Sunday, 15 August 2010


At first it was hyphenated (as in ‘sky-scrapers’), and it referred to tall hats, tall men, high flying birds, high standing horses, fly balls hit deep center and the topmost sail on the clipper ships in South Street Seaport. But, by the end of the l9th century (when “...newcomers approaching Manhattan...were greeted by an astonishing sight. Down at the tip of the island, from the narrow lanes the Dutch had laid out three centuries before, the city had begun to soar straight up into the sky”), the hyphen was gone. Just in time, as it turns out, to effect hyphen-less skyscraper wars between Chicago, the nation’s fastest growing city, and New York, its most populated one. 1 No one is certain which was the first true skyscraper, but Chicago’s ten-story Home Insurance Building (l885) is a top contender. 2

In 1871 the Equitable Building, located at 120 Broadway, became the first office building to install an elevator. 3 Tourists rode up and down, marveling at this new technological marvel and at the equally spectacular view from the roof, located an astonishing seven stories in the air.

The thirteen-story Tower Building (1889) just down the avenue at 50 Broadway, was the first New York skyscraper to use skeletal steel construction. 4 Bradford Gilbert, the young, somewhat swashbuckling, architect who was designing the building, explained that it would look something like “a steel bridge stood up on one end.” Predictably though, he and it were attacked by just about anyone who could string together a sentence. (At 21.5 feet wide, it was impossibly narrow.) Critics called it “The Idiotic Building,” and common folk lined up to place bets on when, precisely, it would, literally, blow over. (The owner of the adjacent building had already sold it and left town.) Gilbert, whose confidence was as unshakeable as he thought his building was, leased two floors for his own offices.

“Except for the roof, the thirteen story structure was finished when a hurricane hit the city one Sunday morning in 1889. With gusts of wind reaching a velocity of eighty miles an hour, Gilbert and Stearns (the owner) rushed from their homes to the...building.”

A crowd assembled. Gilbert grabbed a plumb line from the construction site and (with Stearns bringing up the rear) began to scale one of the workman’s ladders.
From the crowd arose screams (and maybe thoughts): “You fools! You’ll be killed!”
By the tenth floor Stearns, for one, had seen enough. He got off the ladder, lay down on a horizontal scaffold and waited for the storm to pass.

“Gilbert...continued to climb the ladder, rung by painful rung, his knuckles whitening with strain and gusts of wind battering him unmercifully.” After he came to the top floor, he crawled along the scaffolding to the corner, took the plumb line out of his pocket and dropped it down the side of the building. After the fact, he announced that: “There was not even the slightest vibration. The building stood steady as a rock in the sea.”

As fate would have it though, in 1913 the Morris Building Company decided to demolish the Tower Building. 5

If you want to see “[t]he earliest, still-standing, true skyscraper in New York” and the most beautiful, just go to the triangle created by Broadway and Fifth avenue at 23rd street. Designed, ironically, by Chicago-based architect Daniel Hudson Burnham (who has a starring role in Eric Laarson’s The Devil and the White City), virtually upon its completion in 1902, the Fuller Building as it was almost never known, became the Flatiron building—thanks to its unique shape. 6 The Flatiron soon became symbolic of the New York skyscraper. Though over the years the Woolworth building (1913), the Chrysler Building (1930), the Empire State building (1931) and the ill-fated World Trade Center (1972/1973) eclipsed it in size, its aesthetics were never outdone.

Al Stieglitz, a photographer, who not only single-handedly invented the gallery attitude, but also took some snapshots of the Flatiron himself that made it the iconic image that it is, reflected that, it “...appeared to be moving toward [him] like the bow of a monster ocean steamer—a picture of a new America still in the making.”
Indeed, it was.


1 Just rising from the ashes of the worst fire in American history, a fire that may or may not have been started by a cow who kicked over a lantern in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn. (What’s beyond dispute is the fact that most of the structures in downtown Chicago were made of wood, and it hadn’t rained for months.)

2 A true skyscraper is a building that employs the new technology of iron and steel curtain wall construction as the element of support as opposed to masonry, with its necessarily thick walls, that devour valuable retail space (meaning money).

3 At the 1854 New York World’s Fair Elisha Graves Otis risked his life to demonstrate the unique fail/safe mechanism that he designed to halt runaway elevators caused by frayed ropes, broken cables or overloaded platforms. Otis, an inveterate tinkerer, had been hired for the World Fair by impresario P.T. Barnum (see JUMBO).

Otis’s startling performance included dramatically slashing the ropes that had lifted him to the top of a shaft with a dagger that an assistant handed to him on a velvet cushion as the crowd gazed upward. When the hoist fell only a few inches and then miraculously stopped, Otis assured the audience down below that the situation was well under control. He repeated the show hourly. Thanks to Elisha Graves Otis, the sky, indeed, was the limit when it came to urban architecture. (Otis would go on to invent the escalator, which he sold to Bloomingdales, Gimbels and Macy’s.)

4 Our sources disagreed as to the number of stories: Some said thirteen, others eleven. We asked Sarah Bradford Landau, author of Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865 to 1913, to chime in and she did that and more.

On Sun, Aug 29, 2010 at 10:26 AM, Sarah Landau wrote:
If you check my and Carl Condit’s book, Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865 to 1913, you’ll see that the Tower Building was basically 11 stories high, but higher on the New Street side (see pp. 161-166). You’ll see that the architect, Bradford Lee Gilbert, does refer to a 13th story, and in our footnote 71 (page 416 of our book), we say that “Gilbert’s reference to a thirteenth story must include the basement and the space within the pavilion roof in his count.” This is as definitive as I can be.

And On Sun, Aug 29, 2010 at 11:24 AM, Sarah Landau wrote:
Oh, just in case you haven’t read it, in our preface to our book on. p. XV, we say that “As a rule we have not included underground stories in our counts; we consider as the first story the lowest to project fully, or nearly so, above the sidewalk. The highest we include is the topmost usable floor, unless otherwise indicated.” Hope this helps.

5 By then the building, once considered revolutionary was obsolete. The tenants were few, and the owners had been forced to lower rents to compete with the allure of the newer, taller, more modern skyscrapers. They could barely meet yearly operating costs. The city, concerned about the ‘mammoth skyscrapers’ being constructed, commissioned a report which warned: “The unlimited liberty to construct to any extent without regards to the needs or desires or neighbors, and often to their direct detriment in deprivation of light and air as well as reduction in rental values, (is) not ...a constitutional right of the property owner.”

6 The 21-story, exquisitely detailed, limestone facade building created a downdraft on what was already a windy corner. It wasn’t long before the word was out. Boys started coming from miles around just to watch the girls skirts blowin’ in the wind—revealing an ankle here and a calf there until the police shooed them away (imagine that), the derivative of the expression ‘23 skidoo’ (maybe).

Allen, Irving Lewis; The City in Slang.
Burns, Ric and James Sanders; New York: An Illustrated Story.
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace; Gotham.
Dupre, Judith; Skyscrapers.
Ellis, Edward Robb: The Epic of New York.
Goldberger, Paul; The Skyscraper.
Goodwin, H. Jason; Giving Rise to the Modern City.
Landau, Sarah Bradford and Carl W. Condit; Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865 to 1913.
Murphy, Jim; The Great Fire.
New York Times; No Benefit in Excessive Height.
Weber, Nicholas Fox; Le Corbusier: A Life.

“...newcomers approaching....” Burns, 230
“The two great....” Dupre, 6
“... a steel bridge...” Ellis, 407
“Except for the roof....” Ellis, 407
“Gilbert...continued to climb....” Ellis, 408
“[t]he earliest...” Allen, 129
“...appeared to be....” Burns, 233
“The unlimited....” New York Times (Nov. 2, 1913)