Architect Raymond Hood of Hood, Godley & Fouilhoux was commissioned by James H. McGraw, then president of McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, to design and construct a single building in which to house all the facets of the organization. Prior to construction, the company headquarters was housed primarily in a twelve-story building at 469-473 10th Ave. The publishing company filled the space to capacity and had even added a thirteenth floor to try and accommodate their needs but the building proved inadequate. Additionally, other divisions of the operation were located in the Penn Terminal Building at 370 Seventh Ave. It was important to McGraw to consolidate the organization under one roof. Client Driven Factors: This commission required housing for all the activities of a large publishing company including printing, binding, shipping, editing, and business. McGraw-Hill was a fast growing company that needed flexibility in design that would allow their company’s various divisions to evolve. Hood opted for what was essentially a large loft designed to house all of the company’s publishing functions. The typical floor was simply a large open space that provided flexibility for the company’s varying needs. Elevator banks were in the center and egress and restrooms arranged to maximize light exposure to the floors. Hood maximized light from all directions and at all times by creating the prominent horizontal bands of windows that wrap around the entire structure alternating with smooth, simple, and unbroken blue-green terra cotta bands. The blue-green color that famously envelops the building was considered blue to the architects and green to the client. It was not clear whether this design scheme was an aspiration of Hood to which McGraw did not object, or if there had to be some persuasion between architect and client. Designing buildings of a single, bold color was both a practice and an aspiration for Hood. The site bought by McGraw for the building was larger than the company needed and architect and client both agreed to reserve 130’-0" on the 42nd Street side for future development. Hood later suggested that if he had used the entire site the resulting building would have been low and squat.
The McGraw-Hill building is a thirty-four-story building containing 567,000 square feet of floor space. The building site is situated between 41st and 42nd Streets between 8th and 9th Avenues on a lot approximately 130’ wide by 197’ deep. The main entrance is located at 330 West 42nd St. Setbacks on the north and south elevations occur on the 11th, 16th, 32nd, and 34th floors. Views from the east and west give the impression of a stepped tower, but these elevations are a single plane with no setbacks. Eleven-foot high letters that spelling “MCGRAW-HILL” crown the building, which help to hide the buildings water tower tanks and utility spaces. The building’s four facades are visually composed of alternating horizontal bands of double hung windows and blue-green terracotta blocks. These exceptional and distinguished horizontal bands of glazing and masonry have come to uniquely identify the McGraw-Hill building as Hood’s most innovative—and possibly most controversial—architectural design. At its roots, the exterior was simply a frank reflection of the interior configuration, itself a reflection of the company’s needs. The continuous bands of windows were a functional solution to the need for copious amounts of light, extending them from desk height to as close to the ceiling as building code would allow. Between the bands of windows Hood opted for simple, unbroken lines of blue-green terra cotta. Horizontal curving bands of green and blue enameled steel separated by narrow chrome bars flank the recessed five-door-wide entranceway. The interior lobby is simple and faced in solid green enameled steel panels. McGraw-Hill’s design is considered to be a blend of the Moderne, Art Deco and International Styles.
The 34-story building is a steel frame construction with extruded terra cotta cladding. Federal Seaboard Terra Cotta Corporation in South Amboy, NJ, manufactured the original terra cotta that contained interlocking mortar clinched joints. The crowning sign announcing “MCGRAW-HILL” is composed of hand-made hollow terra cotta blocks. Bands of windows wrap the building with breaks between them reflecting the vertical steel columns. Seemingly endless, these ribbon windows are actually groupings of four double-hung windows with metal panels between them painted dark green to appear uninterrupted. The lower floors were designed and braced for factory use, reinforced to withstand the vibrations and weight of the presses. Upper floors were 12-feet tall and used for processing, clerical and corporate offices as well as additional rentable space.
McGraw-Hill sits on what is now one of the most commercially dense areas of New York, a hub for transportation and business just west of Times Square on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The building spans the block from the north side of 41st Street to the south side of 42nd Street. To the east is the massive Port Authority Bus Terminal complex that extends to 8th Avenue. To the west of the building is the Times Square Station Post Office, which was originally part of the land bought by James H. McGraw with the anticipation of building an expansion at a future date. In 1951, this western portion, which remained unbuilt, was sold and the post office was constructed. Midtown West, now the site of many skyscrapers, offices and high-rise residential buildings, was until recently relatively underdeveloped and considered highly undesirable and dangerous by most New Yorkers. At the time of construction, Midtown West—also known as Hell’s Kitchen—was a low-rise, high-density residential and manufacturing area and its reputation as sleazy and perilous contributed to McGraw-Hill’s long-term isolation. Although separated from the Midtown hustle, west of 8th Avenue offered inexpensive land while maintaining proximity to Grand Central and Pennsylvania stations. Additionally, zoning laws restricted factory functions between 3rd and 7th Avenues. The isolated site ensured that the McGraw-Hill structure would dominate the skyline as it did for nearly fifty years. New high-rise construction in the immediate area of McGraw-Hill over the past decade has ended the reign of the “Green Giant” as the sole dominator of the western horizon line. The New York Times Tower (Corner of West 41st St and 8th Ave) stands to the south at 52-stories though the building is over 800 feet tall, The Orion (350 West 42nd St.) just to the west at 58-stories is separated only by the post office, and plans to develop a tower over Port Authority threaten to all but obscure McGraw-Hill from the skyline.
It was aesthetically important that the blue-green glazed terra cotta blocks be smooth and uniform. To create a smooth surface on the block, ground up bits of terra cotta biscuit were introduced into the clay, minimizing the clay block’s tendency to change shape when fired. The sheer quantity and size of the terra cotta units required for Hood’s design necessitated the use of mechanically produced extruded blocks. An order of this magnitude, at that time, was the most zealous application of this material in architectural history. The rapidity offered by machine-extrusion allowed terra cotta to compete to some extent with similar advancements in metal and glass. Hood’s choice of terra cotta cladding demonstrated that terra cotta was compatible in modern, high-rise construction. However, production at that level also created a far greater margin for error in color variations and quality control. Blocks for McGraw-Hill had to be grouped on site based on their hue ranges of blues and greens so as to make color transitions as seamless as possible. In his design decisions Hood, already a pioneer in establishing a precedent for skyscraper design with the Tribune, Radiator, and Daily News building, further stretched the current perception of how verticality could be defined and represented in a skyscraper. Visually, the building is a layering of floors with repeated horizontal emphasis.
Divisions of the McGraw-Hill Company were originally intended to occupy of eighty percent of the building. The remaining space was intended for office rental. The Skyscraper as an architectural expression still had no definitive form, style, and composition and was still being experimented with and finessed. This form-in-flux is epitomized in the Gothic Chicago Tribune Tower, which is also iconically where Raymond Hood achieved international fame. The skyscraper was also an urban architectural declaration of corporate success and power. The McGraw-Hill Building was both emblematic of McGraw-Hill’s corporate success and the freedom architects like Hood had in skyscraper design. Hood was fascinated by the relationship of color in how we perceive architecture, and was a featured architect in the Architectural and Allied Arts Exposition in 1927. He was quoted then as saying that New York of the future would consist of “gayly colored buildings…enlivened by the drastic change of color schemes.” He believed entire buildings would have one distinct color, not just architectural embellishments. The McGraw-Hill buildings removed location offered a unique opportunity to design a building that would be viewed unobstructed from 360 degrees.
McGraw-Hill is a streamlined building whose aesthetic potency is in its horizontality and use of bold use of color rather than ornamental detail. There are differing accounts regarding who was responsible for choosing the blue-green color scheme. According to the architects, they toyed with practically every color of the rainbow before settling on what they considered a blue schema. The terra cotta cladding was designed to be a darker blue at the base and gradually lighten as the building rose until “it finally blends off into the azure of the sky...” An account of James H. McGraw’s perspective states that McGraw was presented with colored terra cotta samples and that he emphatically insisted on green, above objections from others who were in favor of black with orange trim. In further opposition, McGraw is quoted as saying “There’s too much Princeton around here!” referring to his sons enthusiasm for Princeton University whose colors are black and orange. Halfway through construction, McGraw was reportedly surprised and disgusted by the green building and remarked to one of his associates, “Who picked that color?” In addition to colored terra cotta glaze, the metal windows were painted an apple green color and stripes of vermilion were used selectively throughout the building, such as on the top jambs of the windows. Narrow horizontal bands of blue on every window shade were Hood’s intent to further accentuate the horizontality. Originally, the green color scheme was continued throughout the interior down to the elevator operator uniforms. The color green had been studied by experts was believed at the time to be the most restful for office workers’ eyes. The building has two distinct profiles. From the east or west, the setbacks are viewed as wide broad steps that narrow the building as it ascends. But viewed from the north or south, the appearance is of a large, uniform slab: a classic design of the International Style. As they had for the American Radiator and Daily News Buildings, Hood and Fouilhoux insisted the design profile for McGraw-Hill was the result of zoning laws and economic requirements although these same requirements were at play with both previous buildings but yielded vastly different buildings.
Initial reaction to McGraw-Hill was mixed. It inspired debate not just about its aesthetic merits but also into what style it was categorized. In 1931, the New Yorker called the color “a rather dispiriting grayish-green tile” and disapproved of its horizontality. On the other hand it stated approvingly that the building was “austerely free from any architectural ornament”. Alfred T. North in 1932 wrote: “Lacking all the earmarks of historical architecture, this building is running the gauntlet of criticism.” The Washington Post in 1934 printed “Form Follows Function” in which the author writes that McGraw-Hill and its clean-cut contours is the supreme example of Raymond Hood’s genius and that it is a machine-age building that “was builded for a modern age of glass and steel.” McGraw-Hill is considered an example of the International Style of architecture, as defined by Hitchcock and Johnson. The building envelope corresponds with their principles of volume and of exterior rhythm and regularity reflecting the supporting elements found beneath the façade. McGraw-Hill was chosen in 1932 by Hitchcock and Johnson as the only building from New York City to be a part of The International Style exhibition. It was one of only four buildings chosen from the United States and the only terra cotta building in the exhibition. Hitchcock and Johnson assert that it “marks a significant turning point in skyscraper design.” The concurrently published book The International Style says this about McGraw Hill: “The lightness, simplicity and lack of applied verticalism mark this skyscraper as an advance over other New York skyscrapers and ring it within the limits of the international style…The regularity approaches monotony except for these set-backs, which are determined by legal requirements rather than by considerations of design. The heavy ornamental crown is an illogical and unhappy break in the general system of regularity and weights down the whole design.” As the International Style became increasingly more prominent throughout the world, McGraw-Hill’s importance increased as being the first American example. By 1936, the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company had come to accept and relish this characterization. In the revival of interest in Moderne and Art Deco, historians have also claimed McGraw-Hill as a creation of Moderne and Deco. No matter how you group it, the building revolutionized notions of material use, verticality, color, and simplicity as they applied to skyscrapers. Among architectural scholars, McGraw-Hill is undeniably considered one of the most influential skyscrapers of all time.
McGraw-Hill is one of the most iconic skyscrapers in New York. It bridges the Moderne, Art Deco, and International Styles. It is representative of advances in technology and modern movements toward simple, frank architectural expression. McGraw-Hill stands up as one of Raymond Hood’s boldest designs, expressive of his desire to unite color and architecture.
HITCHCOCK, Henry Russell, and Philip JOHNSON. The International Style. Boston: W. W. Norton & Company, Incorporated, 1995.
KHAN, Hasan-Uddin. International Style, 1925-1965. Los Angeles: TASCHEN, 1998.
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TUNICK, Susan. “The Reign of Terra Cotta in the United States: Enduring in an Inhospitable Environment, 1930-1968”, APT Bulletin, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1998), pp. 43-48.
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“M'GRAW-HILL GETS BIG BUILDING SITE: Publishing House Buys Larkin Plottage in West 41st and 42d Streets. TALL PLANT MAY BE BUILT Property Occupied by Score of Old Houses First Intended for 110-Story Tower”, (1930, May 30). New York Times, 37.
SPECTER, Michael. "A Big Void Left By McGraw-Hill Fills Up at Last: Void Left by McGraw-Hill Fills Up", New York Times, 13 Sep. 1981.
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