COLIN CAMPBELL COOPER (1856–1937)
Metropolitan Life Tower, Madison Square, about 1909–19
Oil on canvas, 32 5/8 x 20 1/4 in.
Signed (at lower left): Colin Campbell Cooper
EX COLL.: private collection, until the present
The Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, rising majestically on the east side of Madison Square Park, was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1909. So it remained until 1913, when bragging rights passed to Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building on downtown Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street. Cooper painted the Metropolitan Life Tower at least twice, once in the present painting, which is undated, and once in 1917. In the present painting Cooper looks across Madison Square Park from Broadway at 24th Street, from a vantage point that seems to just skim the treetops in the park across the street. He includes busy pedestrian and vehicular traffic on 23rd Street and Broadway, scans the open space at the southern end of the park, and sketches the domed roof and lantern of Stanford White’s Madison Square Presbyterian Church (1906–19) at 24th Street. Most importantly, Cooper focuses on the insurance company headquarters, with its 52-story tower and adjacent 11-story office building, dating from 1893. The double-decker buses in the right foreground are motorized vehicles, suggesting a late 1910s date. The light green of the trees in the park and the passengers riding on the open-air upper level of one of the double-decker buses suggest a spring day. In contrast, the picture dated 1917 offers a very different view, with the artist looking south on Madison Avenue past a fully-rendered Madison Square Garden (on the east side of the street between 26th and 27th Streets, designed by architect Stanford White in 1910 and demolished in 1925), juxtaposing the famous tower of the Garden with the taller tower of the insurance company seen in the distance.
This painting of the Metropolitan Insurance Tower offers a relatively rare view in Cooper’s New York oeuvre, a skyscraper study that contrasts brick and mortar with parkland. Cooper’s interest in the city was in its built landscape, in the poetry of its crowded buildings that alternated small scale and old with the heralds of the new City, its awe-inspiring skyscrapers. Cooper generally left the depiction of New York City parks to fellow impressionist painters, painters of urban leisure, notably Childe Hassam, or to the genre-oriented artists of the Ashcan School. Madison Square, for example, was a favorite locale of John Sloan, who lived nearby on West 23rd Street.
The Tower, as Cooper painted it, though tall as ever, can no longer be seen. The structure was renovated inside and out between 1962 and 1964. The original Tuckahoe marble exterior was covered over in plain limestone and the Renaissance revival details and original ornamentation removed to express a more modern aesthetic. The four clocks, one facing in each direction atop the tower, however, were repaired and preserved. On January 7, 1962, the New York Times published a front-page story describing the rationale and scope of the proposed changes (Thomas W. Ennis, “1909 Tower Here Getting New Look: Metropolitan Life Building is Being Modernized”):
[C]ritics say the “faulty scale” of the tower’s ornamental details make the structure look much smaller than its actual height of 700 feet. When the remodeling is complete ... the old tower will have a streamlined appearance. All the carved ornamentation from the ground floor to the fifth floor will have been removed. To slenderize the structure further, the heavily worked masonry covering the four steel piers that support the tower at the corners has been taken away, leaving the heavy steel work bare. The steel will have a new covering of unadorned limestone. Two bands of limestone from the first to the fifth floors and from the twenty-ninth to the thirty-sixth floors will replace the marble that the LeBruns alternated with limestone to cover the structure…. The tower was saved primarily because of its value as the company’s advertising trademark—its likeness appears prominently on the concern’s stationery and publications—rather than for its economic value….
Metropolitan Life proceeded with this “modernization” despite the high regard the building enjoyed among preservationists and architectural historians. In 1957, the tower had been designated by the New York Community Trust as one of the landmarks of old New York worthy of preservation, nominated for the honor by the Municipal Art Society and the Society of Architectural Historians.