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Germania Life Insurance Company Building | by Emilio Guerra
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Germania Life Insurance Company Building

Park Avenue South and Union Square, Manhattan


This twenty-story commercial building, crowned by an early and impressive example of modern signage, was designed by the architectural firm of D'Oench & Yost and built in 1910-11 as the national headquarters for the Germania Life Insurance Company of New York (now The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, the continuation of the original firm). The building is a tripartite columnar skyscraper which incorporates in its design motifs from traditional European architecture, most prominently the grand four-story mansard roof with varied dormer windows. The mansard roof and other features tie the building's design to French architecture, both the Second Empire style and the modern French mode that dominated Parisian architecture• of the 1890s. By employing the mansard, D'Oench & Yost alluded to a mansarded building that previously housed the company, thus continuing an architectural tradition which began around 1870 and conveyed a sound public image. The Germania Life Insurance Company Building (now Guardian Life Building) is prominently located on a corner site visible from Union Square and, together with the monumental Everett Building directly across the avenue, forms an imposing terminus to Park Avenue South.


Prominently situated on the northeast corner of East 17th street and Park Avenue South, the Germania (now Guardian) Life Building is a twenty-story office building with a basement and sub-basement. 54 According to the New Building Application, the building conforms to the original lot lines being 80'x 115,.55 curtain wall construction is employed. The foundation walls are built of brick in Portland cement and mortar; the upper walls are constructed of granite and brick. The materials for the elevations are brick and granite; the mansard roof is covered in vitrified tile. According to the New Building application, the architects considered the main roof to be flat and surmounted by the four upper stories that comprise the mansard. 56 9 The two-story base of the Germania (now Guardian) Life Building is rusticated with deep horizontal scoring. On the lower half of the base (or the first story), windows topped by segmental arches with foliated console-like keystones and pronounced voussoirs that merge with the coursing appear. A pronounced belt-course with dolphin-headed waterspouts separates this first story from the upper part of the base. The main entrance, which is treated in a manner similar to the window apertures with deep scoring, pronounced voussoirs which merge with the scoring and a foliated console-like keystone, appears at the extreme left of the Park Avenue South facade. The upper half of the base has less pronounced coursing and is characterized by round-arched apertures flanked by smaller fenestration. On the East 17th Street elevation, three double-height round-arched windows are flanked by pairs of smaller windows. The upper and lower windows are square-headed; those below are topped by tympana embellished by scallop-shell motifs. Consoles draped by garlands join the tympana of the lower windows with the squareheaded apertures above. On the Park Avenue South facade, a double-height round-arched window is bisected by a cast-iron balcony bearing the initials "Gil and "L" for Germania Life. This window is flanked by a pair of vertically aligned narrow rectangular windows on either side; panels ornamented by garlands appear between these two windows. These windows are in turn flanked by pairs of windows resembling those on the East 17thStreet elevation.


The base is capped by a continuous -. stone balustrade embellished by recessed panels bearing rosettes and supported by foliated brackets, which is indented at the East 17th Street and Park Avenue South corner. The stone balustrade serves as a transition to the twelve-story shaft. Horizontal rectangles are applied to the shaft and give it the appearance of light rustication. Above the third story on both the Park Avenue South and East 17th Street elevations, the company name appears. On the Park Avenue South facade, on the fourth through the fourteenth stories a group of three square-headed, one-over-one windows united by a continuous pronounced stone sill is flanked by two similar windows on either side. On the East 17th Street elevation, on the fourth through the fourteenth stories three central pairs of square-headed windows are each joined by a pronounced stone sill; these three pairs are flanked by two square-headed windows on either side.


A group of protruding stone sills indicates the beginning of a two-story transition which separates the shaft from the building's "crown". On the first of these two stories, sections corresponding to piers are ornamented by recessed panels bearing escutcheons flanked by torches. sections of wall between windows are ornamented by bell-flowers topped by lion's heads all set 10 within recessed panels. This lower half of the transitional section is bracketed by two groups of moldings that constitute cornices. The second transitional story has austere square-headed windows topped by a molding of applied bezants and by a dentilled cornice.


A dentilled cornice demarcates the crown, a four-story mansard roof, which features a variety of neo-classic one-overone dormer windows. On the Park Avenue South elevation, a central group of three windows each of which is topped by a scallop (a motif that is reiterative of those on the base), is capped by a parapet embellished by a motif resembling a swag of fabric. One pair of square-headed windows topped by scallops and similarly joined by a parapet is found on each side of this central group.


On the East 17th Street elevation, three groups of three windows with scallops above only the central window are flanked, on either side, by paired windows, each of which is topped by a scallop. On the second story of the Park Avenue South elevation, a central group of three square-headed windows topped by several moldings and a parapet is flanked by single wide dormers with segmental pediments. On the East 17th Street elevation, three groups of three windows (a central wide aperture flanked by narrower openings) are flanked, on either side, by single windows like those on Park Avenue South. The central second-story windows on the East 17th Street facade are topped by acroteria at the center and at the corners. The third row of windows are one-overones with triangular pediments. with the exception of the outer two windows on each elevation, which are placed at the outer edges of the pediments below, on the Park Avenue South elevation, a central group of three (one wider aperture flanked by two narrower openings) is aligned with the central windows groupings below. On the East 17th-street facade, windows topped by triangular pediments are placed at the outer edges of each of the central window groupings below. At the fourth level, round-arched one-over-one windows topped by acroteria are located at the midpoint of the windows or window groupings below. This top level of windows merges into a decorative band that fuses with the parapet atop the roof. Stylized ribs alternate with torch balusters that extend above the railing; escutcheons are featured at the corners and terminate the articulation that begins at the juncture of the cornice and the roof. Acroteria appear at the corners. The roof is covered by terra-cotta tile and crowned by a large sign spelling out the firm's name. The sign reads "Guardian Life" spelled out in twelve bold, block letters; the G and the L being larger in height. The sign, which is mounted on a metal armature, spans the length of the elevation contained within the raised parapet. Comparison of the existing sign with photographs of the original indicates that the majority of the letters were reused, with the U and the D being new. The letters now have applied red 11 neon tubes. Fittingly, the building continues to serve as headquarters for The Guardian Life Insurance company of America.


The building's original one-over-one windows are set in copper-clad frames and have wood sash. On the interior, the ~lass has been coated with an energy-conserving, protective film. 7 In 1940, a metal cornice at the sixteenth floor was removed; a flat sheet metal fascia was installed. In 1957, new store fronts were added and the original revolving entrance doors were replaced with new Herculite doors. Skidmore, owings and Merrill designed an addition to the rear £completed in 1961, it is not included within the designation).5 The westernmost bay on the East 17th Street elevation features an automated banking center with a nonretractible sign above it, and the southernmost bay on the Park Avenue South facade also features a similar non-retractible sign.


- From the 1988 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

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Taken on November 15, 2009