AD Classics: Lever House / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill


The Lever House by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was one of the first glass International style office buildings in the United States. Located in midtown Manhattan, it was originally the American corporate headquarters of the soap company Lever Brothers. Built between 1951-1952, the Lever House extends 24 stories in height right across from Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, and stands as its own perfect glass box.

More on the Lever House after the break.

The design of the Lever House offsets the tall office tower from the horizontal base. The horizontal base is lifted off of the ground plane by pilotis except for a small enclosed portion, providing a public plaza underneath and a threshold between the exterior and interior of the building. Here, the ground floor has space for displays, waiting visitors, an auditorium, and a demonstration kitchen.

© Emilio Guerra

The entire base that is raised up is the second (and largest) floor of the building. Extending horizontally towards the city, this floor contained the employee’s lounge, medical suite, and general office facilities, and the third floor was the location of the employee’s cafeteria and a terrace. The rest of the floors rising up the building contained offices, and a penthouse suite was located on the twenty first floor. The last three floors of the building contained the mechanical spaces, which on the exterior were opaque, giving a contrast and end to the rest of the tower that was covered in glass.


One of the most important elements of the Lever House is its curtain wall which is made of blue-green heat-resistant glass and stainless steel. Its design had both an economical and aesthetic purpose. Since it was the headquarters of a soap business, the use of an all-glass facade would make the building easy to clean as well as maintain its glimmer on the skyline. A system was created with a rooftop window-washing gondola that was able to move on tracks to clean the glass. The curtain wall is also completely sealed without operable windows to prevent the passage of dirt from the city into the building, and the heat-resistant glass helped reduce cooling costs.

© Columbia University

The building, although designated a landmark in 1982 by the  City Landmarks Preservation Commission, was in need of a restoration by this time due to water seeping into the building and the breaking of the glass panels. By the mid-1990′s only one percent of the original glass remained. In 1998 Unilever, the original company of the Lever Brothers, only remained on the top floors of the Lever Building when RFR Holding LLC bought the building. They hired Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill once again to restore the curtain wall with state-of-the-art solutions in modern wall technology while still keeping the building’s original appearance which was all completed by 2001.


Winning numerous awards, including the AIA First Honor Award, the AIA National 25 Year Award, and the Architectural League of New York Gold Medal, the Lever House is a New York City landmark that has mesmerized people through the years with its modern style that has yet to fade into the past.

Architect: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill
Location: New York, New York
Project Year: 1951-1952
Project Area: 289,584 square feet
Photographs: Depending on the photograph: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, Columbia University, or on Flickr: Emilio Guerra and user44
References: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, Columbia University

This building is part of our Architecture City Guide: New York. Check all the other buildings on this guide right here.

Cite: Perez, Adelyn. "AD Classics: Lever House / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill" 26 May 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 May 2015. <>
  • Levy

    I love the AD classic series. Please keep on posting!

  • archZONOS

    Actually, it’s the only building of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill I can mention as an “architecture’. Now they are making a shi… . Sorry.

    • norm

      what about the beinecke library (yale ), john hancock tower (chicago) and the air force academy chapel?? there are many significant works by som that are worth the mention. you need to read more.

    • David Basulto

      My friend… just wait, we are going to show you some classic gems from SOM very soon ;)

  • ip

    Maybe AD can add some before-after feature, i’m quite confused here, which one is the original building and which one after the restoration.

  • robledo duarte

    Congratulations, the AD classic series will became a classic too.

  • eduardo

    thanks for details and interior pictures too.

  • freud

    A nice building and a nice series – maybe as next project one that isn´t in the US?

    • David Basulto

      Thanks for your suggestion, we are going to think about it.

  • bogdan

    BOGDAN was here!

  • jjjetplane

    please do a piece on 550 california, an SOM gem in san francisco. a REMARKABLE som project.

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  • Orlando

    SOM has to thanks Gordon Bunshaft

  • Kyle McKernan

    The Lever House is an important building in the history of design. It signifies the end of the era of heavy brick, and highly ornamented buildings. Coming out of WWII people and corporations wanted buildings that were efficient. They turned to the strategies that helped them win the war; Efficiency, technology, and mass production. The Lever House exemplifies these ideals, and provided a template in which many other buildings would follow. This template is now called the International Building Style, and while the Lever House was not the first of its kind it is one of the most influencial.