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The History Of The Helmsley Building

The New York City skyline is one of the most iconic in the world and hosts some of the most recognizable structures ever built. These buildings are featured in movies, set records, and have amazing history attached to them. It’s easy to look at these architectural marvels and think they’ve always been around. That there was nothing to their construction or history. However, every building has a story, and the one behind The Helmsley Building is an intricate tale of intrigue and industry. Grand, towering, and majestic, The Helmsley continues to inspire awe just as it did when it was first constructed.

Beginning Of The Helmsley Building

The Helmsley was constructed by architecture firm Warren & Wetmore in the Beaux-Arts style between 1927 and 1929 at 230 Park Ave. Warren & Wetmore are responsible for most of the buildings in the area at the time. They completed construction on Grand Central Terminal in 1913, and the new station led to a building boom. The area surrounding the east side of 42nd Street became known as Terminal City, and people flocked there in droves. Warren & Wetmore built most of the area, which is how The Helmsley was erected at 230 Park Avenue. It was the last major project of the Terminal City era.

Originally, the building was known as New York Central and was the headquarters for the New York Central Railroad Company. Other railway companies began working out of the offices there, and it soon became one of the dominant figures in Grand Central’s day-to-day and future operations. The building was also home to several other businesses like publishers, manufacturing companies, and even mafia boss Salvatore Maranzano. Maranzano was even murdered in the building in 1931 by his own underlings. Clearly, The Helmsley was making a name for itself, and it was only a few years old at the time.

After the mafia murder, things became less exciting for a time. Business was relatively smooth, with the exception of the depression. However, the trains were still running during that time, so The Helmsley survived the trauma. During WWII, The Helmsley was one of the buildings that blacked out its windows as a safety measure. This, and the building restoration in 1958, would be one of the last major historical contributions New York Central Railroad Company would make to the structure. This is because the company would be absorbed in a merger with Pennsylvania Railroad in 1968.

Helmsley Ownership and Naming

The building would remain synonymous with transportation though, as it was purchased by the General Tire and Rubber Company that same year. The building was sold again to its current namesake, Harry Helmsley, in 1977. Helmsley was a billionaire, who made his fortune in real estate, specifically in New York. He even owned The Empire State Building for a time, one of the many buildings he had in his possession when the majority ownership stake of 230 Park Ave was sold to his company Helmsley-Spear Management. One of the first things the new owner did was restore the tower and gilded the pyramid roof, as well as the clock above the entrance. “Helmsley Building” was added to the facade once the repairs were completed. The renaming of the New York Central Building was encouraged by Leona Helmsley, Harry’s wife, aka the “Queen of Mean.”

ButtonwoodTree, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1990s, the historical connection between The Helmsley and Grand Central was cemented when a passageway connecting the two was built between 1994 and 1999. The building’s owner, however, would not be alive to see the project’s construction. Henry Helmsley died in 1996 following some murky legal troubles involving his and his wife’s, Leona, finances. These troubles didn’t seem to bother Leona too much, though, as she assumed control of the building until 1998. Though the Helmsleys no longer owned the building, that’s not where the story ends.

Helmsley Building Most Recent Ownership

Max Capital Management bought The Helmsley in 1998, part of the deal being that they weren’t allowed to rename it. Yet another restoration happened immediately after, though Max Capital didn’t own the building for very long once it was done. It was then owned by Istithmar, then Goldman Sachs, and then finally to RXR Realty, the building’s current owner. That’s a lot of different owners for a 20-year time span. Though some of this might be due to the building’s difficult, and puzzling, maintenance. 

Helmsley Building Today

The landmark status of the building meant some parts of the structure couldn’t be updated. The most complex part of the maintenance is the landmarked elevators, which have to be repainted by a professional every time they need updates or repairs. That said, the constant maintenance has helped The Helmsley achieve greatness, becoming the first pre-war building in NYC to become LEED certified. This honor came to the structure in 2010, and has paved the way for other pre-war buildings to do the same, almost acting as a blueprint for improving the buildings largely responsible for NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Through its illustrious history, many people have had many opinions on The Helmsley. For example, people didn’t seem to like the building when it was first constructed. One critic said it was “one of the greatest steps in the present backwards tendency shown in American Architecture.” That is one sick burn, but it’s not exactly accurate. It’s a marvelous building, which is quintessentially NYC. This is why other critics have called it, “the most remarkable office building in the world.” Either way, you look at it, The Helmsley leaves you with a lasting impression.

Jim.henderson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

New York City is home to some of the finest architecture in the world. Iconic buildings create a beautiful scene in the sky and enhance the energetic feeling that’s already ever-present in the city. The Helmsley is one of these buildings, and its history is as iconic as its facade. From mob hits to blackouts, to billionaire owners, this building has seen a lot. New York history can be a rollercoaster. Buildings get erected and demolished all the time. But The Helmsley, thanks to its landmark status, will be around for a while. It has seen the best and the worst of the city and will continue to play witness to NYC’s future. Hopefully, there will be less mafia murder, though. 

Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528