Manhattan Skyline showing Empire State Building and Bank of America Tower | LivingIn
Architecture Real Estate

Architecture Insider – History of the Skyscraper

November 29, 2018

Skyscrapers are one of the most defining features of the New York City skyline. While the first skyscraper ever built was actually erected in Chicago (William Le Baron Jenning’s Home Insurance Building, completed in 1884 and demolished in 1931), it didn’t take long for Manhattan to grab ahold of the steel-framed high rise design and trademark it as its own. Today, these super tall buildings are eponymous with New York City.

What is a skyscraper?

Defining what a skyscraper is may seem obvious and unnecessary, but the requirements for entering this class of buildings has actually changed several times over the course of skyscraper history. When skyscrapers first began popping up in the late 1800’s, the term referred to buildings that were between 10 and 20 stories tall. These days, some estimates put skyscraper minimums at 40 stories tall and at least 80-100 meters above the ground.

Skyscraper history

A number of groundbreaking technological advances have made the shift in definition and height possible. First, the steel boom in the late 1880’s, spearheaded by the Carnegie Steel Company, made it possible to build frames that could support load-bearing walls. Almost all skyscrapers constructed today are composed of a steel frame and several “curtain walls,” which enable them to go higher while appearing more slender and containing more windows than buildings that are only supported by the masonry of their walls.

Another technological advance that made NYC skyscrapers possible was the elevator. Elisha Otis debuted the first passenger elevator at the New York World Fair in 1854. Equipped with cables, weights, and a safety hoist, his elevator was the first that was functional, safe, and could service buildings taller than a handful of stories. A few years later, the Otis Elevator Company installed the first public elevator in 1870 in the Equitable Life Building located at 120 Broadway, setting the precedent for future high rise buildings all over the city.

New York City’s population boomed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As more and more residents began to call the city home, and more and more businesses sprang up, city planners and architects began looking for an innovative solution to house individuals and companies. Taking a page from Chicago’s architectural handbook, NYC began testing out skyscrapers as a possible solution.

The “first great age” of skyscrapers began in 1900 and ended in 1919, right at the start of the first World War. Dozens of skyscrapers including the Mutual Life building, the Beaux-Arts style Singer Tower, the Early Renaissance style Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower and the Woolworth Building (which was opened by President Wilson) sprang up during this period. In these early days of skyscrapers, many were worried that the city’s streets were bound to turn into “gloomy, darkened canyons,” constantly in the shadows of these mammoth buildings. These fears inspired the first zoning law in America, which was put in place in 1916, and required buildings to “retreat incrementally from the sidewalk as they grew taller.”

Today Manhattan finds itself in the middle of another skyscraper boom. National Geographic reports that before 2004 there were 28 buildings in the city that stood at over 700 feet. Today 13 more have been completed, 15 are still under construction and 19 others are set to break ground over the next few years. With the face of the city in the middle of a massive change, we’re taking a look back at skyscraper history. Follow along to see some of the most recognizable, influential and jaw-dropping skyscrapers in the city!

Some of the city’s finest skyscrapers

View of the Empire State Building and southern Manhattan from the Rockefeller Building | LivingIn

The Empire State Building

20 West 34th St
New York, NY 10001

From its completion in 1931 until April 2012, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in New York City. This iconic building has a roof height of 1,250 feet and is topped with a 200-foot antenna. A common urban legend alleges that the antenna was originally intended as a mooring mast. Airplanes and other passenger airships (like the Zeppelin) would throw out a rope that would be wrapped around the mast and would allow them to be hauled in by a mechanism. Passengers would disembark on gangplank to the 102nd floor, and then head down through the building straight onto 5th Avenue. The mooring mast was never used, and there remains a certain level of contention about whether or not the scheme was even genuine.

Reflections of the beautiful sunset on One World Trade Center, View from the street in Manhattan | LivingIn

One World Trade Center

285 Fulton St
New York, NY 10007

Completed in 2013, One World Trade Center is the tallest building in the United States and the Western Hemisphere, and the sixth tallest in the entire world. Including its spire, it reaches 1,776 feet (an intentional reference to the year America signed its Declaration of Independence). There are 94 stories of usable space inside the tower, and it is primarily filled with offices, restaurants and a three-story observation deck.

View of residential skyscraper 432 Park Avenue in Manhattan | LivingIn

432 Park Avenue

432 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10022

Currently the tallest residential NYC skyscraper and the tallest residential building in the world, 432 Park features 125 condominium apartments. Built on the former site of the legendary Drake Hotel, the building stands at 1,398 feet tall. Many of the units have stunning views of Central Park and residents enjoy access to amenities like private screening rooms, a luxury spa, a concierge and a private restaurant headed by a Michelin star chef.

The Flatiron Building and Buildings around Madison Square Park in New York | LivingIn

The Flatiron Building

175 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10010

New York City’s first skyscraper, the Tower Building, was demolished in 1913. While many of today’s residents couldn’t pick it out of a lineup, they’d have no problem identifying one of its early successors, the Flatiron Building. Designed by Daniel Burnham, and completed in 1902, the Flatiron Building is 20 floors high. The building was landmarked by the city in 1966, but when it was first erected locals bemoaned its odd shape, calling it a “monstrosity” and an “eyesore.”

Taxi cabs driving north in Times Square | LivingIn

One Times Square

1 Times Square
New York, NY 10036

One Times Square was completed in 1904, as the new headquarters for The New York Times. The newspaper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, petitioned the city to change the name of the surrounding square from Longacre Square to Times Square, and “the center of the universe” was born. The paper moved out only eight years later, and in 1995 the building was sold to the Lehman Brothers. Today it’s mostly empty, with the exception of the Walgreens that occupies the lower two levels, and the billboards that cover all of its sides mask the stunning architecture that lies beneath.

If exploring the city’s skyscrapers hasn’t satiated your craving for NYC architecture, check out our NYC architecture roundups and building tours that pay homage to some of the city’s most beloved and beautiful buildings.

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