History Of The Helmsley Building (Original New York Central Building)

Helmsley Building History

Photo: Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The first issue one encounters when writing the history of many of New York City’s famous buildings is what name to apply to the article’s title. The problem is many of these famous buildings have been brought and sold over time resulting in various name changes. New Yorkers tend to stick to one name for a building. However that name tends to apply to the time period that they grew up in. The Helmsley Building is a great example of a building called different names by New Yorkers who come from various generations. The building was originally named the New York Central Building when it was first erected in the 1920s. In the 1950s, the building was renamed the New York General Building. Twenty years later it went through another name change in the 1970s as it became The Helmsley Building. Its safe to say that most New Yorkers under the age of 60 refer to the building as the Helmsley Building.

Transport has been at the forefront of every flourishing city since the birth of the United States. Leading the way was the development of the railroads. In New York City, the New York Central Railroad connected New York City to upstate New York as well as Boston, and other North Eastern cities as well as some in the Mid-West. It was a vital connection that heavily contributed to the growth of New York City. Originally, the train lines were led by big steam locomotives. However these locomotives that utilized coal eventfully caused issues in the tunnels that they went though into New York City. In the early 1900’s, steam locomotive were banned from entering the tunnels. New York City then developed electric lines that led into mid Manhattan and a new terminal was built called Grand Central Terminal. Just like in the old west, life sprouts heavily around train stations. The area around Grand Central Terminal was marked for big time development.

The area surrounding Grand Central Terminal was named Terminal City. This was in the location of Park Avenue between 41st and 46th streets. Buildings were proposed and roadways enhanced. Out of this development of Terminal City came the plans for a large building on Park Avenue with the plans for the viaduct roadway that had been built during the construction of Grand Central Terminal to go underneath the new building connecting the north and south sides of Park Avenue. The project utilized resources from both the private owners of Grand Central Terminal and city government.

The New York City architecture firm of  Warren and Wetmore was hired to design the new building. Warren and Wetmore had already been responsible for designing many well known buildings and public transportation hubs on the East Coast of the United States as well as many buildings in Canada. The firm would play a significant role in the development of buildings in Manhattan in the 1920s and 30s. Construction began on what would become the New York Central Building in December of 1926. It took a long time to complete the New York Central Building as it was not until September of 1929 when the building was finally completed. The New York Central Building was breathtaking when first completed. At 540 feet tall, it was a symbol of the power of the the New York Central Railroad. The Railroad bragged that their building was taller than the Washington Monument.(1)

When the New York Central Railroad when bankrupt in the 1950s, the New York Central Building was sold and renamed the New York General Building. The story that everyone loves to tell is how the new owners of the building saved money by only having to replace the G and E in Central with a C and T to save money on the building’s name façade. The ownership of the New York General Building would be transferred to Harry Helmsley when Helmsley’s company Helmsley-Spear Management purchased the building in 1977. Harry Helmsley was a powerful New York Real Estate mogul. In 1954, Helmsley had purchased the Lincoln Building in New York City. Seven years later, Harry Helmsley would purchase the most famous building in New York City that we all know as the Empire State Building.

After purchasing the New York General Building, Harry Helmsley poured money into the fifty year’s old building completely refurbishing the interior and exterior structures. The original green roof of the New York General Building was completely gilded as wall as many of the building’s other structures. Harry Helmsley’s second wife Leona convinced Harry Helmsley to rename the building The Helmsley Building. Leona Helmsley would eventually earn the nickname the “Queen Of Mean,” for the way she treated staff. Together, with her husband Harry Helmsley, the two would have a huge impact in New York’s hotel business buying and managing hotel in New York and also Florida. Their hotels in New York included, the Park Lane Hotel, The Helmsley Palace Hotel and the New York Helmsley Hotel.

While the couple celebrated success in real estate, they did find themselves in big time trouble with the government over tax evasion charges in the late 1980s. Leona was found guilty and would spend just nineteen months in prison. In 1997, Harry Helmsley passed away. A year later Leona Helmsley sold the Helmsley Building to Max Capital Management. The two hundred and twenty five million dollar sale included an agreement that the new owners could not rename the building. Max Capital Management would spend fifty million dollars in renovations to the Helmsley Building over the years it owned the property. One of the most significant changes the new owners did was remove the gilding that Harry Helmsley had installed on the rooftop and other exterior sections of the Helmsley Building.

In 2005, seven years after Max Capital Management had purchased the building from The Helmsleys for 225 million dollars, Max Capital Management sold it for almost 500 million dollars more at a sale price of 705 million dollars. It was sold to a foreign state owned investment firm named Istithmar World of the government of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Two years later in 2007, Goldman Sachs purchased the building for just over a billion dollars. Goldman Sachs would not celebrate the huge profits that pervious owners had received. The recession that began in 2008 would take its toll on the New York Real Estate Market. Goldman Sachs held onto the building for 8 years and them sold it in 2015 for 1.2 billion dollars to the Real Estate firm RXR Realty. 

While The Helmsley Building has stood its ground since 1928, the construction of the Pan Am Building in 1963 has cast a large shadow quite literally over the Helmsley building from the south. Most people who drive under the Helmsley building from Park Ave North or those who simply cross the streets or walk the sidewalks in front of the Helmsley Building are often attracted to the size of the Pan Am Building which has been called the MetLife Building since 1981. The further one goes north and looks back at the Helmsley Building, the smaller it becomes as the MetLife Building rises above it. That’s the story of New York City Buildings. What once was one of the largest buildings in the city will become dwarfed by a new one rising up around it.

Helmsley Building History

Photo: Brian Kachejian ©2020

Helmsley Building History

Photo: Paul Hermans, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Works cited:

(1)New York Central Building (now Helmsley Building) – NYC.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1297.pdf

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