Our move to Long Island rekindled my absolute love of the Manhattan skyline. It was 2005, and with the City now a regular part of life, I wanted to know everything about every building in sight. And with a steady stream of visits from family and friends, such a knowledge seemed only hospitable. It didn’t take long for me to purchase the Department-required stack of books in preparation for my NYC tour guide license test. I soaked up every detail on every page. Sometimes I would simply commute in just to put my eyes on the things I was studying, or test my urban navigation skills against street signs and random landmarks. It was one of those late afternoon trips when I became fascinated with the Cities Service Building.
I had wondered before at its beautiful steeple, not always obvious from views across the river, but peeking out at precocious intervals of mere foot movement in Red Hook—tall enough to be important. The great grey gothic giant sits stoic—waiting for metropolitan Magi to discover its legend. It humbly rests between Pine and Cedar streets, right off of Pearl, a city block’s walk north from Wall’s canyons—down south—in the curve of the city where the streets have names. Her final story was only a footnote in one of the six books I had read. I had to see with my own eyes if it was really true.
In 1930, Henry Latham Doherty and his Cities Service Company (Citgo) were poised to inhabit the tallest building in the world. He had employed the architect firm of Clinton, Russell, Holton & George—having already designed the world’s largest apartment building—to plot his 67-story bid into the New York skyscraper race of the 30s. It was designed to be the tallest. But by the time construction began on the building, Severance’s Bank of Manhattan Trust Building at 40 Wall Street was already boasting a planned 70 stories, and two feet in height over the budding Chrysler Building uptown (it actually held the world record for two months). The skyscraper race was in full swing, and at least seven buildings were already in contention to be the tallest in the world by the winter of 1930. Architects rushed to design spires to push their buildings over the top. Some skyscrapers held the record, but for only weeks and months. As Doherty’s architects and contractors watched other buildings soar past their building, they knew they had to do something dramatic to draw lasting attention to their work of art. They were most proud of the building’s Gothic spire and sharp, dramatic lines, but they knew that New Yorkers would never look up—especially if the building didn’t hold the title. The thousands that walked past and into their building everyday would know it only for its doors, lobbies, and office spaces. So they constructed scale-replica models of the whole building at eye-level, impressed over the doors at the main entrances. I saw them that day in the city, over seventy years later, and I laughed out loud with joy.
When it was completed in 1932, the Cities Service Building was already only the third tallest building the world, after the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. It is now the 22nd tallest building in the United States. But those that pass by are forced to take notice—and look up. Because its noble design was brought down from the heavens and encoded into the meekness of functional, everyday life on the ground—a doorframe. You can’t really see the top of the Empire State Building from the street. You certainly can’t admire the Art Deco curves in the ascent of the Chrysler Building from its vestibule. But you can know the fullness of the designer’s blueprint immediately from the front door of the Third Place tower. Its steel and limestone whisper the story of the Son of Man—its cupola becoming flesh and dwelling among us. You can still visit it today in downtown Manhattan at 70 Pine Street, winking at the Incarnation, and drawing your gaze up to the heights. If you ever endured my custom NYC tour, you certainly saw it. It’s my favorite building because it reminds me of my favorite divine mystery: sometimes triumphant beauty is hidden within the doorframes of losing bids. And sometimes the grandest of things have to be put on the most basic levels for us to really understand—for us to take notice—to look up.