#TBT-The Evolution of the New York City Skyscraper

Written By Serena Horrigan | March 31, 2016 | Published in Elegran Insider
Woolworth building and city hall park, new york city 1910s retouched

The Woolworth Building, circa early-20th century 

The 10th annual eVolo Skyscraper Competition was held this week, and the winning design–which is purely conceptual–is bold to say the least. The submission is entitled, New York Horizon and envisions a futuristic Central Park sunken below sea level and embedded in a mirror-walled structure that would create the illusion of an infinite park. It would offer unobstructed Central Park views from the border of skyscrapers encapsulating it.

While the actual excavation and rebuilding of Central Park as a quasi-terrarium will remain the figment of lofty architectural imaginings, New York City’s love affair with the skyscraper is very real, and rooted in the rich tapestry of the city’s history and architecture.

The earliest skyscrapers in the United States were developed during the period of significant economic and industrial growth after The Civil War. At this time, Chicago was in the forefront of architectural and skyscraper innovation, with many of its buildings the achievements of students of the prestigious Chicago School of Architecture. When the city put a ban on building higher than 150 feet in 1892, New York soared to the top in the growth and development of the skyscraper.

Built in 1889 by pioneering architect Bradford Lee Gilbert, The Tower Building in Lower Manhattan was New York City’s first true skyscraper. Though the structure was only 11 stories high, it was so revolutionary at the time that Gilbert was compelled to climb to the top of the building on a windy day to demonstrate to the public that it was safe and sturdy enough to remain upright.

The Flatiron Building was New York's first skyscraper of the 20th century, and though it was never the city's tallest building, the Daniel Burnham-designed structure has always been one of the city’s most artistically unique. The building, named for its resemblance to a flat iron, has remained one of the most photographed pieces of American architecture.

The Cass Gilbert-designed, 54-story Woolworth Building was built in the Financial District in 1913, and the stunning Gothic structure was the city’s tallest building until The Chrysler Building was built in 1930–though The Chrysler Building only maintained that status for one year, as The Empire State Building was built the following year. The Shreve, Lamb & Harmon designed 102-story Art Deco structure is one of New York’ most revered and beloved buildings, and held the title of the world’s tallest building for nearly 40 years.

In 1950, the prolific architect, Le Corbusier ushered in a new era of post-war skyscrapers with his design for the United Nations Headquarters on the East River bank of Sutton Place. The Secretariat was a minimalist rectilinear design, and its 39 stories were clad in a glass and steel facade, a revolutionary feature at the time.

Eight years later, another iconic, minimalist architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, partnered with Philip Johnson to design the Midtown headquarters for the famous liquor company. While the shape of the skyscraper–a sleek, uniform rectangle–was minimalistic, the facade was richly enhanced with bronze-tinted glass, travertine, and onyx.

In 1973, Japanese architecture firm, Minoru Yamasaki & Associates partnered with Emery Roth & Sons to commission two behemoth 110-story twin towers surrounding four smaller structures in the Financial District. Within three years, the World Trade Center was erected–usurping the Empire State Building as the world’s tallest structure, inciting controversy for its scale, size, and disruption of the street grid in Lower Manhattan. In 2014, One World Trade Center was built to symbolic heights–at 1,776 feet and 104 stories; it is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

These days, with the advent of those supertall towers that border Central Park and the ever increasing popularity–and controversy–of the impossibly tall and skinny glass structures, it’s easy to forget that the skyscraper was ever revolutionary, but these iconic structures remind us of the importance and significance of the skyscraper in the fabric of our city.


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