After many unsuccessful attempts to sell the office building at 51 West 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan, the time has finally come for the landmark to change hands – for the first time ever. ViacomCBS recently announced it is selling the CBS Building, otherwise known as the Black Rock, to Harbor Group, for a price tag of $760 million. It’s a sale many years in the making and a fresh start for the iconic tower designed by the late Eero Saarinen.
The Black Rock gets its name from its dark color and somber design. Renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen was tapped to design the new headquarters for CBS in 1961, and he was determined to make it memorable. Saarinen had worked on several other high-profile projects in the U.S., including the Washington Dulles International Airport, the TWA Flight Center in NYC, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. Black Rock was the architect’s first skyscraper, and sadly, his last. He passed away suddenly in 1961, as construction was still underway on his Sixth Avenue masterpiece. However, the project would accomplish his vision and become a staple on the Midtown Manhattan skyline.
Building an Architectural Landmark
Construction on the CBS Building continued without Saarinen, and experts praised it for its uniqueness. At the time, it was the first new NYC skyscraper to be built in reinforced concrete and one of few to feature an exterior bearing wall instead of a frame-curtain wall. It was also the first skyscraper to feature the same column spacing at the base of the building and the office floors above it. The design was intentional, as the building resembled a single slab of concrete shooting up from the ground into the sky. In Saarinen’s own words, quoted in a 1965 edition of USModernist, “I wanted a building that would stand firmly on the ground and would grow straight up.”
Critics praised the exterior of the construction, and the Black Rock was dubbed one of the best works of modern architecture in the U.S. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote for The New York Times that the tower “is a building, in the true, classic sense: a complete design in which technology, function and esthetics are conceived and executed integrally for its purpose.” The interior of the building, however, was not as well-received.
The same somber design that made the building’s exterior unique did not translate well to the interior. According to critics, it created a dark and unwelcoming atmosphere. The tower didn’t even include any direct entrance on the Sixth Avenue side. Instead, it had entrances on 52nd and 53rd Streets to make the building seem inaccessible. To make the building more tenant-friendly, CBS invested in a $20 million renovation in the early 1990s, adding new entrances and modern amenities.
Selling an Icon: Third Time’s the Charm
From its completion in 1962 until the early 1990s, CBS employees fully occupied the property at 51 West 52nd Street. Then the company decided to start leasing space to other tenants. In 1987, Sony Corporation acquired CBS Records and renamed it Sony Music Entertainment. The new company moved employees to 550 Madison Avenue in 1991, a building that Sony leased. In 1992, the CBS Building underwent a $20 million renovation to upgrade the building’s amenities and attract new tenants. It hit the market seven years later, although not for long. The bids were reportedly too low, hovering around $300 million.
Another attempt to sell the building came in 2000. That year, Viacom acquired CBS, and the new owner decided to part ways with the Black Rock, asking $370 million. However, following the 9/11 attacks and Viacom’s requirement that the deal include purchasing its headquarters at 1515 Broadway, no buyer emerged. According to Bloomberg, Viacom planned to sell 1515 Broadway to a buyer that would then swap it for cash and the CBS Building, thus avoiding paying taxes on the sale.
Viacom and CBS split in 2006, and the Black Rock returned to its original owner. However, it was not the end of the road as the two companies merged again in 2019, forming ViacomCBS. New CEO Bob Bakish revealed plans to sell the landmark, but they were again thwarted as the Covid19 pandemic struck New York in March 2020.
Now, it seems like the sale of the CBS Building is finally underway. Harbor Group is reportedly the next owner of the landmark office tower, and the company is paying $760 million to buy it from ViacomCBS. According to Variety, the current owner will continue to lease back its office space on a short-term basis. Harbor Group also has plans to invest in significant upgrades and improvements at the property to attract and retain high-profile tenants. The sale of the tower should close by the end of the year, with CBRE’s Darcy Stacom and Bill Shanahan representing ViacomCBS.