Lever House, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois (design coordinator) of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and located at 390 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, is a seminal glass-box skyscraper built in the International Style according to the design principles of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Completed in 1952, it was the second curtain wall skyscraper in New York City after the United Nations Secretariat Building. The 307-foot-tall (94 m) building features an innovative courtyard and public space.
The construction of Lever House marked a transition point for Park Avenue in Midtown, changing from a boulevard of masonry apartment buildings to one of glass towers as other corporations adopted the International Style for new headquarters.
In 1959, the building's design was copied as the Emek Business Center in Ankara, in 1961 as the Terminal Sud of Paris-Orly, and in 1965 as the highrise of the Europa-Center in Berlin.
The building was designated a New York City landmark in 1982 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The Lever House was built in 1950–1952 to be the American headquarters of the British soap company Lever Brothers.
It was the pet project of Lever Brothers president Charles Luckman, who had been identified on the cover of Time Magazine as a "Boy Wonder". Luckman would leave the company before the building's completion to achieve a notable architecture career on his own, including the design of Madison Square Garden, the Theme Building and master plan for Los Angeles International Airport, Aon Centre, and initial buildings of the Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center.
In 1916, New York City had passed zoning laws designed to prevent new skyscrapers from overwhelming the streets with their sheer bulk. It required buildings to have setbacks as they rose, creating a sense of space and allowing sunlight to reach the street level. However, these setbacks were not required if the building occupied 25% or less of its lot, and it was this provision which allowed Lever House, and the other glass boxes which followed it, to be built in the form of a vertical slab.
The building featured a glimmering 24-story blue-green heat-resistant glass and stainless steel curtain-wall. The curtain-wall was designed to reduce the cost of operating and maintaining the property. Its curtain-wall is completely sealed with no operating windows. This meant that much less dirt from the city would get into the building. The heat resistant nature of the glass also helped to keep air conditioning costs down. Additionally, the property featured a roof-top window-washing gondola that moved about the parapet wall on tracks. The curtain wall was fabricated and installed by General Bronze Corp, the same facade contractor that had recently finished the Secretariat Building curtain wall at the United Nations Headquarters.
The ground floor contained no tenants. Instead, it featured an open plaza with garden and pedestrian walkways. Only a small portion of the ground floor was enclosed in glass and marble. The ground floor featured space for displays and waiting visitors, a demonstration kitchen and an auditorium. The second and largest floor contained the employees' lounge, medical suite, and general office facilities. On the third floor was the employees' cafeteria and terrace. The offices of Lever Brothers and its subsidiaries occupied the remaining floors with the executive penthouse on the 21st floor. The top three stories contained most of the property's mechanical space.
In 1982, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Lever House as an official landmark. By that time, however, much of Lever House's original brilliance had been dimmed by time. The building's blue-green glass facade deteriorated due to harsh weather conditions and the limitations of the original fabrication and materials. Water seeped behind the stainless steel mullions causing the carbon steel within (and around) the glazing pockets to rust and expand. This corrosion bowed the horizontal mullions and broke most of the spandrel glass panels. By the mid-1990s, only one percent of the original glass remained leaving the once glimmering curtain wall a patchwork of mismatched greenish glass.
In 1985, the land under the Lever House (fee position) was acquired by Sarah Korein from the Goelet estate. Unilever, the parent company of Lever Brothers, continued to lease the building.
In September 1997, Unilever announced it was moving its Lever Brothers division to Greenwich, Connecticut. Following the announcement, Lever Brothers slowly began vacating the building, eventually leaving Unilever on only the top four floors.
In 1998 the leasehold position was acquired from Unilever by German-American real estate magnates Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs. The Korein/Kleinhans family retained the fee position, and signed a new lease with Rosen's firm, RFR Holding LLC, requiring RFR to perform a comprehensive restoration of the building's facade (curtain wall). RFR negotiated a lease-back deal allowing Unilever to remain on the top four floors. Immediately following the acquisition, RFR Holding announced a $25 million capital improvement program including a restoration of the building's curtain wall and public spaces as well as repositioning it as a multi-tenant property.
The deteriorated steel subframe was replaced with concealed aluminum glazing channels, a state-of-the-art solution in modern curtain wall technology, which is identical to the original in appearance. All rusted mullions and caps were replaced with new and identical stainless steel mullions and caps. All glass was removed for new panes that are nearly identical to the original, yet meet today's energy codes. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the building's architect, also performed the curtain wall replacement.
The renovation project included the addition of marble benches and an Isamu Noguchi sculpture garden to the building's plaza – elements in the original plans for the building which were never realized. In 2003, Lever House Restaurant became the first business to operate as a restaurant at Lever House and later won New York Magazine's Best Service award in 2004. Lever House Restaurant closed in early 2009. As of October 2009, restaurant Casa Lever occupies the former Lever House Restaurant space.
Aluminum producer Alcoa is headquartered in Lever House. As of 2005, the building's tenants included Thomas Weisel Partners LLC, which maintains a trading floor on the second floor of the building. And what was once the building's cafeteria and kitchen is now the headquarters of RFR Holding LLC.
Since the completion of the Lever House renovation, the building's plaza and lobby have been used as a gallery for the Lever House Art Collection. Exhibitions have included such works as Virgin Mother by Damien Hirst, Bride Fight by E.V. Day, The Hulks by Jeff Koons, The Snow Queen by Rachel Feinstein, Robert Towne by Sarah Morris as well as several sculptures by Keith Haring. Tom Sachs' Bronze Collection was exhibited in May 2008; Sachs' bronze Hello Kitty and Miffy sculptures remain displayed in the Lever House plaza as of 2014.