Donald Trump wasn’t the first bumptious New York mogul equally interested in real estate, entertainment, politics, and the female form in multiple aspects: William Randolph Hearst got there first.
Trump has said that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a classic that was notoriously inspired by Hearst’s career, is his favorite film. Yet he seems not to have learned anything from its examination of the limits of ambition and power. For that, he might have absorbed more by walking two blocks west, from his own Trump Tower to Hearst Tower.
When construction began on what was then called the International Magazine Building in 1926, New York City was in the midst of a construction frenzy that would climax in just a couple of years with the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.
Even so, Hearst proposed to add another element to the city’s skyline. His reasoning might have been speculative, but it was hardly insane: the publisher, who had been promoting the film career of his mistress, former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Marion Davies, was convinced that the Broadway entertainment district would extend all the way up to Columbus Circle.
And why not? With Carnegie Hall already in the neighborhood and the Metropolitan Opera announcing plans to move to a new home on 57th Street, Columbus Circle and its vicinity did experience a heady growth spurt in the Roaring Twenties.
Anticipating the arrival of the opera, Hearst enlisted the organization’s set designer, Joseph Urban—who had also done work for him (remodeling the Criterion and Cosmopolitan theaters, and designing the Ziegfeld Theater) and who would also become art director of Hearst's new film-making studio, Cosmopolitan Productions. The interests of the architect and the building’s prime mover can be seen in the main entrance of the building, which is flanked by Comedy and Tragedy on the left and Music and Art on the right.
Looking at the structure now on West 57th Street, however, I saw two buildings of qujte dissimilar appearance this past weekend. The older, six-story base—the one designated a New York City landmark in 1988—made me wonder if the one atop it was some kind of monstrous modern architectural graft.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the top portion was, in fact, something of a revival of Hearst’s original intention for the building. The tycoon wanted so much for his publishing enterprises that he thought a skyscraper would be required. Urban didn’t have that kind of experience, so the firm of George B. Post was enlisted for that part of the project. (It didn't hurt that in hiring Post, the architect of Joseph Pulitzer's World Building, Hearst may have felt he was getting his own back against his old rival in New York's tabloid wars.)
The six-story base was finished in 1928. But then the Depression intervened, hobbling even the owner of the greatest publishing empire the world had known to date, as Hearst staved off bankruptcy only through the sale of many of his private assets and money from his own faithful mistress, Davies. Hearst’s plan for a nine-story tower on top of his base lost momentum. Post’s attempt to revive the proposal right after WWII likewise went nowhere.
Not until 2006 did the present 46-story structure, designed by architect Norman Foster, open. Featuring a glass-and-steel diagrid design, it was the first building to receive a Gold LEED rating for core and shell and interiors in New York City.
The story of Hearst and his building should be heeded not only by Trump, but also by any powerful man who continually tries to exert his power in all sorts of different ways: Sooner or later, interlocking circumstances will conspire to constrain even him, and his original scheme will fall far short of fruition.
(I took the accompanying image of the Hearst Tower this past weekend, from across the street at Symphony Plaza. So much has changed since the first part of the structured opened 90 years ago: Hearst’s business organization (now more focused on magazines than newspapers), his building, but especially his reputation.)
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