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Libbey Owens Ford Headquarters

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1958–1960, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (Gordon Bunshaft). 811 Madison Ave.

Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed the Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company (LOF) headquarters in 1958, using the principles of Miesian modernism to showcase the LOF-manufactured architectural glass that was transforming the American skyline at midcentury. Not only was the tower LOF’s first purpose-built office space (having rented previously), the edifice was the first major office building constructed in downtown Toledo in three decades. Construction on the fifteen-story building began in 1958 and was completed eighteen months later, in early 1960, with New York’s George Fuller Company serving as the general contractor.

The building’s site extends across two city blocks, and it occupies the block closest to the Lucus County Courthouse, one block to the north. The LOF tower sits at the center of its block and is surrounded by a slightly elevated plaza. Originally surfaced in terrazzo, the plaza is connected to the sidewalk by gently sloping walkways. A low-rise, brick-clad garage block separates the building from a surface parking lot to the south. Given the harshness of Toledo’s winters, SOM designed the plaza with a system of pipes that circulated heated oil during the coldest months, keeping the plaza snow free. The plaza itself is landscaped with twenty honey locust trees for shade, along with shrubs, evergreens, and perennials to provide color. Solid marble benches provided places to enjoy the view. LOF even received permission from the City to install custom glass parking signs around the building.

The company that became one of the world’s largest producers of sheet and plate glass in the mid-twentieth century began in the nineteenth century as New England Glass of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a maker of cut glass. After natural gas was discovered in Findlay, Ohio, in 1884, and subsequently piped to Toledo, the Toledo Business Men’s Committee initiated a national advertising campaign to attract new industries to the city. In addition to promoting the “perfect fuel,” this campaign also touted Toledo’s transportation network and the high silica content of its sandstone formations, which meant it could be used in the production of high-quality glass.

Responding to this solicitation, Edward Drummond Libbey moved New England Glass to Toledo in 1888, renaming it the Libbey Glass Company in 1892. The same year the company arrived in Toledo, Michael J. Owens arrived from Wheeling, West Virginia, to work for Libbey, quickly rising to the rank of supervisor. Owens revolutionized the glassmaking industry by perfecting the technique to use machines in glass production, first for light bulbs and later for bottles. In 1903, with Libbey’s financial support, Owens founded the Owens Bottle Machine Company; in 1929, it merged with the Illinois Glass to form the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, which became the world’s largest manufacturer of glass containers. Owens also made major contributions to the flat-glass industry, improving existing machinery so that glass sheets could be produced in a continuous flow. In 1916, Owens and Libbey established another new company, this one dedicated to the production of sheet glass.

Meanwhile, in 1898, Edward Ford had relocated to Toledo, having gained extensive experience with such glass companies as Pittsburgh Plate Glass. In 1899, Ford opened the Edward Ford Plate Glass Company in Rossford, Ohio, an upriver suburb of Toledo. His factory pioneered the use of an electric overhead trolley system, which enabled grinding and polishing tables to move to the glass, rather than the other way around, thus streamlining the production process. In 1930, Ford’s company merged with that of Owens and Libbey to form the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company.

In short order in the early 1930s, LOF secured the contract to produce glass for the Empire State Building in New York City and also became the first company to produce automotive laminated safety glass for Henry Ford’s Model A. It also embarked on a series of acquisitions that insured its dominance in the field. In 1934 LOF secured the rights Thermopane (purchasing the patents and the company that invented it) and spent the next decade perfecting a technique to produce an insulated window, a glass “sandwich” with an airtight metal seal. By 1951, working out of a new manufacturing facility, LOF was producing windows of a sufficient size for commercial installations. In 1935, LOF acquired Chicago’s Vitrolite Corporation, which produced opaque structural glass in a variety of colors. LOF promoted Vitrolite actively, and during the 1940s and 1950s, it became popular for use in bathrooms, kitchens, and commercial storefronts (both new and modernized).

The company also continued to innovate. LOF pioneered the process of glass tempering, improving the material’s strength through rapid reheating and cooling, introducing Tuf-Flex for commercial doors, doorways, and balcony railings. LOF’s Parallel-O-Plate (1954) was a polished plate glass used in curtain walls; Parallel-O-Grey (1957) was a tinted plate glass used in curtain walls to reduce solar heat and glare; and Vitrolux was heat-strengthened polished plate glass with fire-fused colored ceramic rear surfaces. Beginning in the 1950s, these opaque glass panels were used frequently for curtain wall spandrels.

By the 1950s, having earned a reputation as manufacturing innovator and an industry leader in the production of architectural glass, LOF decided the time had come to create a company headquarters that would showcase its products. LOF management may have been inspired by the well-publicized Toledo Tomorrow scheme completed in 1945 with the sponsorship of the city’s major newspaper. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, and based on his Futurama at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Toledo Tomorrow was a master plan and large-scale model that depicted Toledo remade as a city of high-speed roadways and high-rise buildings. By the late 1950s, when LOF turned to Bunshaft and SOM to design its new headquarters, that futuristic vision was becoming a present-day reality in many U.S. urban centers.

LOF encouraged SOM to use glass boldly and in great quantities, both outside and in. The company wanted a modern headquarters that would serve as an advertisement for LOF’s brand-name products and glass, unquestionably, is the dominant element of the building. At ground level the structural columns of the steel-framed building mark the perimeter and create a covered walkway. A thick concrete slab rests on these columns, creating a visual anchor for the curtain wall that rises above. Pulled back from the perimeter is the recessed, glass-enclosed lobby with a central service core for elevators and utilities. Vertical aluminum mullions run up the entire height of the building, establishing a foreground for the alternating horizontal bands of the windows and spandrels of the curtain wall. These curtain walls are 90 percent glass, consisting (originally) of 1,120 Thermopane insulated window units that encompassed 69,396 square feet. Bands of darker gray Vitrolux spandrel glass, covering 16,560 square feet, were set at the floor level of each story, dividing and complementing the rows of Thermopane.

Each window unit had an outer light (glass plate) of quarter-inch Parallel-O-Grey and an inner light of Parallel-O-Plate, with a half-inch of insulating airspace in between. Factory-built, the Thermopane window units were glazed into place using neoprene gaskets, similar to LOF’s system for securing automotive laminated safety glass windshields (Eero Saarinen demonstrated the viability of this system for architecture at the GM Technical Center). Once complete, the window units were transported to the construction site, where they were hoisted into position using window-washing platforms. Prefabrication and ease of installation saved time and money.

The open plan interiors also used LOF architectural glass products extensively, in doors and office partitions, in wastebaskets and ashtrays. The restroom walls and partitions were clad in Vitrolite. The lobby of the executive floor included portraits of the company’s three founders behind Tuf-Flex tempered doors, while the boardroom sported a Parallel-O-Grey glass screen, a glass coffee table, and a distinctive sculpture made of glass. At nightfall, the lighting system switched on a 12-foot band of light around the perimeter of each floor, turning the building, according to one company ad, “into a towering glass beacon which can be seen from distant points in the city.”

Since the building’s completion, electrical upgrades have been made and most of the original window glass has been replaced with more flexible tempered glass. The plaza was reconstructed in 1977with an improved underground heating system, new drainage, and a waterproof membrane. The plaza was also resurfaced with slip-resistant granite squares. New raised flower beds, benches, and landscaping were also installed.

In 1986, LOF sold its glass operations to Pilkington Ltd., a British manufacturer, and split off its other divisions to form TRINOVA Corporation. The building changed hands several times. In 2004, Hylant Group, the insurance brokerage firm, bought the LOF tower and occupies it today as its corporate headquarters.

References

Barclay, Morgan, and Glaab, Charles N. Toledo, Gateway to the Great Lakes. Tulsa, OK: Continental Heritage Press, 1992.

“Executive Office Building, Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co.” Architectural Record128 (October 1960): 187-196.

Leslie, Stuart W. “Toledo’s Perfect Glass Box.” Timeline25 (April-June 2008): 32-47.

Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company Records, 1851-1991. The Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, The University of Toledo.

Porter, Tana Mosier. Toledo Profile: A Sesquicentennial History. Toledo, OH: Sesquicentennial Commission, 1987.

“Syrup Off the Roller: The Libbey-Owens-Ford Company.” University of Toledo. Accessed November 19, 2018. https://www.utoledo.edu/.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Marcia E. Moll
Richard J. Sicha
Coordinator: 
Barbara Powers
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Data

Timeline

  • 1958

    Built

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Citation

Marcia E. Moll, Richard J. Sicha, "Libbey Owens Ford Headquarters", [Toledo, Ohio], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/OH-01-095-0086.

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