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IBM Office Tower

Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

In 1969, I.M. Pei was asked to design a new office tower for IBM on the site of its former headquarters, a 20-story building on a prominent site at 57th Street and Madison Avenue in New York City – just a block from Pei’s office. The commission came to Pei from Tom Watson, Jr., chairman of the board of IBM, who was also a trustee of the Kennedy Library, which Pei was then designing.

Collaborating with his associate, James Ingo Freed, who had studied under Mies van der Rohe, Pei conceived a pure 50-story form that would have advanced the legacy of glass towers in New York (begun with the United Nations Secretariat in 1947-52 and Lever House shortly after). It would have been Pei’s first important corporate commission in New York, a luminous response to Mies’ iconic dark gray bronze and glass Seagram Building several blocks away.

At his house in Katonah, after returning from a trip abroad, Pei received a call from architect Edward Larrabee Barnes in a splendid display of professional ethics and shameful corporate maneuvering. Barnes reported that IBM, without contacting Pei, had asked him (Barnes) to take over the job. As Pei later learned, conservative executives, worried about cost overruns, withdrew their support at news of trouble with the John Hancock tower in Boston, first with foundation problems and then glass failure. After that, Pei said “we were no longer accepted on Wall Street; American corporations wouldn’t come near us. So, for years, our only work was museums, universities, work overseas. What saved us was the National Gallery.”

Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; James Ingo Freed, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners