Places that Matter

The Clock Tower Office Building (former New York Life Insurance Company headquarters)

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Clock Tower Building, clock, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Clock Tower Building, clock, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Clock Tower Building, Broadway facade, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Clock Tower Building, side elevation, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Clock Tower Building, spiral stairs leading to the clock works, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Clock Tower Building, artist space, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Clock Tower Building, eagles, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Municipal building with an important timepiece
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Place Matters Profile

The Renaissance Revival palace at 346 Broadway is the former home of the New York Life Insurance Company, one of the oldest such companies in the United States, and one of the nineteenth century’s “Big Three,” along with Mutual Life and Equitable Life. The formidable office building was constructed in two late nineteenth century campaigns involving contemporaneously and soon-to-be prominent architects and sculptors, several of whom would set the pace for twentieth century design. The building was completed in 1898, but New York Life utilized the space for only a short time before moving to the more fashionable environs of Madison Square in 1927. City agencies have occupied the structure since 1939, and in 1967 the City of New York bought the building with the goal of including it in a new Civic Center that never came to fruition. The palazzo has since served as the headquarters for the municipal Criminal Courts, Summons agency and parole officers. Like many office buildings, 346 Broadway has become a bastion of red tape. But as is the case with so many palaces, action and excitement are hidden high in the tower.

The American life insurance industry emerged as a vital force in the 1840s, when masses of American citizens left the security of their farmsteads for the excitement and opportunity of the burgeoning metropolis. The rural to urban migration led to the growth of cities and industry, but also to increased uncertainty about the future. Mutual associations, stock and other insurance companies stepped in to assuage, and profit from, both real and imagined vulnerabilities that resulted from these socio-economic shifts.

Founded in 1841, the New York Life Insurance Company prospered during the industry-wide boom years of the American Civil War. Although the formation of new insurance companies oversaturated the market in the post-war period, New York Life distinguished itself by honoring southerners’ pre-war policies, and by expanding westward to Denver, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. Emboldened by success, they sent agents to Paris and Great Britain, and by the turn of the century, ran operations in South American, Asia and Africa. The American insurance industry declined in the wake of the Panic of 1873, but New York Life emerged as one of three large companies to weather the storm of scrutiny.  These “Big Three” ruled the American insurance market into the twentieth century.

Riding their post-war success, New York Life commissioned a five-story white marble Italianate edifice from Griffith Thomas, which was erected at 346 Broadway in 1868. By 1893, the company already needed a larger headquarters. They held a five-firm competition to determine who would receive the commission for a twelve-story eastern extension of the original Thomas building. Many leading names submitted designs, including Stephen D. Hatch, McKim, Mead and White, George B. Post, Babb, Cook and Willard, and Daniel H. Burnham.

Legend has it that Hatch won the purse because he was the only contender willing to accept less than the industry's standard five percent commission. Inauspicious beginnings, to be sure. Construction of Hatch’s somewhat conservative Italianate extension commenced in May 1894, but he died a month later at the age of fifty-five. The contract was then given to McKim, Mead and White, with Hatch’s successor, William McCabe, appointed as the General Superintendant. The building extension was completed according to Hatch’s plans in May 1896. But while the new structure was taking form, New York Life decided to demolish the original Griffith building and replace it with a new McKim, Mead and White Renaissance Revival palace. The design was likely influenced by the resounding success of the massive neo-classical buildings at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition’s Court of Honor.

McKim, Mead and White's twelve-story, white Tuckahoe marble side elevation matches Hatch’s design, but as the overall building is a seemingly infinite twenty-six bays deep, the architects decided to punctuate the Broadway end with a thirteen-story tower pavilion. The Broadway tower is three bays deep and three bays wide, and boasts a four-sided clock with twelve-foot faces. 346 Broadway’s overall composition, or at least that of the Broadway end, is thus imbued with a somewhat sculptural quality, an impression that was originally reinforced by Philip Martiny’s tower-topping metal group of four kneeling male figures supporting a globe surmounted by an eagle. The design of the McKim, Mead and White addition has been attributed to the then up-and-coming Henry Bacon, who trained in McKim, Mead and White’s office until 1897, and who is remembered for his own sculptural proclivities, including his collaboration was with Daniel C. French at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

Both 346 Broadway’s exterior and much of its interior space were designated as New York City landmarks in 1987. Visitors are welcome to step through one of two x-ray machines inside the small marble Leonard Street lobby to snag a view of the building’s historic interior while their persons and their belongings are similarly scrutinized by security officials. Photographs are not allowed, and decorative moldings and civil servants alike yawn in the fluorescent light.

The limbo effect of the lower lobby notwithstanding, the building’s thirteenth story and clock tower machine room are very much alive! The thirteenth story is now used as the Clock Tower Gallery and Art International Radio, (AIR), an internet radio station, free cultural archive, and art center. In 1972, Alanna Heisse founded the Clock Tower Gallery, an alternative art space that has presented works by high-profile artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Tuttle, Max Neuhaus, and Laurie Anderson. During the 1970s, Heisse founded the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, which organized exhibitions in un- or underused urban spaces, and In 1976, she founded P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City. In 2004, P.S.1 established the Art Radio WPS1.org, the world’s first art radio station, in the clock tower space. Four years later, Heisse left P.S.1, and reestablished both the Gallery and radio station under AIR. As of 2011, the Clock Tower Gallery operates as a satellite P.S.1 space dedicated to artist-in-residency and exhibition programs. It continues to support emerging artists, most recently including Japanther and James Franco.

The tower’s two top floors are particularly animated on Wednesdays, when the clock works are tended by Marvin Schneider, Clock Master of the City of New York by Mayoral Appointment since 1992. In 1979, Schneider, Eric Reiner and George Whaley, municipal workers with no previous clock-maintenance experience, convinced the city to let them restore and care for the clock. It had fallen into disrepair and was out of use. Initially worried about liability, the city finally agreed to the project once the New York Life Insurance Company, the building’s former occupants, offered to donate the insurance policies. 

Schneider has since paid thirty years’ worth of regular Wednesday house calls to the tower, to rewind the clock and tend the 5000 lb bell, which is two times the size of the Liberty Bell. The 70 pound clock hammer, driven by two 800 pound weights, strikes hourly. This is one of the last remaining, completely original, non-electric clocks in New York City.

Building security was tightened in the aftermath of 9/11, but as of 2011, luck might let you access the building on the Leonard side entrance, (you might even cut the very long and quickly-queued line of petitioners awaiting audience with the court clerks), take the elevator to the twelfth floor then walk up to the thirteenth story, where the gallery, spiral stairs to the clock works, and sometimes Marvin, can be found. There, stepping out on to a wrap around balcony, visitors find themselves face to face with twelve giant stone eagles, stern soldiers in an avian phalanx, who guard the tower and keep vigilant eyes on the cityscape. Although the stationary birds are scarily out of scale, they and their equally massive perch offer a weirdly welcome sense of enclosure at an otherwise threatening elevation. But their quietude serves as a silent dare to any who might consider transgressing against the historic edifice, and it is therefore not surprising that the tower’s only graffiti is located on the gallery's interior walls. Looking up from the aerie, visitors bask in the clock’s four frosted faces, and despite the height, feel safe knowing that time keeps on ticking.

According to a 2007 New York Times interview with Schneider, when he, Reiner and Whaley decided to revive the clock, it “seemed to reflect what the city was all about in the 1970s, falling apart, limping along, being just allowed to drift, and to possibly crash, which it almost did.” But they fixed it (the clock, not the city). In a way, though, it was an act with much larger implications. It is still an inspiring example of what mere mortals can do when they step (way) up. Thanks to the three volunteers, continuity is chronometrically confirmed with every tick and tock.