120 Park advertises itself as “Spectacular Views, Extraordinary  Location, Extraordinary Opportunities.” This “extraordinary location” is a post-modern  skyscraper located at 120 Park Avenue. The twenty-six story building was  constructed in 1982 for Philip Morris, which was headquartered there, and designed by Ulrich  Franzen & Associates and built with the assistance of Weiskopf & Pickworth. Prior to the Philip Morris Building, this plot of land was home to an Art  Deco masterpiece and a record claiming hotel, and a vestige of Old New York.

In 1902, William J. Wilgus, an engineer for the New York Central Railroad, envisioned Terminal City. This “city” consisted of “a unified matrix  of development atop the new real estate created when the tracks and railroad yards were  covered” in the vicinity of Grand Central Terminal. Office buildings, hotels, and even new  homes for the National Academy of Design and the Metropolitan Opera were proposed for the  development. While the National Academy of Design and Metropolitan Opera did not receive  new homes in the area, a number of office buildings and hotels were constructed, including the  Hotel Belmont.

Warren & Wetmore, the architects who designed Grand Central Terminal, designed the  Hotel Belmont, located at 120 Park Avenue. It was constructed in 1906, and according to the  1916 edition of Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, it was the site of a blacksmith’s shop  in the nineteenth century. The hotel was designed for August Belmont. August Belmont, Jr.  was responsible for the creation of the Belmont Park Racetrack and in 1902, founded the  Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). The hotel, which at 292 feet high, claimed to be the tallest  hotel in the world, also contained a forgotten secret. Belmont had his own entrance into  the subway from the hotel. This enabled him to go from his office in the Hotel to his private  subways car, which he named the Mineola, and tour his underground kingdom. Belmont’s wife  is thought to have said that “a private subway car is an easy taste to get used to.”

As a result of the invaluable assistance of the  Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and Carol Willis, the Founder and Director of the  Skyscraper  Museum, the Belmont Hotel’s “tallest hotel” claim has been  made questionable at best. The St. Regis Hotel, which had previously been constructed in 1904, was 306 feet tall. Therefore, if the Belmont Hotel was indeed 292 feet tall it would never have been the tallest hotel in the world. However, another source has the Belmont Hotel’s height listed at 308 feet, so the truth may never be known.

Since the subway was located directly under the hotel, great care had to be taken during its construction. Construction workers had to use extra heavy steel girders and foundations in order to support both the hotel and the subway station. According to a 1916 guide to New York City, the Hotel contained a Main Dining Room, a Garden Dining Room, a Grill, a Roof Garden, and an a la carte menu. However, its life as a hotel did not last long.

In 1928, the Hotel Belmont closed its doors in order for the building to be remodeled as an office building. The ground floor and basement, where a cafeteria had existed, were altered to make room for retail space. The 2.5 million dollar renovation also included creating direct access to Grand Central Terminal from the Belmont’s basement, possibly adding four more stories, and completely retrofitting each floor to allow for full floor offices. This conversion was not unique at the time. In fact, the Belmont was the third hotel on 42nd Street to be turned into an office building (the first was the Hotel Manhattan, located on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Madison, the second was the Hotel Knickerbocker (where the King Cole Mural was originally located), located on the southeast corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, and there was also the Old Grand Union Hotel, located on the southeast corner of 42nd Street and Park, which was demolished to make way for the new Pershing Square Building.

Image via Museum of the City of NY

With the exception of a beer garden, which occupied the site for a period in 1933, it does not appear as if anything of note was built at 120 Park during the 1930s. In 1938, plans were first discussed regarding the construction of a union airline terminal on the site of the “long vacant site of the old Belmont Hotel.” The proposed building would serve as the City’s terminus for 5 major airlines (the airlines included all four of the national airlines including American, United, TWA, and Eastern Air Lines, as well as Canadian Colonial, and Pan American Airways) which at the time operated separate offices in the Grand Central District. The building would provide a central ticket and information office, waiting rooms, and buses to take passengers to their flights at North Beach Airport (now LaGuardia).

The Airlines (Terminal) Building was located on the corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue because it provided easy access to Grand Central Terminal and the area’s subway lines for people to arrive at the building and because of its proximity to the newly opened Queens Midtown Tunnel, which would enable buses to quickly travel to North Beach Airport, out of which the terminal’s tenants planned on being based.

Before the building’s cornerstone was even laid, plans were created to enlarge the building’s interior spaces. Floyd deL. Brown of the Bethlehem Engineering Company, announced that the new designs allowed for one floor for incoming passengers and another for outgoing, totaling 60,000 square feet of space. According to Herbert C. Born, Vice President of the Charles F. Noyes Company, Inc. “the airlines decided to enlarge their ticket and reservation facilities because of the great increase in flying by the American public and because of success of the trans-oceanic clippers… developments since [1938] have proven” that the original one floor design will no longer last for years to come. As a result, while the building would contain five stories, it would be as high as most seven-story buildings.

The building, whose cornerstone was laid by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia with a silver trowel on April 22, 1940, was designed by John B. Peterkin. LaGuardia used the occasion to praise the Civil Aeronautics Authority, which President Roosevelt planned to abolish, “exchanged wisecracks with a bricklayer who questioned his skill as a mason, [and] poked fun at Newark Airport.” Electric welding was used in the construction of the building instead of riveting, making it one of the largest buildings in the city to make use of this new construction method which had been approved two years earlier.

This art deco masterpiece possessed a three story high central lobby/waiting room decorated with murals tracing the history of aviation, including depictions of the start of Lindbergh’s flight and his landing at Paris and the Yankee Clipper flying the Atlantic for Pan Am (the mural’s current location is unknown). The building also contained a theater, restaurant, stores, and offices.

In 1977, the Airlines Building was razed to make way for the present Phillip Morris Building. When it was being demolished, the art deco eagles that stood atop the building were saved and were transported to Richmond, Virginia where they installed on  Best Products’  former campus. Today, they are all that remain of this art-deco masterpiece.

 Art Deco, Grand Central Terminal, history, hotels, manhattan

4 Responses
  1. Zachary Ross Reply

    Great post. I am researching the Airlines Terminal Building. Would you happen to know who owned the property at the time it was demolished?

    Originally owned by the Mutual Life Insurance Company, the property was sold to Webb & Knapp in 1947. William Zeckendorf acquired Webb & Knapp in 1949, and the concern went bankrupt in 1965. Zeckendorf died in 1976; the Airlines Terminal Building was demolished in 1978 (per New York Times article, August 2, 1978, which announced the planned demolition).

    If you happen to know who owned the property after the Webb & Knapp bankruptcy I would very much appreciate knowing.

    Zachary Ross

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