, with state-of-the art elevators and mechanical systems, and its steel frame enclosed on the outside with a carefully detailed masonry arrangement of base, shaft, and capital based on the architects’ commitment to what the historians have called “Commercial Classicism.” Though never the tallest building in the world, it enclosed the most office space, and if that wasn’t consolation enough, it was also declared “the heaviest structure on earth.”

Solidity, weight, permanence: all honorable qualities for a building of landmark status. But as I approach from the recently-opened PATH entrance in WTC Tower 4, and catch my morning glimpse of the Equitable across Zucotti Park (itself the result of an arcane zoning transaction that could never have been imagined in 1916), I think I also detect a certain smugness in its notoriety, and pride in its current role in the regeneration of the Financial District, with newly-relocated tenants including city agencies, state attorneys, investment managers, and at least one distinguished architecture firm. “Hey,” I think to myself as I hurry through the triumphal arch entrance into the monumental Beaux-Arts lobby, “aren’t you the building that, in your own quiet way, influenced the iconic shape of the New York City skyline?” “Yes, yes I am,” I’m certain it replies… “and you’re late.”