One of the first structures to be called a skyscraper, the building was completed in 1899 after two years and nine months of construction, one of several new office buildings located on what was known at the time as "Newspaper Row", the center of the newspaper industry in New York City for 80 years beginning in the 1840s. The builder was the Park Row Construction Company, a syndicate whose legal counsel, William Mills Ivins – a prominent lawyer and former judge advocate general for New York State – purchased the necessary property in his own name before transferring it to the syndicate. For this reason the building was sometimes known as the Ivins Syndicate Building.
At 391 feet (119 m), it was the tallest commercial building in the world from 1899 until 1908, when it was surpassed by the Singer Building.
The building is 29 stories tall, with 26 full floors and two, three-story cupolas. It has a frontage of 103 ft (31 m) on Park Row, 23 on Ann Street and 48 feet (15 m) on Theater Alley. The base of the building covers a land area of approximately 15,000 square feet (1,400 m2). The building contains about 8,000 tons of steel and 12,000 tons of other material, chiefly brick and terra cotta. The foundation of the Park Row Building was made of 3,900 Georgia spruce piles driven into wet sand and topped by granite blocks. The total cost to build this early skyscraper was $2,400,000.
The building offered 950 separate offices, each with a capacity of about 4 people. A rough estimate of 25,000 people were thought to have passed through the building each workday. Upon completion, approximately 4,000 people worked there. By mid-1899, the building was owned by the investment banker and subway sponsor August Belmont, Jr. under the name Park Row Realty Company. The first headquarters of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway were located in the building, as was the first office of the newly minted Associated Press.
On May 3, 1920, the defenestration of Andrea Salsedo occurred from the fourteenth floor of 15 Park Row at 4:20 am. He was being held with Roberto Elia by the Justice Department in connection with a series of bombings that had occurred in New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Paterson, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. A leaflet entitled "Plain Words," signed by the "Anarchist Fighters," was found at the sites, and because of an aberrant "S" in the printing, the authorities tracked down the print shop where both Salsedo and Elia worked. They were held at 15 Park Row for 8 weeks with limited external communication. The night of May 3, Salsedo fell from the 14th floor: the anarchists claim he was thrown, the police claim he jumped.
By 2000, plans were developed for a gut renovation of the entire structure. It included converting all floors above the 11th into 210 rental apartments, at a cost of over $30 million. All floors below the 11th were to remain commercial. By 2002 initial renovations and residential conversions were completed. Until 2014, floors 2 through 8 were partially occupied by J&R Music World, Inc. Residential units currently occupy floors 11 to 26, with new units being constructed on floors 9 and 10. The pair of apartments that might be formed by two, three-story cupolas on floors 28 through 30 have not been renovated.
The Park Row Building, situated on Park Row between Beekman Street and Ann Street, extends through the block to Theater Alley with a narrow wing fronting on Ann Street. The principal architectural features of the building are concentrated on the Park Row facade, with a similar secondary facade on the Ann Street wing. The designed facades are faced with granite from the third to the fifth story, and limestone, light-colored brick, and terra cotta from the sixth to the twenty sixth stories. The two lowest stories were clad in metal and glass during the 1930 alteration. The two towers are faced primarily in light-colored brick, surmounted with large copper domes. The sides and rear of the building are faced entirely with plain red brick (with traces of cream-colored paint), punctuated by window openings. Two angled light courts are visible on the south side of the building, facing toward Ann Street. Most of the windows have non-historic replacement sash of aluminum and glass.
The building remains largely unchanged on the exterior, except for a 1930 alteration to the two lowest stories. The present configuration of these floors, with large glass and metal windows and pressed metal spandrels between the floors replaced the original, which featured a central entrance recessed between two large, pedestaled columns.
The Park Row facade is divided vertically into three sections. Each side is fashioned as a continuous pier, faced with rusticated stone punctuated by three evenly-spaced window openings at each story. Stone voussoirs cap each squared window opening. Between these end piers is a recessed center section, five bays wide, which is emphasized by a series of pilasters,columns, balconies and moldings. The numerous horizontal divisions of the Park Row facade are delineated by belt courses or projecting cornices. The first horizontal division is located above the first two stories which contain commercial storefronts and large display windows created in 1930. These lowest stories are seven bays wide with the centrally-placed main entrance doorway framed in black polished marble topped by a slightly stepped design. On the western side are three bays with a central doorway centered between two large display windows. The door is a simple, non-historic glass and bronze entrance and is topped by a canvas awning. On the eastern half of the building, the center bay has a similar door, but it is topped by a plain projecting panel. At the easternmost bay is a recess in the building which shelters another entrance. This is fronted by a large marquee suspended from the building. Above the ground story openings are flat black signs and horizontally-placed light fixtures. Between each bay are double-height metal pilasters topped by gilded panels with art deco-type designs. Each of these is capped by two small, torch-like finials. Pressed metal spandrel panels with inset squares, also gilded, fill the area between the two floors while plain display windows are at the second level. An original, double-height stone pilaster capped by egg and dart moldings is located on each side of this facade.
Above the second story is a deeply projecting stone cornice whose underside is adorned with lozenge-shaped designs, and a frieze with rosettes. The next horizontal section is two stories high and is faced with rusticated stone. Four large female figures stand on huge decorated brackets at the third story .
Another, smaller cornice runs above the fourth story, becoming a balustrade with heavy stone balusters in the center section. Flat paneled stone sections separate the center bays at this level.
Above the fifth story is a large, projecting cornice with a plain frieze. This division extends from the sixth through the tenth stories, with flat pilasters separating the center bays in the seventh through the ninth stories. Small, projecting balconies are located in front of the three windows in the side piers on the tenth story.
At the eleventh story is another cornice which runs across the facade and develops into a rounded, projecting balcony in front of the center section. From the eleventh through the thirteenth stories, and again from the fourteenth through the sixteenth stories are continuous piers between the bays of the center section. Each set is capped by continuous friezes in this center area. A more highly ornamented frieze is located above the seventeenth story, while the side bays at this level are fronted by narrow balconies. Other continuous piers extend from the eighteenth through the twenty-first stories in the center area. Another projecting cornice extends across the entire facade above the twenty first story, with a wide frieze in the center section. At the twenty-second story is another curved, projecting balcony at the center section, while rounded columns separate the center bays on floors twenty-three through twenty-six.
A deeply projecting, ornately decorated cornice caps this facade. It, in tum is topped by stone balustrades on each side with a copper entablature above the center section. Above the cornice of the Park Row Building are its two distinctive towers, which sit atop the pier-like sections at the sides of the facade. Each tower is composed of three fully visible stories, with a fourth story located in the large dome. Circular in shape, the towers are flanked by four solid, octagonal brick piers, each capped by a copper cornice and small dome. Each dome originally had a figure on top which has been removed. These piers divide each tower into four sides, each containing three bays which are separated by engaged pilasters. The large tower domes are pierced by copper-trimmed oculus windows and capped by a copper, domed cupola.
The facade of the Ann Street wing of the Park Row Building is only 20 feet wide. The base of the facade is two stories in height, capped with a cornice. An entrance to the building has been closed, and the large window on the second floor has been bricked-up. Above the second story, the Ann Street facade contains three bays on each story.
Ornament on this facade is limited to a belt course between the fifth and sixth stories, and balconies, similar to those on the Park Row facade, that project from the eleventh, eighteenth, and twenty-sixth stories.
Because of the unusual configuration of the lot and the building, the unadorned brick side and rear walls are highly visible. The north side of the building, which is the largest, contains a number of window openings close to the Park Row facade, but few window openings near the rear of the building at Theatre Alley. The top story of the building, just beneath the towers, has minimal ornamentation in the form of a series of engaged pilasters between blind brick walls. A round, faceted addition for the elevator housing was added above this level in 1940.
The building's south side, visible from Ann Street, consists of a large wall containing window openings, an opening to a light court that is spanned by eight steel struts, and a blank brick wall on the side of the wing of the building on Ann Street. In contrast, the east side of this wing is punctuated with window openings. The rear of the Park Row Building, where it faces Theatre Alley, is also punctuated with window openings, the lowest of which have metal shutters. Where this part of the building faces Ann Street to the south, it contains a blank wall devoid of windows, and an opening to a light court that is also spanned by eight steel struts. Visible on all parts of the red brick walls are traces of the cream-colored paint that had originally been applied to the brick to make it match the limestone facades of the building on Park Row and Ann Street.
The overall public was impressed with the structure, many in awe of its height and mammoth proportions. As one of the earliest of the "modern skyscrapers", it towered at least 15 to 20 stories over most of its neighbors.
With essentially no comparable structures against which to measure the building's strengths and weaknesses, the criticism from the architectural community was quite harsh. The New York Times quoted a critic, who in 1898 wrote in The Real Estate Record and Guide, "New York is the only city in which such a monster would be allowed to rear itself," and called the blank side walls "absolutely inexpressive and vacuous." In a 1908 article in The New York Times, a French architect, Augustin-Adolphe Rey, wrote that "one side of it is an entirely bare wall — what difference does it make how the other sides are treated?" Critic Jean Schopfer called the building "detestable".