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A Hatmaker’s Contribution to Beautiful Office Buildings

When Edward Knox, son of a New York City hatmaker, signed up to fight for the Union Army in the civil war he was only seventeen and had no idea how this decision would change his life for the worse and then for the better. He joined a volunteer regiment that was composed almost completely of New York City firefighters. Knox once explained that “The captains were selected by their comrades, who seemed to consider the only qualifications necessary for the office were the ability to do considerable ‘heavy swearing’ and to put out fires.” 

These heavy swearing firefighters proved to be pivotal during the battle of Gettysberg, where the unit resisted what is seen as the beginning of the end of the Confederate advance, Pinkett’s Charge. Knox’s battalion suffered heavy losses and In the closing moments of the battle he was shot in the back and paralized from the waist down. He was carried away by a fellow soldier to a nearby church where he was found by his father in what I can only imagine was a dramatic, even cinematic, scene. 

This bit of bad fortune didn’t last, though. Two years later Knox went to Switzerland where he underwent a surgery that would restore feeling in his legs. His heroics were eventually rewarded as well, he later received a Medal of Honor from Congress and was a famous war hero for the rest of his life. Upon returning to his home town with a newfound ability to walk, Knox was confronted by another problem. His father’s business was struggling. The company, famous for its beaver hats that were popular at the time, was in the middle of a costly trademark lawsuit. Adding to the difficulties, the company’s storefront burned down in the fire of 1865. Knox took over leadership of the company and helped it live up to the brand’s motto: Moveo et Proficio, Move Forward and Advance.

Moving forward was something Edward knew how to do well, whether it be rushing into a burning building, advancing against enemy fire, or recovering from a debilitating injury. And move forward he did. Knox hats became known around the world as one of the finest purveyors of hats, even Presidents can be seen with a Knox hat sitting snugly atop their heads. Edward Knox didn’t just sit on the wealth that he amassed from hat sales, he decided he wanted an office and showroom that was as handsome as the hats that they produced. He purchased a plot of land on Broadway in what is now Midtown Manhattan and hired famous architect, and fellow civil war hero, John H. Duncan. Duncan was known for designing Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn, styled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and the neo-classical mausoleum for General Grant now known as Grant’s Tomb. 

Edward Knox liked Duncan’s style, which was taken from his time studying in the Beaux-Arts school in France. He wanted his office building to be similarly adorned, something that was reserved only for residential buildings at the time. The Knox building set a trend that lasted for the next few decades, making offices beautiful. Many of the office buildings that followed are considered the high water mark for artistic adornment of commercial office buildings. It wasn’t until after the second world war that offices would take a more pragmatic approach, swapping cornices and ironwork for smooth glass exteriors. 

Technology certainly had a hand to play in this change, new glass was more energy efficient and more advanced support structures allowed buildings to provide floor to ceiling views. But there was also a cultural element to it. Offices were for people to work in. The cost of adornments didn’t change the way people worked within them. So, office developers took the cost effective approach of stripping office buildings of all but the most simple of decorations.

But now that culture might be shifting. As people need to be enticed to come to the office there is again a case for beautiful buildings, the kind people want to look at, the kind people want to be in, the kind people want to show off. After all, Knox justified his investment as a way to show the world the prestige of his brand. Maligned tech companies might heed the same strategy. Another reason why the Knox building was destined for beauty was that it was in a growing shopping district in New York City. Edward knew that thousands of people every day would reap the benefits of his aesthetic investments. Again, this thought plays into the new work reality. Many companies that are opting to keep their offices want them to be in central business districts, places where employees want to frequent and the original melting pots that can be the planter boxes of future innovation. 

In 1964 Republic National Bank bought the building at 452 Fifth Avenue and converted it for their use. After buying up the adjacent lots they created a 29 story office tower next to it. Rather than overshadow the historic Knox Building the architect, an Isreali named Eli Attia designed the tower to “drape” around it. “’If you take away the landmark, the design won’t make any sense,” he said. “The landmark is the focal point of this design.” The entire property just sold for $855 million, becoming the trophy asset in New York City’s Innovo Property Groups growing portfolio. 

HSBC, the current tenant, is reported to have their lease expire next year. For many offices, upcoming lease negotiations are something to be feared in a world where companies are considering shrinking their office footprint. But the premium price that was paid for the Knox Building and the HSBC Tower shows that there is little concern that the softening market will affect its ability to attract tenants. It turns out that art and a location worthy of adornment has lasting value when it comes to commercial offices. All it took was a war hero to prove it.

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