Plans for what is now the MetLife Building date to 1955, when Grand Central Terminal was proposed for demolition. Developer Erwin S. Wolfson proposed a 65-story tower called Grand Central City to replace the six-story baggage structure (which had by then become an office building) north of the terminal. He revised the plan in 1958, downsizing the tower to 50 stories. The tower would contain three movie theaters with a total capacity of 5,000; an open-air restaurant on the seventh floor; and a 2,000-spot parking garage. This plan was ultimately approved. In July 1958, it was announced that architects Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi, noted architects in the Modern style, would assist Richard Roth of Emery Roth and Sons in designing Grand Central City. The initial plans called for the tower to rise 708 feet (216 m), with 2,703,112 square feet (251,127.3 m2) of floor area.
A structural steel contract for Grand Central City was awarded to U.S. Steel's American Bridge division in May 1959. Construction on the $100 million structure officially started on November 26, 1959. In order to make way for Grand Central City, a six-story baggage handling building was demolished in mid-1960. Foundations for the building were sunk in August 1960.
The floors of the Pan Am Building were constructed in a manner similar to how bridge spans were built. The builders used a process called composite action, in which concrete was bonded with structural steel panels to create a stronger structure. The tower's structural steel topped out in May 1962.
Opening and occupancy
The Pan Am Building was formally opened on March 7, 1963, despite not being completed, and tenants started moving into the structure the following month. At the time, the Pan Am Building was the largest commercial office space in the world by square footage. It was initially an unpopular sight due to its lack of proportion and huge scale: it dwarfed the New York Central Building to the north and Grand Central Terminal to the south, and it blocked continuous views of upper and lower Park Avenue. The building was surpassed in size by the World Trade Center in 1970 as well as 55 Water Street in 1972.
The Pan Am Building was the last tall tower erected in New York City before laws were enacted preventing corporate logos and names on the tops of buildings. It bore 15-foot-tall (4.6 m) "Pan Am" displays on its north and south faces and 25-foot-tall (7.6 m) globe logos east and west.
Pan Am originally occupied 15 floors of the building. It remained Pan Am's headquarters even after Metropolitan Life Insurance Company bought the building in 1981. By 1991, Pan Am's presence had dwindled to four floors; during that year Pan Am moved its headquarters to Miami. Shortly afterwards, the airline ceased operations. In September 1992, MetLife announced that it would remove Pan Am signage from the building. Robert G. Schwartz, the president of MetLife, said that the company had decided to remove the Pan Am sign because Pan Am ceased operations. At the time MetLife was headquartered in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower.
In 2005, MetLife sold the building for $1.72 billion, the highest price at the time for an office building in the U.S. The buyers were a joint venture of Tishman Speyer Properties, the New York City Employees' Retirement System, and the New York City Teachers' Retirement System. In 2015, it was revealed that Donald Bren, the billionaire owner of the real estate firm Irvine Company, held a 97.3 percent ownership stake in the building. While Tishman Speyer remains the managing partner of the property, the company's stake in the MetLife Building has been reduced to less than 3 percent.
In 2017, the light source for the "MetLife" sign at the top of the building was changed from neon to LED in order to conserve energy.
Service to JFK resumed in early 1977 using Sikorsky S-61s. On May 16, 1977, about one minute after an S-61L landed and its 20 passengers disembarked, the right front landing gear collapsed, causing the aircraft to topple onto its side with the rotors still turning. One of the five 20-foot (6.1 m) blades broke off and flew into a crowd of passengers waiting to board. Three men were killed instantly and another died later in a hospital. The blade sailed over the side of the building and killed a female pedestrian on the corner of Madison Avenue and 43rd Street. Two other people were seriously injured. Helicopter service was quickly suspended, and never resumed.
The building remains one of the city's most recognizable skyscrapers. Designed in the International style, the MetLife Building is mixed use commercial and office, with large floor plans, simple massing, and an absence of ornamentation inside and out. The octagon shape and window wall were intended by the architects to reduce the building's perceived sense of scale.
It was not well received by locals or by critics, who viewed the monolithic design as unsuccessful and complained that the building blocked vistas down Park Avenue and toward the New York General Building, and disrupted traffic at street level.
In 1987, a poll conducted by the lifestyle periodical New York indicated that the tower was the building that New Yorkers would most like to see demolished. The building is highly visible. Situated behind Grand Central Terminal outside of the grid, the building, which would have otherwise been tucked away into the city, is left exposed and is a contrast with the other buildings around it, most notably the New York Central Building (today the Helmsley Building). The MetLife Building also partially obstructs the view of the Chrysler Building from the Top Of The Rock.
The Sky Club had been located on the 56th floor of the building. Aircraft pioneer and Pan Am founder Juan Trippe used this club.
On the ABC television series Pan Am, the building was shown with the original company logo.
In the music video for Cher's "(This is) A Song for the Lonely" the building can be seen being constructed and is shown with its original Pan Am company logo, then when the video ends the building can be seen bearing its current MetLife name and logo.
The building is compared to a tombstone in Joni Mitchell's song "Harry's House".
Several pivotal sections of the young adult novel So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane occur in, atop, or directly adjacent to the Pan Am building (with the name adjusted in the later edition when the timeframe changed).
In the Life After People episode "Toxic Revenge", the building collapses after 150 years after the extinction of humans due to corrosion and being weakened from explosions caused by a buildup of methane. Its collapse also destroys the insides of Grand Central Terminal.
^Horsley, Carter C. The MetLife Building, The Midtown Book. Accessed September 30, 2007. "When it was completed, the 2,400,000 sq ft (220,000 m2) building became the world's largest office building in bulk, a title it would lose a few years later to 55 Water Street downtown."
^Schneider, Daniel B. "F.Y.I.", The New York Times, January 5, 1997. Accessed September 30, 2007. "Q. I recall that it was 1963 when the huge Pan Am letters were put atop what is now the Met Life building and that it was 1992 when they were taken down.... A. Most of the letters and the accompanying logos did not survive removal; exceptions are in warehouses.... The letters, each about 15 feet (4.6 m) tall, and the logos—25-foot (7.6 m)-wide globes—had to be cut into sections and pulled up onto the roof by technicians from Universal Unlimited, who built and installed their replacements, the Met Life signs."
^ abSchneider, Daniel B. "F.Y.I."The New York Times, July 25, 1999. Accessed September 30, 2007. "Q. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, helicopters bound for Kennedy International Airport used to take off from a deck atop the old Pan Am Building. Why was the service halted? A. As many as 360 helicopter flights a day were planned by New York Airways after the 59-story Pan Am building was completed in 1963, but a bitter public outcry delayed the first few flights until Dec. 21, 1965.... The operation proved unprofitable, however, since the helicopters carried an average of only eight passengers, and the heliport, which had cost $1 million to build, closed in 1968.... After another round of hearings—and renewed protests—flights resumed in February 1977. Three months later, the landing gear on one of the Sikorsky S-61 helicopters collapsed while passengers were boarding, flipping it on its side and sending a 20-foot rotor blade skidding across the roof and over the west parapet wall. Within hours, the heliport was closed indefinitely."