United Nations Headquarters


Aerial view of the United Nations HeadquartersThe United Nations Headquarters is a distinctive complex in New York City that has served as the headquarters of the United Nations since its completion in 1952. It is located in the Turtle Bay neighbourhood, on the east side of Manhattan, on spacious grounds overlooking the East River. Though it is in New York City, the land occupied by the United Nations headquarters is 'international territory', and its borders are First Avenue west, East 42nd Street south, East 48th Street north and the East River east. FDR Drive passes underneath the Conference Building of the complex.


The complex includes three major buildings: the Secretariat (the 39-floor office tower), the General Assembly building (where all member nations of the United Nations meet in the United Nations General Assembly), and the Dag Hammarskjöld Library. A small, fourth building, the Conference Building, is situated between the General Assembly and Secretariat buildings, and can be seen only from FDR Drive or the East River. The complex is also notable for its gardens and outdoor sculptures.


The land underneath the buildings remains the territory of the United States. However, the site of the United Nations headquarters has extraterritoriality status like embassies do.


Original buildings on the site along the East RiverThe decision to locate the United Nations near New York City is made in London by the General Assembly at its first session on 14 February 1946 after offers and suggestions for permanent sites have been received from many parts of the world. Following selection of the United States, a special United Nations site committee looks over possible locations during the latter half of 1946 in such places as Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco. While consideration had been given in the first place to areas north of New York City, crowded Manhattan is not seriously studied. But a last-minute offer of 8,5 million dollars for the purchase of the present site, by John D. Rockefeller Jr., is accepted by a large majority of the General Assembly on 14 December 1946. New York City completes the site parcel by additional gifts of property. The photo shows the original buildings on the site along the East River (UN Photo 3334).


Board of Design Consultants composed of architects nominated by GovernmentsRather than announce a competition for the design of the facilities for the headquarters, the UN decided to commission a collaborative effort among a multinational team of leading architects. Wallace K. Harrison of the United States is appointed chief architect, with the title of Director of Planning. To assist him, a 10-member Board of Design Consultants was selected, composed of architects nominated by Governments. The Members of the Board are Nikolai D. Bassov (Soviet Union), Gaston Brunfaut (Belgium), Ernest Cormier (Canada), Charles E. Le Corbusier (France), Liang Seu-Cheng (China), Sven Markelius (Sweden), Oscar Niemayer (Brazil), Howard Robertson (United Kingdom), G. A. Soilleux (Australia) and Julio Vilamajo (Uruguay) (UN Photo 5040, April 1947).


Sealing of the first cornerstone by Trygve Lie and William K. Harrison, 24 December 1949The committee considered 50 different designs before arriving at a decision. The basis for the final design was based on Le Corbusier's design, known as "scheme 23A." Building started on 24 October 1949. On 24 December 1949 Secretary-General Trygve Lie and Chief Architect William K. Harrison seal the cornerstone (UN Photo 23297). The photo from September 1951 shows a window washer outside the newly constructed Secretariat Building. Behind him is the General Assembly Building under construction (UN Photo 36319 by J. Grinde).


Window washer at Secretariat Building, September 1951Bound by the East River Drive (later the Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive) and the East River, it became necessary to build a high-rise office building for the secretariat. The 39-story Secretariat Building was controversial in its time but became a modernist landmark. Its characteristic east-west walls were fully covered with thermo pane glass designed to absorb heat from sunlight, except for air intakes on the 6th, 16th, 28th and 39th floors. The north-south walls are covered with Vermont marble.


Design for the playground at Headquarters by Isamu Noguchi 1952Also designs were made for the playground at the Headquarters. The artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) tells about his design in Art News of April 1952: "The suggestion that I design a playground for the United Nations came from Mrs. Thomas Hess in early 1951. It was proposed that the spirit of idealism and good will engendered by the UN should be matched with a new and more imaginative playground for the small children of the delegates and of the neighborhood. A private subscription was raised for the building, and everybody was enthusiastic about it, including the people at the UN and, of course, myself.

Upon finishing the model and submitting it, I asked Julien Wittlesey, the architect, to join with Mrs. Hess in promoting its realization, as I had other things to do in Japan. That Robert Moses was so opposed to it should not have been the surprise that it was; I thought that this time he would not be concerned, because of the United Nations extraterritoriality. I had underestimated him.


UN Headquarters and flagsThe upshot was that the Museum of Modern Art showed the model in an exhibition in their children's department as a protest, in which the press joined: The playground was killed by ukase from a municipal official who is supposed to run the parks in New York, and who somehow is the city's self-appointed guardian against any art forms except banker's special neo-Georgian. The fact that he had no legal or moral right to dictate the UN's aesthetics was of concern only to the many distinguished educators, child welfare specialists and civic groups who had seen the model and had hailed it as the only creative step made in the field in decades... A jungle gym is transformed into an enormous basket that encourages the most complex ascents and all but obviates falls. In other words, the playground, instead of telling the child what to do (swing here, climb there) becomes a place for endless exploration, of endless opportunity for changing play. And it is a thing of beauty as the modern artist has found beauty in the modern world. Perhaps this is why it was so venomously attacked ('a hillside rabbit-warren') by the cheops of toll bridges." He added later: "Eventually the United Nations had to submit to Moses who I understand threatened not to install the guard rail facing the East River." A few years later Noguchi designed the Japanese garden at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.


UN HeadquartersIn the UN Headquarters there are many works of art that are donated by the member states. Also in the gardens a number of sculptures are placed.


The building and the works of art are frequently pictured on stamps. For the works of art see the special Artwork at the United Nations page. The stamp catalogue is divided into two parts: stamps that have the Headquarters as main subject and stamps that have the Headquarters on it but are issued for another occasion.



Related subjects


Artwork at the United Nations


Inauguration of UNESCO Headquarters, Paris

Inauguration of UPU Headquarters, Berne

Inauguration of WHO Headquarters, Geneva



Related person


Vuchetich, Evgeniy



Catalogue - Headquarters as main subject


Belgium                                                             12 September 1970

Belgium                                                             18 November 2000

German Democratic Republic                              19 September 1973



Catalogue - Headquarters as secondary subject


Aitutaki                                                            18 October 1995

Ascension Island                                                30 November 1974

Austria                                                              25 October 1965

Bangladesh                                                        25 September 1974

Bangladesh                                                        14 September 1985

Bangladesh                                                        24 October 1995

Bangladesh                                                        13 September 1999

Bangladesh                                                        16 September 2004

German Democratic Republic                              20 October 1970

Niger                                                                16 December 1961

Republic of Moldova                                           21 November 1992

Tunisia                                                             10 May 1971

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics                      20 June 1975

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics                      24 October 1985









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last revised: 15 August 2010