The Rise of the Skyscraper 

A City of Towers 

A Vertical City 

A City of Glass

The Flatiron Building (1902)

"SKYSCRAPERS" is a word used to describe the tall "elevator buildings" of 10 to 20 stories built in New York in the 1870's.  Technologies and inventions of the time:  steel (invented by Englishman, Henry Bessemer, with the ability to inexpensively mass produce it), and the invention of the elevator combined with electrical plumbing pumps, central heating and the telephone would lead to the construction of skyscrapers.   George Fuller, whose company built the Flatiron Building, devised a means of creating steel cages for tall buildings that had "load bearing capacities"  that supported the weight of these tall buildings.

Today's skyscrapers are, obviously, much taller and more massive than the first ones.  Skyscrapers came of age in Chicago with the use of cage construction in the 1880's and the building of the Tacoma Building (1889) by George Fuller.  More  skyscrapers were built there following a devastating fire in 1871 -- the one allegedly started by O'Leary's cow.  Ironically, New York City, today famous for its skyscrapers, had stricter building codes so the construction of skyscrapers moved slower here.  In fact, it was not until after 1870 that buildings in New York City were built above five stories.  

Cast iron buildings were introduced to New York City in 1848 by James Bogardus who actually had a factory at Duane and Centre Streets in Manhattan that produced and shipped cast iron in prefabricated form.  The Haughwout Building (488-492 Broadway), its cast iron forged at the Architectural IronWorks factory of Daniel Badger, was Manhattan first cast iron building to have an elevator.

The Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center towers -- the tallest skyscrapers -- first come to mind when one thinks of "skyscrapers."  Earlier and smaller ones may be forgotten.  The Architecture of New York: Histories and Views of Important Structures, Sites and Symbols by Donald Martin Reynolds lists the following three buildings as New York City's first skyscrapers (all three were either demolished or destroyed by fire):

The New York Tribune building, constructed in 1875 on Park Row, was one of the tall buildings built by city newspapers in an area along the east side of City Hall Park that became know as "Newspaper Row."  The Tribune building stood 260 feet high and was taller than any other structure in Manhattan except for the Trinity Church spire.  Also in this neighborhood were the New York Times’ original building (at 113 Nassau Street and later at 138 Nassau Street & 41 Park Row) and the New York World building (built in 1890 on Park Row).  Newspaper offices were located in this area to be conveniently near City Hall, the city courts and the city’s largest post office.   

The island of Manhattan is composed of a large amount of mica schist rock, especially suited for the construction of skyscrapers.  As skyscrapers became popular and more and more were constructed in the City, New Yorkers began to worry that eventually the city would be without enough light and air.  Zoning laws were introduced in 1916 after the construction of the Equitable Building (1915) and the City adopted a "setback law"  which required the buildings to be set back at specific intervals (according to the width of the streets at the skyscraper's locations) so that light and air would be admitted to the street.  This law resulted in the construction of "wedding cake" (tiers that get thinner and narrower as the building rises) or "ziggurat"  skyscraper-style structures with stepped towers.  This style was very popular from the 1920s to the 1950s.  

Some of New York City's most noteworthy taller buildings have included:

  • Park Row Building (15 Park Row) 1899, 30 stories, 391 feet
  • Flatiron Building (pictured above) 1903, 22 stories
  • Metropolitan Life Building 1909-1912, 54 stories
  • Woolworth Building 1913, 60 stories
  • Equitable Building (120 Broadway) 1915, 38 stories
  • American Radiator Building 1923 - 1924 (now the American Standard Building) 23 stories
  • Bank of Manhattan (48 Wall Street and now the Trump Building) 1927 - 1929, 72 stories
  • Manhattan Company Building (40 Wall Street) 1929
  • City Bank-Farmers Trust Building (Exchange Place at Beaver, Hanover and William Streets) 1930 - 1931, 59 stories (planned in 1929 as the world's tallest building) 
  • Chanin Building (122 W. 42nd Street) 1927 - 1929, 56 stories
  • Chrysler Building 1930, 77 stories
  • Empire State Building 1931, 102 stories
  • Rockefeller Center 1931 
  • American International Building 1932
  • United Nations Building 1948
  • Lever House (390 Park Avenue) 1950 - 1952
  • Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue at 53rd Street) 1954 - 1958, perhaps the best and certainly one of the best of the international style skyscrapers.  It has bronze color steel beams.
  • CBS Building (52nd Street at Sixth Avenue) 1961 - 1965 
  • World Trade Center (completed 1977) 110 stories
  • Time Warner Center 2003 
  • Hearst Building (1928) and glass tower addition (2004).
Designed by architect Daniel Burnham and built from 1901 – 1903, the Flatiron Building (photo above) is 22 stories high and was initially the Fuller Construction Company building; however, New Yorkers quickly named it “the Flatiron Building,” due to its unusual “flat iron”/triangular shape.  The name stuck.  The Flatiron Building is one of the most uniquely designed building in the City (rivaled perhaps only by the more modern Art Deco skyscraper, the Chrysler Building).  Imagine New Yorkers’ reaction to its style and shape in 1903.  Some New Yorkers found it hideous and others called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.  Photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) fell in love with the Flatiron and one of his best black and white photographs is of the Flatiron’s silhouette and helped make the structure world-famous.  Various photographers and painters have captured the Flatiron's image.  Painter John Sloan lived in this neighborhood and the Flatiron is featured in many of his works.

The Flatiron Building is located on 23rd Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.  In the background is a lovely gold-domed building on Fifth Avenue; the front door to the building reads “Sohmer Piano Company” although it’s probably now an expensive condominium.  The original Madison Square Garden was located nearby at Madison Square Park.  

Burnham, the architect of the Flatiron Building, also designed the Colombian Exposition, a worlds fair in Chicago in 1893 which celebrated Columbus' 400th anniversary of the discvery of the New World.  Burnham also conceived the design for the city of Chicago and contributed to the development and designs of Cleveland, San Francisco and Baguio City in the Philippines.  He also designed Union Station in Washington, DC and rethought the original design of Washington's National Mall adding a reflecting pool.  

Mohawk ironworkers from the Caughnawga reservation in Quebec, Canada worked on New York City skyscrapers and bridges including the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the World Trade Center and the George Washington and Triborough bridges.  The tradition of indians working on bridges and steel structures dates back to the mid-1800's when the indians built a bridge over the St. Lawrence River. 

In January 2010 the world's tallest skyscraper, Burj Khalifa, opened in Dubai. in the United Arab Emirates.  It is an incredible 160 story, 2,717-foot building.