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Skyscrapers and Tall Buildings

Summary and Keywords

The tall building—the most popular and conspicuous emblem of the modern American city—stands as an index of economic activity, civic aspirations, and urban development. Enmeshed in the history of American business practices and the maturation of corporate capitalism, the skyscraper is also a cultural icon that performs genuine symbolic functions. Viewed individually or arrayed in a “skyline,” there may be a tendency to focus on the tall building’s spectacular or superlative aspects. Their patrons have searched for the architectural symbols that would project a positive public image, yet the height and massing of skyscrapers were determined as much by prosaic financial calculations as by symbolic pretense. Historically, the production of tall buildings was linked to the broader flux of economic cycles, access to capital, land values, and regulatory frameworks that curbed the self-interests of individual builders in favor of public goods such as light and air. The tall building looms large for urban geographers seeking to chart the shifting terrain of the business district and for social historians of the city who examine the skyscraper’s gendered spaces and labor relations. If tall buildings provide one index of the urban and regional economy, they are also economic activities in and of themselves and thus linked to the growth of professions required to plan, finance, design, construct, market, and manage these mammoth collective objects—and all have vied for control over the ultimate result. Practitioners have debated the tall building’s external expression as the design challenge of the façade became more acute with the advent of the curtain wall attached to a steel frame, eventually dematerializing entirely into sheets of reflective glass. The tall building also reflects prevailing paradigms in urban design, from the retail arcades of 19th-century skyscrapers to the blank plazas of postwar corporate modernism.

Keywords: architecture, design, planning, zoning, urban geography, urban renewal, business history, real estate, skyscrapers, social worlds

Technics and Civics: The First Tall Buildings

Tall office buildings were the most conspicuous expressions of American economic expansion after the American Civil War (1861–1865). The growth of industrial cities, the separation of administrative functions from the sites of industrial production, the growing volume and specialization of clerical work, the growth of financial and communications firms, and the consolidation of a dedicated business district in the rapid, if uneven, spatial sorting of the 19th-century city all set the stage for this new building type.

The cast iron facades of antebellum commercial buildings anticipated tall office buildings in New York, where advances in iron framing, fireproofing (with terra cotta and cement), plate glass, and hollow-tile floor arches that bridged iron floor joists coalesced to form the requisite technical conditions. Improvements in heating, ventilation, and plumbing systems were also salient; but the key feature was the advent of safe and effective passenger elevators that made the upper floors of office buildings attractive to the tenants who ultimately paid for them. New York’s Equitable Building (1868–1870) boasted the first hydraulic-gravity elevator to be installed in an office building that, at ten-stories, towered over its urban context: the emerging downtown financial district that the building itself signaled (Figure 1).1

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Figure 1. Equitable Building, New York City, Gilman and Kendall and George Post, architects, 1868–1870.

Vying for prestige, clients, and (ultimately) tenants, rivalry among insurance companies provided that additional element so critical to the rise of tall buildings: corporate self-consciousness. Patrons were keenly aware of the impact an imposing building generated as an advertisement for the company’s financial security and benevolent public image. Architects for the Equitable borrowed motifs from the “Second Empire” style, modeled on Napoleon III’s additions to the Louvre in Paris, which featured steep mansard roofs and baroque neoclassical detailing. The style was already employed in large public buildings, and insurance companies were likewise drawn to the civic iconography. The façade was organized as a stack of attached columns, in ascending order, each stretching two floors to frame double-height windows that flooded interior spaces with light and culminated in a steep roof studded with rounded dormers. A capacious, galleried business hall was provided for the insurance company on the second and third floors. Above the building’s entrance, which led to a vaulted arcade, perched a statuary grouping called “Protection,” featuring a Guardian Angel of Life, the company’s emblem, protecting a widow and orphan. “Second Empire” style insurance company buildings such as this one became common features in the fledgling business districts of burgeoning industrial cities in the years after the Civil War.2

Newspaper companies, also vying for the public’s trust, were early patrons of tall buildings. The Tribune Building (1873–1875), designed by the École des Beaux Arts–trained architect Richard Morris Hunt, culminated with a projection based on a medieval clock tower. In the same year, architect George Post—who worked on the Equitable Building and later emerged as one of the most prolific and influential designers of his day—capped his Western Union building with a campanile in the same vein. Both set precedents for the picturesque towers that adorned buildings for aspirational clients, and by extension (literally), the habit of reaching for higher official heights with a symbolic appendage, mast, or spire that could be seen from all directions. The Tribune was joined by competitors—including Joseph Pulitzer’s World Building (1890) designed by George Post with a great billowing dome—on what became known as Newspaper Row facing New York’s City Hall Plaza. This conveniently served as a viewing platform for an opulent architectural fashion show.

Again, and again, insurance companies translated the liquid capital amassed from the premiums collected by their many policyholders into lucrative real estate deals that housed their growing operations and served as corporate brands. In Newark, New Jersey, the Prudential Life Insurance Company called on George Post to design an eleven-story office tower, completed in 1892. The iron frame building was clad in rough-hewn stone and featured heavy, rounded arches that borrowed from the Romanesque style made popular by Henry Hobson Richardson. The roof was adorned with turrets, conical towers, and elaborate dormers. The building’s fortress-like quality was intended to emphasize the strength and security of its patron; just a few years later Prudential adopted the Rock of Gibraltar as its emblem. Nostalgic on the outside, the building was a modern marvel on the inside, with hydraulic piston-driven elevators, steam heat, running hot and cold water, gas and electric lighting, and telephones in every office—a model of the networked office that came to characterize the tall office building. Most of the space was devoted to large, open floors where the clerical staff processed and filed insurance policies that were printed on site.3

The elevator soon migrated to other building programs and by the 1880s hotels, apartment buildings, and even loft manufacturing and warehouse buildings reached ten stories and taller. The twelve-story Chelsea Apartments (later the Chelsea Hotel) opened in 1885, built as cooperative apartments sold to multiple owners, with cast-iron balconies and Victorian Gothic styling, including a sequence of picturesque dormers. When the second phase of the Waldorf Astoria was completed in 1897, the sixteen-story hotel was one of the world’s largest and most luxurious hotels.4

Skyscraper Speculations

The term “skyscraper” was in common usage by the 1890s, especially in Chicago where tall commercial blocks were an increasingly common building type. Chicago emerged as the leading metropolis of the West by the mid-19th century, the center of a great inland empire connected to New York by the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal, and a far-flung railroad network. Lumber, grain, and livestock at great scale were all processed in “nature’s metropolis.” Tall buildings in “The Loop,” framed first by streetcar lines and then the elevated railroad (1892), called “the el” for short, signaled brisk demand for space to house the offices of railroad companies and other industrial concerns, as well as the legal, financial, and real estate firms that served them. Outside capital joined with local enterprise to push buildings to unprecedented height and scale.5

A major fire in 1871 set the stage for the rebuilding of Chicago with tall buildings. The first generation of post-fire building in the 1870s and 1880s combined masonry construction and load-bearing walls with internal metal cages. The ten-story Home Insurance Building (1883–1885), designed by William Le Baron Jenney, who was trained as an engineer, has often been credited as the first of “skeleton frame” buildings in which the metal frame supported the structure, freeing the exterior walls from load-bearing responsibilities to be attached as “curtains” to the frame. Subsequent analysis (carried out when the building was demolished in 1932) revealed that the dead load was not carried exclusively by the metal skeleton members, which were encased in masonry; certainly, it was another critical step in a collective pattern of innovation. In any event, architects continued to use masonry to brace metal-framed structures, at least until the turn of the century when the steel frame came into common practice. Masonry buildings (with stone or brick bearing walls) could be very tall, but at sixteen stories, the Monadnock (1891) in Chicago achieved the limits of that structural technology. With advances in the production of Bessemer-process steel, large plate glass, and foundation techniques, including the use of isolated footings, architects and builders soon mastered the skeleton frame and the light, “curtain” walls that could be attached to them, eliminating the need for thick, load-bearing walls that eroded rentable space, especially at the lower floors.6

Advances in communications technology facilitating the exchange of information between dispersed locations were equally important to the viability of tall office buildings. Telegraph and telephone connections became ubiquitous and required features. Nonetheless, the profit motive, not the technologies themselves, hastened the development of speculative office blocks in Chicago. The Home Insurance Building included office space for rent but was financed by the insurance company itself. By contrast, the speculative office building was financed by individuals or stock subscription companies that raised the capital and took the risks required to erect tall buildings that would be marketed to tenants. In this milieu, real estate logics prevailed in the emergence of best practices and skyscrapers were designed “from the inside out: from the smallest cell, to the full-floor plan, to the three-dimensional form,” according to historian Carol Willis.7 Large businesses with many clerks and secretaries required wide open-floor plans. But the majority of tenants in speculative office buildings were small firms and required offices of less than a thousand square feet; this appealed to owners because smaller offices could be rented for a higher rate per square foot. Small tenants were also less likely to create large and sudden vacancies or to clog up the elevators en masse. To suit these tenants, the “T”-office—allowing for two private rooms, each with their own window, and a reception area that served both of them—prevailed as the norm. Though electrical light was available by the 1890s, it was relatively weak and access to natural light circumscribed an “economic depth” of each floor plate. Large windows and high ceilings maximized this resource and, for wider sites, light courts were designed to bring light to the interior units.

In one example of a speculative tall office building, Chicago attorney and property owner Wirt Walker financed the fourteen-story Tacoma Building (1886–1889), built by George A. Fuller and designed by Holabird & Roche, one of the large architectural firms that emerged to handle design needs for a range of clients in the booming city. The metal frame was braced for wind with internal masonry walls, and the external, street-facing walls were composed of horizontal strips of windows arranged in canted bays and separated by terra cotta brick. The builders created a public spectacle by hanging the terra cotta and glass wall to the metal frame simultaneously at the second, sixth, and tenth floors, flaunting its non-load-bearing, “curtain”-like attributes.8 At ground level, an entrance passage connected LaSalle and Madison Streets, leaving more room for rent-paying storefronts than a lobby, which was minimal. The building was equipped with electricity, gas, and steam radiators for heat. Sanitary facilities (bathrooms and plumbing) were also an important selling point. Law firms, insurance company branch offices, lawyers, and insurance and real estate dealers made up the majority of tenants, which also included vendors of other products and trades. Not named for a company, the building was given a whimsical name, Tacoma, which was a romantic allusion to the American West (it was the original name of Mount Rainier in Washington State) and the rapidly subjugated American Indian, linking the skyscraper to a majestic natural landscape and to manifest destiny.9

Each skyscraper was conceived, designed, planned, and constructed over a period of time, and the act of building represented its own economic activity. Large building contractors such as George A. Fuller (b. 1851–d. 1900) became experts in steel-framed construction and built up national operations. Fuller was an effective organizer of labor and materials; his efforts augmented the role of the builder by serving as a general contractor that encompassed all of the sub-trades. His Chicago-based company was responsible for the construction of many of the key structures of the time, including the Rookery Building (1888) and the Monadnock Building (1891). The demands of constructing large office buildings also hastened the emergence of the architectural firm as a large organization in its own right, equipped to handle large and complicated design and engineering projects. Examples included Holabird & Roche, Adler & Sullivan, and Burnham & Root—the first name usually given to the business partner and the second to the design partner. Like any other modern business firm, architects were also in the market for office space. Burnham & Root kept their offices in the Rookery Building—which they designed for speculative builders Peter and Shepherd Brooks—where they oversaw a small army of draftsmen producing drawings on an assembly line for a national practice in architecture and city planning.10

The most impressive of the new skyscrapers transcended the building itself to encompass “a City under one Roof.” With commercial arcades and skylighted lobbies, the architectural interiors competed with facades for visual and emotional impact.11 When completed in 1892, Chicago’s Masonic Temple (Figure 2), designed by Burnham & Root, was the tallest commercial building in the world at 302 feet (twenty stories) and combined elaborate meeting halls for the fraternal organization with speculative office space.12 The internal light court ascended the full height of the building that included six stories of retail and services. The basement housed a two-thousand-seat restaurant. Environments such as this one folded the social functions of the street into the building itself and fused public and commercial life.13 Henry B. Fuller may have been thinking of the Tacoma, the Rookery, or the Masonic Temple in his 1893 novel The Cliff Dwellers that satirized daily life in a large Chicago office building, when he described the “Clifton,” which aimed to be “complete within itself.” The structure both contributed to the life of the street and served as its retreat.14

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Figure 2. Masonic Temple, Chicago, Burnham & Root, architects, 1892 (demolished 1933).

Design, Regulation, and Urban Morphology

Daniel Burnham emerged in the 19th century as the great organizer of large projects, including the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), which established a Beaux Arts neoclassical architectural language as the de facto style to govern a unified assemblage of buildings. The Columbian Exposition also inspired City Beautiful planning exercises in cities across the United States, starting with the McMillan Plan for Washington, DC, in 1901, with Burnham himself frequently at the helm. These plans called for new boulevards cutting through existing urban grids terminating in plazas that anchored a collection of public and institutional buildings in a “civic center,” along with new local and regional parks, and modernized industrial, railroad, and port facilities. City Beautiful planners expressed a broad disenchantment with the uncoordinated, congested, inefficient, and ugly spaces of the industrial city and, by extension, the laissez faire politics and corruption that lay at its root. Images produced by Jules Guerin in Plan of Chicago (1909), written by Burnham and Edward Bennett, made these ideals especially vivid in pastel-hued watercolors of epic new boulevards stretching horizontally across the landscape, lined with mid-rise blocks unified by an even cornice line. Not surprisingly, the skyscraper itself became a focal point of these debates—admired by some as an expression of progressive, civic values and bemoaned by others as greedy, self-interested parasites.15

In 1903, leading architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler identified a “skyscraper problem” in New York. A cacophonous and uncoordinated profusion of tall buildings had “turned the sky-line of New York into a horribly jagged sierra,” Schuyler complained, “and converted the commercial quarters of all our chief commercial cities into gloomy and windy canyons.”16 New skyscrapers grabbed light and air for themselves at the expense of their neighbors. Architect Ernest Flagg, who designed the Singer Tower (1908) in New York, also worried about a city of canyons and ravines and lamented the “wild-Western appearance” of the skyscraper city. He called for even cornice lines with towers, not exceeding one quarter of the total site, set back from the street.17 The human density implied by the skyscraper created its own set of problems, exacerbating traffic congestion—already central to planners’ critique of the central city—and presenting public health concerns, as well. In the 1890s, city governments in Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, among many others, enacted building height ordinances to curb the most aggressive efforts to concentrate office space at a single site. Supporters included existing property owners, who hoped that new buildings would not overshadow older stock, as well as large landowners at the edges of the business district who believed that height limits would spread out land values across a broader swath of the urban landscape.18

In some cases, the cacophony was located within a single façade. Despite the refinement of some of the metal-framed, curtain-wall structures of 1880s Chicago, the World’s Columbian Exposition refueled a tendency toward historicist pastiche. At least one architect of tall buildings took a stand against this impulse. Louis Sullivan insisted that the “the tall office building should not, must not, be made a field for the display of architectural knowledge in the encyclopedic sense . . . that the sixteen-story building must not consist of sixteen separate, distinct, and unrelated buildings piled one upon the other until the top of the pile is reached.” In “The Tall Building Artistically Considered” (1896), Sullivan succinctly analyzed the economic and social forces that gave rise to the tall building, including the growth of urban populations, the increase of land values, the steel frame, and high-speed elevators. “How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude harsh brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of external strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?” As opposed to giving up on the aesthetic possibilities of the tall building, as some architects had, Sullivan offered a solution that accentuated its “loftiness”: “It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”19

Sullivan modeled his ideal attributes for the skyscraper five years prior with the Wainwright Building (1890–1891) in St. Louis, commissioned by a brewery magnate. The building was organized around a two-story base containing storefronts and a lobby; a continuously extruded shaft with recessed spandrels that accentuated the lift of its vertical piers; identical windows for each office, plainly expressing their repetitive nature; and a thick, protruding cornice to resolve the figure and to contain the building’s attic and mechanical functions. Interwoven into this exquisitely proportioned composition, Sullivan interlaced ornamental foliating motifs along the frieze of the cornice and gracing each window spandrel. The piers themselves terminated in abstracted reliefs of Corinthian capitals, a subtle reference to neoclassicism. Blending the naturalistic and the formal, Sullivan rebutted the critique of modern capitalism to convey a “benign image of modern commerce.”20

For the Schlesinger and Mayer department store in Chicago (later Carson, Pirie Scott, and now the Sullivan Center), Louis Sullivan asserted the mercantile emporium as a civic presence by wrapping the “World’s Busiest Corner” with ornate wrought-iron ornament in his signature organic patterns and carrying the decoration across the top of the second floor, a private endowment to the public street and a lure to potential consumers. Meanwhile, above, a crisp white grid of uniform “Chicago windows”—a large, fixed pane in the center with two operable double sash windows on each side—would later inspire avatars of modernism such as Sigfried Giedion. The Swiss art historian dismissed Sullivan’s ornament as a concession to his clients. If, however, as Sullivan claimed, “form ever follows function,” certainly there were merchandising functions to eye-catching ornament.21

Sullivan expressed an elegant if dissenting note to the national trend toward a baroque and bombastic neoclassicism, heavy and ponderous, as the United States lumbered into the 20th century as its heir apparent. In Chicago, where height limits were established in 1893—perfectly timed with the vision of order advanced by the Columbian Exposition and reasserted in the Plan of Chicago, and also aligned with acceptance of the skeleton steel-frame, reducing technical limitations to achieving great height—tall buildings took the form of a “massive palazzo type” organized as a hollow square on a large block reaching either sixteen or twenty stories, depending on the prevailing ordinance, with offices on the perimeter and again lining the internal court. Many were designed by Daniel Burnham’s firm and its successor, Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White. In New York, where there were no height limits, architects adapted to narrow lots to form tall, slim towers. Daniel Burnham & Co. designed the steel-framed Fuller Building (1903), named for the builder, which became known as the “Flatiron” for its wedge-shaped site at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Wrapped in neoclassical detailing and topped with a colonnade and jutting cornice, the structure was instantly an icon of the city (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Flatiron Building, New York City, Daniel Burnham & Co., architect, 1903.

The Flatiron’s location at Twenty-Third Street and Broadway, across from Madison Square Park, staked out a “midtown” district distinct from the downtown financial core. Neighbors included the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which built a palatial eleven-story office block facing the Park in 1893. Growing rapidly, the insurance company acquired adjacent lots and made plans to surpass the Singer Building (1908) as the world’s tallest. Metropolitan Life Tower (1909), modeled on the Campanile in Venice, became the company’s great symbol: the “light that never fails.”22 Met Life Vice President Haley Fiske called the tower “an advertisement that didn’t cost the company a cent because the tenants footed the bill” (Figure 4).23

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Figure 4. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., New York City, Napoleon LeBrun & Sons, architect, 1909–1915.

Beaux Arts neoclassical towers proliferated and the most ambitious patrons built protruding towers that vied for public attention, often drawing from picturesque European models. Ernest Flagg’s Singer Building for the sewing machine manufacturer culminated in a bulbous crown that resembled an over-scaled French hôtel de ville. Madison Square Garden, an indoor arena designed by McKim, Mead & White (1890), featured a tower inspired by the Giralda, the bell tower of Seville, Spain. The forty-story New York Municipal Building (1910–1914, also designed by McKim, Mead & White), also borrowed this motif and the Giralda was echoed again in Chicago’s Wrigley Building (1920, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White). Richard Schmidt designed a Venetian-style tower building for Montgomery Ward in Chicago (1899) and in Seattle, typewriter magnate L. C. Smith built the tallest tower in the West along the same lines—it was also part of Smith’s effort to prevent the northward flow of the business district. Universities with Beaux Arts campus plans, like the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin, also installed picturesque bell towers to anchor the composition. In the 1920s, public buildings increasingly took skyscraper form, from the Los Angeles City Hall (1928) to the Nebraska State Capitol (1922–1932) designed by Bertram Goodhue and known as the “Tower on the Plains.”

The ultimate model of the convergence of private and civic architecture was the tower built by Frank Woolworth as the headquarters of his far-flung empire of five-and-dime stores. Designed by Cass Gilbert with French Gothic styling and soaring 792 feet, the Woolworth Building (1910–1913) was marketed as the “Cathedral of Commerce” and epitomized skyscraper ideals: a great icon, an administrative center, and a corporate advertisement paid for by the provision of office space for lease. The model embodied by the Woolworth Building was that enlightened private interest would produce beautiful and functional urban environments, aggrandizing their patrons and, by extension, the city at large.24

The Chicago Tribune Tower competition, launched in 1922 for a site across Michigan Avenue from the Wrigley Building, exposed a range of alternatives that influenced later skyscraper development. With the intention of creating “the most beautiful building in the world,” Tribune co-editors Joseph Patterson and Robert McCormick embarked on a self-promotional campaign. The event marked a high tide in the role of newspapers in shaping the city’s skyline and was itself a terrific publicity gambit.25 Judges considered more than 263 submissions, including some from European modernists soon to make their presence felt on the American scene, before settling on a neogothic tower with flying buttresses at its crown designed by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood. Aesthetically conservative—at least compared to the avant-garde, functionalist designs submitted to the competition—Sigfried Giedion later dismissed the Tribune Tower as “Woolworth Gothic.”26

The second-place design by Eliel Saarinen, featuring vertical piers and tapered, stepped-back massing, probably had more influence in giving architectural form to the soaring towers of the 1920s building boom, including Raymond Hood’s design for the American Radiator Building (Hood & Fouilhoux, 1924) facing Bryant Park in New York and clad in dark brick accented with gold details that introduced the possibilities of color schemes for tall buildings.27

Skyscraper Zoning and Advent of Art Deco

Tall buildings had long raised concerns that unchecked building practices would leave the business district shrouded in darkness. In New York, the lack of flat height restrictions allowed a number of flagrant offenders, like the 1915 Equitable Building at 120 Broadway with thirty-eight stories that rose like sheer cliffs from the edges of narrow streets. It was one factor hastening the city’s 1916 comprehensive zoning ordinance intended to limit the height and bulk of large buildings by mandating setbacks based on street width and forming an allowable building envelope. The new regulations inspired similar zoning laws in cities across the country and ended the national norm of flat height restrictions. Set-back massing was joined with the emergence of Art Deco styling to produce one of the most widespread and recognizable skyscraper typologies. These buildings were characterized by soaring verticality achieved by recessed window mullions that emphasized vertical piers, decorative crowns, rich detailing in chrome and glazed terra cotta brick, and often lush sculptural programs.28

Art Deco became the de facto language of tall buildings in the 1920s across the United States, in time for a building boom where even small and medium-sized cities began to develop a “skyline” closely linked to the dominant financial, industrial, and social institutions of the town. The Art Deco skyscrapers of Houston and Tulsa, for example, represented the ascendancy of oil and gas corporations that headquartered there in the 1920s. In 1926, the tallest building in Missouri was the twenty-eight-story Bell Telephone Building in St. Louis, designed by Mauran, Russell & Crowell, which featured elaborate massing with neogothic crenellations punctuating each of the seventeen different roof levels and a civic arcade at ground level. Reynolds Tobacco Company (1929) hired future Empire State architects Shreve, Lamb and Harmon to design a set-back skyscraper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In Detroit, the Greater Penobscot Building (1928), designed by Wirt C. Rowland, blended native American and art deco motifs in its ornament (Figure 5). At forty-seven stories, it was the tallest building outside of New York and Chicago. Architect Albert Kahn, already famous for his factory buildings, designed the Fisher Building (1928) in Detroit’s emerging midtown location (later known as New Center) for the company that sold automobile chassis to General Motors and other car builders. Kahn’s building (the lead designer was Joseph Nathaniel French) included elaborate frescoes and ceiling paintings in the three-story lobby and also featured a 3,500-seat theater with Aztec- and Mayan-revival motifs.

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Figure 5. Penobscot Building, Detroit. Wirt C. Rowland, architect, 1928.

In New York, art deco skyscrapers became a vernacular as well as an exceptional building type. Architects such as Ely Jacques Kahn specialized in tall buildings in this fashion, varying in color scheme and degree of decorative program.29 Ralph Walker, whose design for the Barclay Vesey Building (1923–1927) in downtown New York was among the first to respond to the 1916 zoning law, also came to the fore. A cluster of set-back, art deco towers vied to dominate the city’s downtown financial district, including structures for Cities Services, Irving Trust, City Bank Farmers Trust, and 40 Wall Street.30 At the decadent tail end of the 1920s boom, boasts of the world’s tallest came one after the other. At midtown, close to Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building (1931), designed by William Van Alen, soared to 1,046 feet, seventy-seven-stories and quickly became an icon; its four gargoyle-like eagles were frequent photographic subjects and the public was dazzled by its spire, a sequence of radiating chrome chevrons.

More than fashion statements, the art deco skyscrapers of the 1920s and early 1930s were also finely tuned financial products. The massing of a skyscraper’s steel framework was the result of intricate calculations with factors that included land value, cost of labor and materials, projected rentable area, office planning, and expected demand. Real estate consultants wrote treatises on the topic, concluding that the “economic height” of a modern office building was not always the limit of the what the site could legally accommodate.31 In other words, as skyscraper historian Carol Willis has coined it: “form follows finance.” One issue addressed the size of the building’s core and how many elevator banks it had to house in order to serve its upper floors without sacrificing too much rentable floor space. Over-speculation became a risk. The Empire State Building, for example, became the tallest structure of its age and the epitome of set-back massing and art deco detailing. It occupied half of a city block, 427 feet long, and the entire frontage of Fifth Avenue between Thirty-Third and Thirty-Fourth Streets, which was assiduously gathered by the developers. The construction, by Starrett Brothers and Eken, was its own well-documented feat of engineering prowess and human daring. But the gargantuan structure was located neither in midtown nor downtown, demand could not meet supply, and it was years before the building was profitable.32

The Skyscraper and Regional Planning

In his manifesto, Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929), architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss rendered a catalogue of leading Art Deco skyscrapers before generating his own speculative images of the future city, an orderly composition of tall buildings with multileveled transport connections. Ferriss identified the Chanin Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Bank of Manhattan Company Building in New York; and the Penobscot, Fisher and David Stott buildings in Detroit.33 He imagined a city of broadly spaced skyscrapers that marked distinct zones for business, science, and arts, for example. In the 1920s, the tall building was frequently mobilized as a key aspect of regional planning. Inspired in part by the rash of new skyscraper buildings, the Regional Plan Association published the Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (published in two volumes, 1929 and 1931) calling for the planned development of tall buildings in the business district to relieve congestion and to redistribute industry and manufacturing to the urban fringe.

Swiss architect Le Corbusier critiqued the New York skyline after his 1935 trip, lamenting the jumble of buildings, the lack of planning, and the absence of visual clarity. He believed that skyscrapers should be bigger and spaced farther apart. In polemics such as Toward a New Architecture (1923) and The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (1929), diagrammatic schemes for a Ville Radieuse [Radiant city] (1924) and the Plan Voisin for Paris (1925), commissioned by a car company, Le Corbusier presented an image for the dramatic rebuilding of cities with massive cruciform-plan towers straddling the ground plane laced with new limited-access highways. The buildings should be lifted off the ground on stilts, recovering the ground plane for human activities and insuring the circulation of light and air.34

Frank Lloyd Wright also imagined urban and regional planning with the skyscraper, mostly in unrealized projects such as his proposal for St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers project for New York (1927–1931). Wright was intrigued by the limitations placed on building by the 1923 Chicago building code that mandated set-backs, and he created a “Skyscraper Regulation Project” in 1926 that conceived a multileveled block of grouped towers. In 1940, Wright proposed Crystal City for a site in Washington, DC, a skyscraper ensemble organized on a massive plinth for car parking and other services. His concept for a pinwheeling skyscraper eventually migrated to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where the Price Tower was built for a local oil company. In his 1935 proposal for Broadacre City, Wright imagined the lone skyscraper in the midst of his prairie subdivision.35

Meanwhile, large hotel complexes anchored downtown development in a number of secondary American cities, reflecting planners’ ambitions for coordinated skyscraper ensembles. The forty-nine-story Carew Tower-Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati was completed in 1930 on land assembled by Cincinnati industrialist and real estate developer John J. Emery and built by the prolific Starrett Brothers and Eken. Hailed as a prototype for the next generation of the mixed-use “city-within-a-city,” the group included a hotel, department store, theater, office space, and parking garage tower for 750 cars all linked by infrastructure and circulatory systems.36 Even more ambitious was the Cleveland Union Terminal project that marked the culmination of efforts by the Van Swearingen brothers to unify the city’s streetcar and passenger railroad facilities while linking their suburban Shaker Heights development to the central city with inter-urban rail, a fact that highlighted the emerging tensions of decentralization. Designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, successors to the Burnham firm, the Cleveland Terminal complex included a hotel, department store, medical buildings, as well as a soaring fifty-two-story tower—briefly the second tallest in the world—which appropriated civic imagery in the form of a crowning tempietto reminiscent of the New York Municipal Building.

Rockefeller Center (1931–1939) was the best-known and most influential of the “city-within-a-city” projects. The development set the standard for a successful grouping of commercial building that persuasively claimed the mantle of civic space. Developed by a private consortium led by John D. Rockefeller Jr., on seventeen acres in midtown Manhattan owned by Columbia University, the ensemble included towers for US Rubber Company, Eastern Airlines, and the Associated Press. An elegant sequence of low pavilions facing Fifth Avenue framed a retail promenade and the central open space featured a skating rink. Presiding over it all was the slim, cliff-like, seventy-story tower named for its chief tenant, the Radio Corporation of America, a strong statement of confidence in the mist of the Great Depression. Rockefeller Center’s design is usually attributed to Raymond Hood who worked with Wallace K. Harrison and a group of associated architects. The complex integrated underground concourses, roof gardens, and art deco design in the statuary and public art. Unified yet varied, self-contained yet porous to the street grid, Rockefeller Center also included an underground parking garage and access for truck deliveries.37

Modernism: From Skyscraper to City

By mid-20th century, the influence of European modernism was felt in American skyscraper design, as émigré architects began to work at American schools of architecture and accept important building commissions. In this way, the first inklings of what became known as the “International Style” made its way to the American city. The Philadelphia Savings and Fund Society Building (1932) was designed by American George Howe with Swiss architect William Lescaze. Here the architects arranged the skyscraper’s spaces as legible, asymmetrical masses and relieved the building of conventional ornament save for the large letters “PSFS” at the top.38 The PSFS building in Philadelphia was among the first to feature a fully air-conditioned and climate-controlled interior. Operable windows nearly disappeared from tall office buildings in the postwar boom, though window blinds have prevailed (Figure 6). The Equitable Insurance Company building in Portland, Oregon, designed by Italian émigré Pietro Belluschi, produced a new image for a concrete-framed building with aluminum window frames and large plate glass windows pushed flush to the frame, giving the appearance of a flat, unornamented slab and a wall full of windows.39 The building included all the modern amenities of a what architectural historian Reyner Banham calls the “well-tempered environment.”40 Le Corbusier contributed to the design of the Secretariat Building, an elegant glass and marble slab that anchored the United Nations campus on the East Side of Manhattan on land assembled by developer William Zeckendorf, purchased and donated by the Rockefeller family, and cleared by the City of New York.41

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Figure 6. Philadelphia Savings and Fund Society Building (PSFS Building), Philadelphia, George Howe and William Lescaze, architects, 1932.

The neoclassical decorative flourishes of the Beaux Arts skyscraper gave way to the reliefs, murals, and metal detailing of art deco towers; by mid-century, emerging design conventions tended to strip all of that away in favor of a more strict expression of the tall building’s steel frame without applied decoration. Urbanistically, the new towers increasingly eschewed the traditional street frontages and retail arcades that marked previous eras in favor of open plazas and austere lobbies, often creating the sensation of lifting the entire building off the ground plane on stilts, as Le Corbusier prescribed. In this way, the postwar slabs were detached objects that created their own contexts.

One of the first and most influential of these new designs was built on Park Avenue in New York for Lever Brothers, the American division of a global soap company. Chief executive Charles Luckman was trained as an architect and went on to a second career at the helm of a large architectural design firm; he claimed it was his idea to lift the building off the ground plane of this choice site, forgoing retail storefronts, and to turn the width of the office block perpendicular to the flow of the street, creating a porous, pedestrian plaza. Credit usually goes to Natalie DeBlois and Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), who gave Lever House (1952) the form of a slab of aquamarine-tinted glass pulled taut across the steel frame. A stunning statement, the building opened up a void in the once-solid frontage of Park Avenue, dismaying some critics who saw it as the beginning of an erosion of the once-tangible solidity of the traditional street.42

In the postwar era, American corporations picked up the modernist aesthetic with gusto, and SOM emerged as the go-to national firm for office slabs of steel and glass. In their permutations on the tall office building, designers experimented with the disposition of the services and elevator core to open up as much of the office floor plan as possible, a technique anticipated by the PSFS building. Window cleaning became its own choreographed ritual and interiors designed by Florence Knoll and others set a modern tone for the open office landscape. Though driven by functionalist aesthetics, many of the postwar corporate towers were luxury affairs, including the Seagram Building, across the street from Lever House on Park Avenue, which cemented the reputation of German émigré Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a guru and avatar of a cool minimalism. Mies came from the Bauhaus to the Illinois Institute of Technology where he designed a campus of steel and glass pavilions in the 1940s. Working on the Seagram Building with Philip Johnson, Mies set the bronze, “whiskey-colored” tower back on its lot to create a now-iconic plaza and indulged in a peculiarly modern form of ornamentation: thin steel I-beams that were attached to the vertical piers to simulate a guileless expression of the building’s structure. Also included in the building was the Four Seasons restaurant, a restrained composition of rich materials.43

Postwar Decentralization and Renewal

Despite a number of high-profile investments, the “specter of decentralization” haunted cities in postwar America as some corporations moved their headquarters to the suburbs where they commissioned low-rise campuses.44 Even as they sponsored many of the emerging suburban landscapes, insurance companies were also among the first to invest in urban real estate in the postwar era, erecting tall buildings to house headquarters and branch offices. Between 1948 and 1955, Newark-based Prudential built a series of regional home offices as part of a comprehensive plan for corporate decentralization. In Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Houston, Minneapolis, and Chicago, each office complex was guided by a consistent strategy to retain the iconic tower—always with Prudential spelled across the top. But the complexes were located on a large site outside of downtown where Prudential built a midtown campus that set the stage for a multinucleated urban structure.

Prudential sparked a postwar building boom in Chicago, opening the forty-one-story Mid-Western Home Office in 1952. The structure was the first air-rights project over the Illinois Central Railroad yards and terminal, new territory for the business district, and initiated the broader redevelopment of the “Illinois Center” buildings. In Boston, Prudential sponsored a sprawling mixed-used redevelopment of another railyard site. The fifty-two-story Prudential tower, then the tallest in Boston, along with a hotel, shopping plaza, and public auditorium, was dedicated in 1965 with residential towers and additional office towers to follow, anchoring a midtown office district in the Back Bay (Figure 7).45

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Figure 7. Prudential Center, Boston, Charles Luckman & Associates, architects, 1965.

Insurance companies proved reliable financiers of large central city redevelopment projects. In Pittsburgh, Equitable backed the Gateway Center, a trio of cruciform-plan towers that resembled a Le Corbusier model, in the “Golden Triangle” at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers where a cleared Point Park was threaded with new highways. In postwar Pittsburgh, the Aluminum Corporation of America (Alcoa) and US Steel both built new skyscrapers that reaffirmed their faith in Pittsburgh as a headquarters city, encouraged by financier and philanthropist Richard King Mellon and his advocacy of the “Pittsburgh Renaissance.” Seizing the opportunity to advertise their products, Alcoa constructed an all-aluminum tower and US Steel showcased an exposed grid of steel trusses.

Influential and sometimes flamboyant real estate developers took center stage as impresarios of large redevelopment projects, such as William Zeckendorf of the Webb & Knapp Co.46 Frequently working with architect I. M. Pei, Zeckendorf advanced a series of projects like the Mile High Center in Denver and Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia. Tall apartment buildings were constructed in New York and Chicago in the early 20th century; but it was not until the postwar period that developers began to experiment with very tall residential structures, advancing new visions for urban living. With Marina City, Bertrand Goldberg attempted to lure middle-class suburbanites back to the city in a condominium development with first-rate amenities, another mixed used “city-within-a-city.” The twin “corn-cob”-shaped towers, each sixty-five-stories tall with the first nineteen-story spiral ramp given over to car parking and wedge-shaped residential units arrayed around its core.47

Pairing with real estate developer Herbert Greenwald, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed a pair of Lake Shore Drive towers (1951), an extension of the “Gold Coast” area of prewar tall apartment buildings. Greenwald again hired Mies, with urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, to design Lafayette Place for an urban renewal site adjacent to downtown Detroit, where towering apartment slabs mixed with an ensemble of low-rise garden apartments. By the late 1950s, less well-funded residential towers were built as segregated housing estates by local authorities across the country, places like Pruitt-Igoe (1954) in St. Louis and Cabrini Green Homes (1942–1962) in Chicago. In the following generation, planners came to rue these projects and the concentrations of poverty they implied. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe began as early as 1972, and it was taken as a strong indication that the spatial tactics of modernist urbanism had run their course. In New York, a number of Title I slum clearance projects resulted in high-rise public housing estates, a trend that many other cities followed in the 1950s and 1960s.48

The public sector also sponsored urban redevelopment projects for their own administrative purposes, frequently organized around skyscrapers. Mies van der Rohe, for example, designed the Federal Center in Chicago as two black slabs framing a plaza with a low-slung post office building, also made of black steel and massive sheets of glass: it also featured a high-arching sculpture of a “flamingo” made of bright red steel and designed by Alexander Calder. Walter Gropius and The Architects Collaborate (TAC) designed the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston (1966), two offset twenty-six-story towers made of pre-cast concrete panels, as part of a broader Government Center urban redevelopment project. Perhaps the most impressive of these public estates was built in Albany by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the State of New York as an urban redevelopment project: The Empire State Center comprised a suite of reinforced concrete towers, clad in stone, including the fourty-four-story Corning Tower, arranged on a massive plaza and designed by Wallace K. Harrison.

The Rockefeller family was also responsible for key investments in New York City, including a 1960s expansion of Rockefeller Center with new towers on Sixth Avenue and an effort to rejuvenate lower Manhattan as a premier banking and financial district with the Chase Manhattan Bank (1961, sixty stories, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), which featured a large sculpture by Jean Dubuffet and a sunken plaza designed by Isamu Noguchi. After a new zoning law in 1961, New York builders took advantage of floor bonuses in exchange for the provision of public plazas; some were useful, others willfully alienating. Through the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association, David Rockefeller was also involved as an advocate for the World Trade Center (1973), twin 110-story towers built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on a sixteen-acre urban redevelopment site in what had been “Radio Row” but dismissed as a “commercial slum.”49

By the middle of the 1960s, the public reception of modernist towers could be ambiguous as popular taste confronted modernist aesthetics and its implications for urban form. Working with Pietro Belluschi and the Architects Collaborative, Walter Gropius produced a tower for the New York Central Railroad that sought to capitalize on its midtown properties during a downturn for the railroad business. The fifty-nine-story Pan-Am Building (since renamed Met Life) opened in 1963. Despite its canted, “lozenge”-shaped plan, an effort to deflect its massiveness, the building, clad in pre-cast concrete panels, accentuated a kind of brutalism that was tough and dismissive to the street and insensitive to its own urban dynamics.50

New Urban Forms

With the harbinger of the Pan-Am Building in the late 1960s, austerity in skyscraper design gave way to bolder forms like the Knights of Columbus building in New Haven (1969), designed for the international headquarters of a Catholic fraternal organization-cum-insurance company, with exposed corten steel girders bridging monumental, cylindrical concrete towers clad in a rust-colored tile. Architect Kevin Roche achieved large open floor spaces by distributing service functions to the four corner towers, reducing the bulk of the central elevator core.

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Figure 8. Transamerica Building, San Francisco, William Pereira, architect, 1972.

Skyscrapers in the 1970s could be glamorous. There was the trapezoidal, mirrored John Hancock Tower in Boston (1976), built to rival the Prudential Center. And the epic Sears Tower was built in Chicago (1973, now the Willis Tower), a bold, asymmetrical composition of bundled square “tubes.” At 110 stories and 1,450 feet high, it was the tallest building in the world for nearly twenty-five years and the tallest in the western hemisphere until 2014—for what was in 1969 the largest retailer in the world. The Transamerica Building burst on the San Francisco skyline as a tapering pyramid with flared “wings” astride as web of diagonal concrete trusses (Figure 8). In the hot climates of booming sunbelt cities, sealed environments were even more important. The thirty-six-story Pennzoil Place (1975) in Houston, orchestrated by developer Gerald Hines and designed by the Philip Johnson and John Burgee firm, built up the oil company’s image as a pair of twin, pyramidal towers in dark, opaque glass, whose bases were enclosed by a glass atrium (Figure 9). Only with Philip Johnson’s much publicized 1979 design for the AT&T building in New York did “postmodernism” claim the scene as a new design paradigm for tall buildings drawing on historical motifs, but now often oversized and almost cartoon-like. At AT&T, Johnson crowned the structure with a massive broken pediment that resembled a piece of Federalist-period furniture, a graphic rebuttal to the austerity of International Style “slabs” and heralding a new era in corporate branding. Architect Michael Graves set the tone for this aesthetic with a tower for Humana (1985), the insurance company, in Louisville, Kentucky, that featured bold colors and abstracted, playful forms.

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Figure 9. Pennzoil Place, Houston, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, architects, 1975.

Updates on the city-within-a-city concept turned ever more inward and focused on interiorized environments that almost entirely severed a connection to the street that had made Rockefeller Center so effective and urbane. Atlanta-based architect and developer John Portman designed colossal hotel, office, and shopping facilities that were worlds unto themselves with elaborate internal circulation systems and linked to highways and parking structures. Literary critic Frederic Jameson pointed to the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as a paradigm of the disorienting and self-referential condition of postmodernism in “late capitalism.”51 Portman designed major redevelopment projects such as the Renaissance Center in Detroit for patrons Ford and General Motors. His design for Atlanta’s Peachtree Center included a Hyatt Hotel with a vertiginous atrium space that ran the height of the building and exposed, glass-encased elevators that theatrically bobbed up and down.52 Developers felt that to attract capital back to the city in the 1970s, the architectural and urban spaces had to take an ambiguous, if not entirely rejecting, attitude to their surroundings, with plenty of parking to ensure that suburban commuters could limit and control their interactions with the city at large.

A building boom in the 1980s was spurred in part by real estate speculation and skyscrapers such as Trump Tower (1983), designed by Der Scutt, stood for the excess of the period. Privately owned public spaces became even more common, and glassy futurism mingled with postmodern form making in the architecture of Helmut Jahn and Cesar Pelli, for example, who called for three mirrored towers with set-back forms at the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan—designers whose future influence was heralded by the competition for the Humana Building won by Michael Graves as well as a competition for Times Square in New York.53

The tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the struggle to rebuild New York’s World Trade Center led a planning competition at Ground Zero in which the symbolic function of replacing tall buildings was put front and center. Daniel Libeskind’s winning entry used shard-like forms to focus on the outlines of the twin towers, which would become a memorial. By the early 21st century, an expressive techno-futurism that emphasized structural technology came to the fore, including the New York Times building (2007, fifty-two stories) designed by Renzo Piano, and Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower (2006), a forty-six-story tower sprouting from the company’s 1928 building as a futuristic diagonal grid. The latter was also the first major “green” high-rise building and New York’s first LEED Gold skyscraper, introducing another measure of prestige for tall office buildings.

New York continues to lead in tall buildings, and Hudson Yards promises to create a new skyscraper city on the city’s West Side on the air rights of the Pennsylvania Railroad yards. Recent developments have shifted toward high-profile residential developments, like the Frank Gehry-designed Beekman Tower at 8 Spruce Street, developed by Forest City Ratner (2011, seventy-six stories) and including a five-story kindergarten as well as commercial space. The undulating form resonates with the Aqua Tower in Chicago, an eighty-two-story mixed-used residential skyscraper designed by Studio Gang Architects that marks the ascendance of computer-aided, parametric design. In sunbelt cities such as Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas, speculative high-rise apartment towers now spike the new skyline. And New York has seen the rise of super-tall and super-slender luxury residential high rises. On Fifty-Seventh Street in Manhattan, critics bemoan a “Billionaire’s Row,” where skinny towers leap skyward to get views for their elite inhabitants. Building on narrow sites, developers max out the allowable floor-area ratio (FAR) and take advantage of the purchase and transfer of adjacent air-rights to generate these new icons of New York’s uneven affluence.54

While some cities thrive, others have suffered. At the end of the 20th century, Detroit became famous as a site of abandoned tall buildings downtown. In 1999, photographer and social commenter Camilo José Vergara made the controversial argument to preserve some of those buildings as a “ruins park” that would form an “American Acropolis,” a monument to the failure of speculative capitalism. By the second decade of the 21st century, however, some of those towers were being renovated and Detroit mortgage-mogul Dan Gilbert proposed constructing the city’s tallest skyscraper on the former site of the Hudson’s, once the tallest department store in the world that was demolished in 1998 after twenty years of vacancy.55

The Skyscraper’s Cultural Afterlives

The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.

—Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt, 1922

The tall building plays as special role in American history as both a functional and symbolic element, central to economic life and urban development as well as an icon for urbanity that has embedded itself in the public imagination as technological and cultural marvels. From the start, a sense of the sublime was attached to the American skyscraper, a thing both inspiring and terrifying. From their viewing platforms, tall buildings offered new perspectives on the metropolis; and from afar, the skyline symbolized a heroic, cosmopolitan modernity that stood in for the life of the city itself.56 Builders of skyscrapers have always competed with one another for prominence, often producing height comparison illustrations to show how a proposed structure would rank in a pantheon of impressive structures.

No wonder that artists have so frequently taken the tall building as their subject. Indeed, tall buildings have alternate lives as visual and literary artifacts. Works of art, poetry, literature, postcards, and advertisements have been central to public perception and efforts to grasp the monumentality, verticality, and symbolic implications of the skyscraper. Exceptional structures were represented over and over again. The Flatiron in New York captivated American impressionist painters such as Colin Campbell Cooper and Childe Hassam, as well as Edward Steichen, whose 1903 photograph of the skyscraper helped advance his claims for the art form. The Empire State Building riveted photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White, who created soaring, disorienting images of the tower and its construction workers; Berenice Abbott, for whom the building was central to her rendering of a “changing New York”; and Lewis Hine, who also focused on the human labor that lay behind the tower.57 Georgia O’Keeffe made a series of paintings of New York skyscrapers in the 1920s that suggested their mysterious and seductive auras.

Indeed, tall buildings captured both the excitement of the growing city as well as fears of its vulnerability. The Metropolitan Life Tower in New York figured prominently in apocalyptic visions of the future and inevitable ruin of city. Filmic representations have frequently used the skyscraper as the site of potential disasters, such as The Towering Inferno (1974), which revolves around a fire in a fictitious 138-story “Glass Tower” in San Francisco; or The Hunter (1980) in which a car plummets into the Chicago River from the spiral parking ramp of Marina City.58 The presence of King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building in 1933 galvanized the skyscraper’s presence in the public consciousness.

Discussion of the Literature and Primary Sources

A significant part of skyscraper literature originates from professional critics, from Montgomery Schuyler at the turn of the last century, to Ada Louise Huxtable, in the late 20th century, who both assessed the search for a “skyscraper style.” A strong tradition among architectural historians emphasizes formal analysis—consider William Jordy’s reflections on the “laconic splendor of the metal frame” with respect to the Seagram Building and other modernist towers—and urbanistic critique—such as Vincent Scully’s discourse on Lever House and the Pan Am Tower as “The Death of the Street.”59

Early skyscraper historians often focused on materials and technology, sometimes identifying in the Chicago skyscrapers the seeds of a modern architecture.60 A range of popular books marvel at the construction and operation of tall buildings, often amounting to celebrations of the building type. Along similar lines are the popular histories of individual buildings, the competition between builders, and the race for the tallest; these books reveal more about the personalities and politics behind skyscraper building.61

Scholarship has moved from debates over “firsts” and discussions around material and technology to rich explorations of the financial, geographical, and cultural dimensions of skyscrapers, demystifying these buildings as products of hard-nosed financial speculation. Architectural historians have also focused on specific buildings in efforts to generate broader analyses of architectural culture, the politics of patronage, and the changing city.62 The literature on postwar urban renewal has begun to take tall buildings seriously, along with the formative role of real estate developers.63

Leading architects such as Louis Sullivan have attracted a wide range of scholarly interest and key buildings such as the Empire State Building continue to fascinate professional historians and the public at large. More than sixty years after it was completed, the Notes on Construction of Empire State Building surfaced, written and compiled in the office of the builders Starrett Brothers and Eken.64 Both Paul Starrett and William A. Starrett wrote autobiographies that chronicled their building triumphs.65

Recent scholarship has demonstrated a sensitivity to the lifecycles of tall buildings, from the symbolic politics of dedication ceremonies to physical and economic obsolescence.66 Social historians have examined the social world of the tall building as gendered workplace.67 Literary studies of the skyscraper have greatly enriched the sense that these buildings played in popular culture, and scholars continue to push the frontier of cultural studies of the tall building. In The Black Skyscraper (2017), for example, literary critic Adrienne Brown exposes another dimension of the skyscraper as part and parcel of the production of race in America.68

Skyscrapers have always played an even larger role than the already substantial facts of its production, and the most persuasive skyscraper narratives will work to place them in a suite of contexts.69 Many resources for scholars of skyscrapers and tall buildings exist, including the archives and drawings of individual architects and architectural firms; the corporate archive of patrons, builders, real estate developers, and public agencies, like urban redevelopment agencies in the 1950s and 1960s. Reports, reactions, and reviews, and perceptions of tall buildings are documented in newspapers, magazines, and journals, including a range of materials searchable through the Avery Index, which includes architectural periodicals. There is at least one museum dedicated entirely to the tall building; in 1997, the Skyscraper Museum was founded in in a temporary space in Lower Manhattan and since 2004 has a permanent home in Battery Park City in the ground-floor of a thirty-eight-story condominium tower.70

Further Reading

Abramson, Daniel. Skyscraper Rivals: The AIG Building and the Architecture of Wall Street. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.Find this resource:

    Brown, Adrienne. The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

      Clausen, Meredith. The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.Find this resource:

        Condit, Carl. The Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Buildings in the Chicago Area, 1875–1925. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1964.Find this resource:

          Fenske, Gail. The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.Find this resource:

            Fine, Lisa M. The Souls of the Skyscraper: Female Clerical Workers in Chicago, 1870–1930. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

              Flowers, Benjamin. Skyscraper: Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                Gibbs, Kenneth Tunney. Business Architectural Imagery in America, 1870–1930. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984.Find this resource:

                  Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.Find this resource:

                    Landau, Sarah Bradford and Carl W. Condit. Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865–1913. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                      Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871–1934. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                        Moudry, Roberta, ed., The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                          Rubin, Elihu. Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                            Solomonson, Katherine. The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                              Willis, Carol. Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995.Find this resource:


                                (2.) Kenneth Tunney Gibbs, Business Architectural Imagery in America, 1870–1930 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984); and Winston Weisman, “A New View of Skyscraper History,” The Rise of An American Architecture, ed. Edward Kaufmann Jr. (New York, NY: Praeger, 1970), 125.

                                (3.) Sarah Bradford Landau, George B. Post, Architect: Picturesque Designer and Determined Realist (New York, NY: Monacelli Press, 1998).

                                (4.) See Ten & Taller; Elizabeth C. Cromley, Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); and Paul Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

                                (5.) William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West; Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1969); and Daniel Bluestone, Constructing Chicago (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 114.

                                (6.) Thomas Leslie, Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871–1934 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013); Carl Condit, The Chicago School of Architecture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1964); “The Father of All Skyscrapers,” Scientific American (May 1932), 291; Rosemarie Haag Bletter, “Invention of the Skyscraper: Notes on Its Diverse Histories,” Assemblage, no. 2 (February 1987): 110–117; and Donald Friedman, “Hidden Intricacies: The Development of Modern Building Skeletons,” APT Bulletin: The Journal of Preservation Technology 43, no. 4 (2012): 13–21.

                                (8.) Robert Bruegmann, The Architects and the City: Holabird & Roche of Chicago, 1880–1918 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 83.

                                (9.) Bruegmann, The Architects and the City, 65; and Robert Bruegmann, “The Marquette Building and the Myth of the Chicago School,” Threshold (Fall 1991): 6023.

                                (10.) Thomas Hines, Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

                                (11.) “A City Under One Roof,” Scientific American, February 10, 1894; and Bluestone, Constructing Chicago, 105.

                                (13.) The Masonic Building was in competition with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which planned an event taller structure designed by the firm of Adler and Sullivan; Weisman, “A New View of Skyscraper History.”

                                (14.) Bruegmann, The Architects and the City, 99; and Henry Blake Fuller, The Cliff Dwellers (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1893).

                                (15.) Wilson, The City Beautiful; Hines, Burnham of Chicago.

                                (16.) Montgomery Schuyler, American Architecture and Other Writings, ed. William H. Jordy and Ralph Coe (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 446.

                                (17.) Ernest Flagg, “Is New York Becoming a City of Canyons and Ravines?” New York Times, December 29, 1907.

                                (18.) Robert Fogelson, Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880–1950 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 114; Mona Domosh, Invented Cities: The Creation of landscape in Nineteenth-Century New York and Boston (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996); and Michael Holleran and Robert Fogelson, “‘The Sacred Skyline’: Boston’s Opposition to the Skyscraper,” Working Paper 9 (Cambridge, MA: Center for Real Estate Development, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1987).

                                (19.) Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Buildings Artistically Considered,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine 339 (March 1896): 403–409.

                                (20.) Bluestone, Constructing Chicago, 143.

                                (21.) Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Buildings Artistically Considered”; and Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1947), 388.

                                (22.) Roberta Moudry, “The Corporate and the Civic: Metropolitan Life’s Home Office Building,” The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories, ed. Roberta Moudry (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 120–146.

                                (23.) Marquis James, The Metropolitan: A Study in Business Growth (New York, NY: Viking, 1947), 174.

                                (25.) Sally A. Kitt Chappell, Architecture and Planning of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, 1912–1936: Transforming Tradition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

                                (26.) Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture, 391.

                                (27.) Katherine Solomonson, The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Harvey Wiley Corbett, “The American Radiator Building,” Architectural Record 55, no. 5 (1924): 473–477.

                                (28.) Keith D. Revell, “Regulating the Landscape: Real Estate Values, City Planning, and the 1916 Zoning Ordinance,” in The Landscape of Modernity: New York City, 1900–1940, ed. David Ward and Olivier Zunz (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); and Norbert Messler, The Art Deco Skyscraper in New York (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 1986).

                                (29.) Jewel Stern and John A. Stuart, Ely Jacques Kahn, Architect: Beaux-Arts to Modernism in New York (New York, NY: Norton, 2006).

                                (31.) W. C. Clark and J. L. Kingston, The Skyscraper: A Study in the Economic Eight of Modern Office Buildings (New York, NY: American Institute of Steel Construction, 1930); and Ely Jacques Kahn, “Economics of the Skyscraper,” Architectural Record 63, no. 4 (April, 1928): 298–301.

                                (32.) Willis, Form Follows Finance.

                                (33.) Hugh Ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow (New York, NY: Ives Washburn), 1929.

                                (34.) Robert Fishman, Urban Utopias of Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1977).

                                (35.) Neil Levine, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

                                (36.) Edward W. Wolner, “Design and Civic Identity in Cincinnati’s Carew Tower Complex,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 51, no. 1 (March 1992): 35–47.

                                (37.) L. Andrew Reinhard, “What is the Rockefeller Radio City?” Architectural Record 69, no. 4 (1931) 276–281; James Marston Fitch and Diana S. Waite, Grand Central Terminal and Rockefeller Center: A Historic-Critical Estimate of Their Significance (New York, NY: New York State Parks and Recreation, 1974); and Carol Herselle Krinsky, Rockefeller Center (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978).

                                (38.) Jordy, American Buildings and Their Architects: The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972), 87-164.

                                (39.) Meredith Clausen, “Belluschi and the Equitable Building in History,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 50, no. 2 (June 1991): 109–129.

                                (40.) Banham, Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

                                (41.) Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

                                (42.) Vincent Scully, “Death of the Street.” Perspecta 8 (1963): 91–96.

                                (43.) Benjamin Flowers, Skyscraper: The Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Phyllis Lambert, Building Seagram (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013); William Jordy, American Buildings and their Architects (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), 221–278); and William H. White, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (Washington, DC: Conservation Foundation, 1980).

                                (44.) Louise Mozingo, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

                                (46.) Sara Stevens, Developing Expertise: Architecture and Real Estate in Metropolitan America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

                                (47.) Igor Marjanović and Katerina Rüedi Ray, Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).

                                (48.) Katharine G. Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education 44, no. 3 (May 1991): 163–171; and Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010); Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Public Housing that Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); and Lawrence Vale, Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

                                (49.) Victoria Newhouse, Wallace K. Harrison, Architect (New York, NY: Rizzoli, 1989); Jerold S. Kayden, Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience (New York, NY: John Wiley, 2000); Flowers, Skyscraper; Eric Darton, Divided We Fall: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999); and Danny Lyon, Destruction of Lower Manhattan (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1969).

                                (51.) Frederic Jameson, Postmodern: Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

                                (52.) Charles Rice, Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman and Downtown America (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

                                (54.) In 2013–2014, the Skyscraper Museum created the exhibit “Sky High: The Logic of Luxury,” which addressed this emerging phenomenon and has continued to follow the evolution of New York’s “Super-Slenders”; “Why 57th Street is the Supertall Tower Mecca of New York,” Curbed, September 25, 2014. For a critique, see Kevin Baker, “The Death of a Once Great City: The Fall of New York and the Urban Crisis of Affluence,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2018).

                                (55.) Camilo José Vergara, American Ruins; and John Gallagher, “Gilbert, Duggan, Snyder Headline Groundbreaking for Detroit’s New Tallest Skyscraper,” Detroit Free Press, December 14, 2017.

                                (56.) David E. Nye, “The Sublime and the Skyline: The New York Skyscraper,” The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories, ed. Roberta Moudry (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 255–270.

                                (57.) Berenice Abbott, Changing New York (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1939).

                                (58.) Nick Yablon, Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819–1919 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009); and Max Page, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

                                (59.) Ada Louise Huxtable, The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered; Schuyler, American Architecture; Paul Goldberger, The Skyscraper (New York, NY: Knopf, 1983); Jordy, American Buildings and Their Architects; and Scully, “Death of the Street.”

                                (60.) Condit, The Chicago School of Architecture.

                                (61.) Didier Cornille, Who Built That? Skyscrapers: An Introduction and Their Architects (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014); Kate Ascher, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (New York, NY: Penguin, 2011); Judith Dupré and Adrian Smith, Skyscrapers: A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings (New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2013); John Hill, How to Build a Skyscraper (London, UK: Quarto, 2017); Neal Bascomb, Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2003); Alice Sparberg Alexiou, The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose With It (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2010); and Jim Rasenberger, High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline, 1881 to the Present (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2004).

                                (63.) Rubin, Insuring the City; Stevens, Developing Expertise; and Zipp, Manhattan Projects.

                                (64.) David S. Andrew, Louis Sullivan and the Polemics of Modern Architecture: The Present Against the Past (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985); and Carol Willis, ed., Building the Empire State (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1998).

                                (65.) William Aiken Starrett, Skyscrapers and the Men Who Build Them (New York, NY: Scribner, 1928); and Paul Starrett, Changing the Skyline: An Autobiography (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1938).

                                (66.) Daniel M. Abramson, Obsolescence: An Architectural History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016); and Neil Harris, Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

                                (67.) Lisa M. Fine, The Souls of the Skyscraper: Female Clerical Workers in Chicago, 1870–1930 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990); and Angel Kwolek-Folland, Engendering Business: Men and Women in the Corporate Office, 1870–1930 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).