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DOWNTOWN NEW YORK: THE ARCHITECTURE OF BUSINESS / THE BUSINESS OF BUILDINGS is the debut event of The Skyscraper Museum, a new institution devoted to highrise building, past, present, and future. Lower Manhattan, the birthplace of the skyscraper, is the logical place to begin such a project, for downtown's towers record more than a century of skyscraper history. The majestic view from the harbor -- the world's most famous skyline -- the slit canyon of Broadway, and the soaring spires of Wall Street proclaim New York's status as the "capital of capitalism."

Skyscrapers are more than the architecture of business. Objects of design, sites of construction, places of work, real estate investments -- skyscrapers are businesses themselves. This exhibition examines these and other dimensions of tall office buildings. Some materials displayed have been borrowed from corporate or institutional archives where they have been carefully stored and cataloged, while others have miraculously survived for decades in the offices of building managers, construction companies, or trade associations. Many have been collected by history buffs, saved by heirs, or salvaged by dealers. Too often, though, the historical value of such documents has been little appreciated, and much has been discarded. One aim of The Skyscraper Museum, when it establishes a permanent home, is to become a repository for such disparate items which, seen together, begin to tell the complex story of New York's greatest monuments.



Illustrating architect Cass Gilbert's dictum "A skyscraper is a machine that makes the land pay," this room examines the conditions of high demand for prime locations and resulting high rents that spawned downtown's highrise buildings. The installation focuses on the financial district, especially Wall and Broad Streets, where successive waves of development produced unprecedented density and ever-taller towers on the world's most costly real estate. The entire east wall of the room reproduces a 1930 drawing from Fortune of all the buildings on both sides of Wall Street, labeled with the names of their major tenants. The south wall shows the Woolworth Building in section and is papered with the building's rent rolls from the 1920s. Items in this section include old maps and land books, blueprints and photos, advertisements, and souvenir publications.

Text panels:

Highrise buildings are the product of high land values, which in turn reflect the demand for prime locations. Skyscrapers can multiply the utility of land by piling many stories on a relatively small site. As early as 1896, a writer in The Scientific American commented on the concentration of tall buildings in Lower Manhattan:

The raison d'etre of the lofty office building . . . is to be found in the enormous appreciation in land values. . .mainly due to the concentration of vast commercial interests within a restricted area. The system of steel construction, which has quadrupled the size of building which was formerly possible to erect on a given area, has assisted to raise the value of land to its present high figure and give it a value which it would not otherwise possess.

Nowhere is the premium paid for choice locations clearer than in Lower Manhattan. This 1903 map shows the price per square foot for the best sites varied dramatically--tenfold and higher--in the distance of only two or three blocks. The highest values ($350-$400 per square foot) were concentrated on Broadway at Wall Street and at the intersections of Wall and Broad Street where the major banks, stocks and other exchanges, corporate headquarters, and their attendant professions, lawyers, and accountants, anchored the financial district. Such differences underscore the familiar quip that the first three rules of real estate development are "location, location, and location."


The rise of the skyscraper in the late 19th century is often seen as the symbol of corporate capitalism, the product of the need to house growing armies of white-collar workers and an expression of the desire of large companies to establish identity on the skyline. But while advertising is one reason for big business to build tall, more important is the investment in prime urban real estate. From the first highrise buildings of the 1870s such as the Tribune or Western Union to more recent giants such as 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, corporate owners have rented out large portions of their headquarters. Skyscrapers are rarely the hive of a great company; rather, they are neutral containers that offer highly flexible space to the myriad enterprises that need to locate in the city.

The majority of office towers in every period have been speculative buildings, not corporate headquarters, and most office space in central business districts has been, and still is, rented by the room, suite, or floor to small or medium-sized tenants. The terms speculative or competitive, refer to buildings erected as rental properties and real estate investments. Office space is a commodity, subject to market forces of supply and demand and to the characteristic cycles in real estate of boom and bust. When there are high vacancies in a district, for whatever reasons--overbuilding, recession, relocation, or downsizing--rents fall. This situation concerns both landlords and the city government, since tax revenues are affected; in the long view, however, lower rents allow new businesses and uses to develop, as is happening today in Lower Manhattan.



This room explains the two divergent concepts of height in skyscraper construction: engineering height and economic height. A wall mural 8 feet by 16 feet illustrates all the structures from 1890 to the present day that have been, successively, the world's tallest building. Nine of these were in Lower Manhattan: the World, Manhattan Life Insurance, St. Paul, and Park Row buildings, the Singer Tower, Woolworth Building, 40 Wall Street, and the World Trade Center twin towers. The west wall of the room reproduces at full scale the bays of the World Trade Center (i.e., a 22-inch column and 18 3/4-inch window) and examines the role of key technological and engineering innovations that made buildings of great height practicable. The south wall reproduces the brick facade of the Equitable Building,120 Broadway; its 4 1/2-foot wide "window" cases display items illustrating the concept of economic height, including photographs, books, and promotional brochures of downtown buildings from the early 1900-1930s.

Text panels:

Skyscraper construction is concerned with two kinds of height: engineering and economic. Engineering height refers to the number of stories that are structurally feasible given the limits of existing technology and engineering know-how. Economic height refers to the number of floors that will produce the highest rate of return on the money invested.

Over the century, Manhattan has been home to the world's tallest office building, and it has always possessed by far the greatest volume of skyscraper construction. In the 1880s and early 1890s, Chicago erected some of the earliest and most handsome highrises; its 22-story, 302-foot Masonic Temple held the title in 1892, when the city enacted height regulations. By 1900, five New York towers exceeded 300 feet, and in 1908, the Singer Building stretched to 612 feet. As Manhattan's development spread north, a few outstanding skyscrapers pioneered uptown sites, notably the Times Tower, Flatiron Building, and the 700-foot campanile of Metropolitan Life Insurance on Madison Square, which took the title of tallest in 1909.

Downtown's skyline regained the crown in 1913 when the Woolworth Building soared to 792 feet. It reigned until 1930 when the Manhattan Company Building climbed to 927 feet. The spire at 40 Wall Street was soon topped by the 1046-foot Chrysler Building, then by the 1250-foot Empire State Building which held the title from 1931 to 1970 when the World Trade Center twin towers reasserted downtown's vigor. Still, by the 1950s, midtown had become the country's largest central business district, ranking first in the total volume of office space; Chicago ranks second, Lower Manhattan, third. The Sears Tower in Chicago, which became the world's tallest building in 1974, was surpassed in 1996 by the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Nevertheless, with its unparalleled number of tall buildings, New York remains the world's preeminent skyscraper metropolis.


The economic height of a skyscraper refers to the number of stories that will produce the highest rate of return on the money invested. At some point in the construction of every highrise, the law of diminishing returns sets in, and rents for the additional stories do not cover costs. Taller buildings require more substantial foundations, wind bracing, and mechanical systems--but by far the greatest price of extra height lies in the requirements of efficient vertical transportation. Elevators are expensive to build and to operate, but their major cost accrues in the large volume of non-rentable space consumed by the shafts. Other factors that affect the equation of economic height are the size of the building's lot (which affects the efficiency of the floor plan), the price paid for the land, the cost of financing, and the anticipated rates for rents.

Developers, architects, and general contractors prepared charts that compared construction costs for buildings of various heights erected on the same lot. In the late 1920s, for example, the per-square-foot cost for structural steel for a 30-story building was around $.95, while for a 65-story building, it was $1.35. The higher number came from the extra steel required to carry the weight of additional stories and the need for wind bracing. The benefit was added floors of rentable space that would produce revenue for years to come.

In the 1930 book, The Skyscraper: A Study in the Economic Height of Modern Office Buildings, a team of professionals compared the costs for buildings of eight different heights on a 200 x 405-foot lot and determined that, for land valued at $200 a square foot, the economic height was 63 stories. After 1961 when the new zoning law established the floor-area ratio (FAR), setting a limit on volume for a given site, these formulas were moot.



This section examines the roles of real estate developers, general contractors, and construction workers. It features historical photos of all phases of demolition and construction, rental brochures, and other professional literature, as well as a complete set of tools of a riveting gang.

Text panels:

Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war.
Col. William A Starrett, Skyscrapers and the Men who Build Them ,1928

The analogy to war is the strife against the elements. Foundations are planned away down in the earth alongside the towering skyscrapers already built. Water, quicksand, rock and slimy clays bar our path to bedrock. Traffic rumbles in the crowded highways high above us, and the subways, gas and water mains, electric conduits and delicate telephone and signal communications demand that they not be disturbed lest the nerve system of a great city be deranged. --Col. William A Starrett

The obtaining of materials near and far and the administration of all those thousands of operations that go to make up the whole are the major functions of the skyscraper builder. Knowledge of transportation and traffic must be brought to bear that the building may be built from trucks standing in the busy thoroughfares, for here is no ample storage space, but only a meager handful of material needing constant replenishment--hour to hour existence. Yet it all runs smoothly and on time in accordance with a carefully prepared schedule; the service of supply in peace-time warfare, the logistics of building, and these men are the soldiers of a great creative effort. --Col. William A Starrett

It is one thing for the architect and the structural engineer and the fabricator's draftsmen to design the steel members of a great building so they will fit precisely into their slots in the actual frame. And it is another thing to put them there. Excellent administration and skillful planning and constant supervision will roll truck No. 70 down Wall Street with thirty tons of columns at the precise moment that the fall line of derrick No. 5 on the twenty-fifth floor gropes down to street level for another load.
Fortune October 1930

The great obstacle to be surmounted in the construction itself is the lack of space for storage of materials. (Because there is no room for) sheds full of steel, stone, brick, tile, cement, plaster, wire, wood, etc. . . the building must be built from trucks. But since the streets surrounding the site are the busiest streets of a great city, the trucks cannot stand. They must unload and move. Which is to say that the materials they unload must, at least during the structural stages, be built at once into the building. . .
Fortune July 1930



This section explores various aspects of the changing interior world of the skyscraper, including the expanding role of women in office work; the hierarchical and gendered spaces of executives, staff, and secretaries; the influence of technological innovations in lighting, environmental controls, and office equipment and their effect on functions and layout; as well as the changing fashions of office furniture and design. The area is divided into three sections, showing the typical office layout and furniture of the 1890s, 1930s, and 1960s.

Text panels:

Skyscrapers are designed from the inside out: from the smallest cell, to the full-floor plan, to the three-dimensional form. The basic unit, the single office, is a room with one or two windows. This module is reproduced as many times as possible within an efficient floor plan, then multiplied to the desired number of stories. Even when space is not partitioned into separate offices, but pooled in large areas, the office cell governs the design of the full-floor. In plan, offices were efficiently arranged around a compact core of mechanical services and circulation spaces, including corridors, elevators, and stairs.

1880s -1930s

Through the first half of the century, sunlight was the principal means of illuminating the workplace and the most important factor in setting the dimensions and layout of the standard office. Rentability depended on large windows and high ceilings that allowed daylight to reach as deeply as possible into the interior. The distance from exterior windows to the corridor wall was never more than 28 feet, which was the depth some daylight penetrated. Ceilings were at least 10 to 12 feet in height, and windows were as big as possible without being too heavy to open, generally about 4 to 5 feet wide and 6 to 8 feet high. If the office was subdivided, partitions were made of translucent glass to transmit light.

After 1940

Fluorescent lighting and air conditioning changed skyscraper design. Produced at an affordable price in the late 1930s, fluorescent bulbs provided high levels of illumination without excessive heat, making it possible to rent high quality office space much deeper than the old standard of 28-30 feet. Light courts became unnecessary. Deep floor areas resulted in as much as 80 percent of the space on each floor being rentable space, as compared with 65 percent in older buildings.

In many buildings, the ceiling became a gridded plane of light in which acoustical material and ventilating equipment were also concealed. Since large windows were no longer necessary to illuminate interiors, ceiling heights could be reduced.


Although electric wiring was universal in office buildings by the 1890s, incandescent bulbs were weak and inefficient. Desktop lamps produced only 3 to 4 foot-candles (1 foot-candle is the amount of light on a surface held 1 foot away from a burning candle). Indirect lighting from ceiling lamps was considered the most healthful type of illumination since they cast the fewest and faintest shadows, but using multiple lightbulbs added considerable heat to a room; one 500-watt bulb gave off the equivalent of one pound of steam per hour.

Summer sunlight radiates about 10,000 foot-candles, and even cloudy days can provide 200 to 500 foot-candles. Daylight levels can average about 50 to 100 foot-candles inside an office with large windows, although 10 foot-candles is typical for an interior with good exposure.

The standard for adequate lighting changed over the years: one survey in New York in 1916 recommended 8 to 9 foot-candles; in the 1920s, it rose to 12 foot-candles, and in the 1930s, spurred by aggressive sales tactics of large power companies, some experts urged 25 foot-candles. By the 1960s, with cool fluorescent ceiling lighting, 100 foot-candles became common.



This room examines the laws of the market and of real estate cycles and the influence of building codes and the 1916 and 1961 zoning regulations on architectural forms and on the skyline. Items in this section include copies of the municipal building codes, zoning maps and drawings, Hugh Ferriss's graphics of the "zoning envelope." The south wall is covered by a large 6 x 6 foot CAD drawing of Lower Manhattan in an aerial view, from a computer model created by the Urban Sim Lab at the New School for Social Research.

Text panels:


Cities grow primarily in fits and starts, real estate cycles that are graphed in 3-D on the skyline. The tallest towers typically appear at the end of a boom when escalating land prices drive up the economic height of new buildings. At the peak of a cycle, the skyline often changes dramatically. This photograph shows the 1912 Banker's Trust tower at 14 Wall Street, freestanding for the first time in 1931 when the neighboring turn-of-the-century structures were demolished for a more modern, taller annex. Had it been possible to capture this view three years earlier, only the Equitable Building (top right corner) would have been constructed. In the four years from 1928-1931, 4.6 million square feet of new office space were added to the financial district.

The Laissez-faire City

Before 1916, New York City imposed no restrictions on the height or lot coverage of structures other than tenements. The city's building code, first passed in the 1860s and frequently revised, required fireproof construction and set minimum thicknesses for masonry bearing walls, which in effect limited height, because it required so much of the profitable ground floor of a tall building to be filled with structural masonry. After a revision of the code in 1892 established guidelines for metal skeleton construction, office buildings regularly began to top sixteen or more stories.

The new technology and lack of height restrictions began to produce very tall buildings, often on small sites, and dense highrise blocks that turned many of downtown's narrow streets into sunless alleys. Resulting fears for public health and safety, particularly regarding fires and emergency evacuations, along with the concerns of owners of overshadowed properties helped to fuel the political support for zoning.

The 1916 Zoning Law

The New York City Zoning Resolution of 1916 restricted the use, height, and bulk of buildings, applied by "districts' or "zones." Its provisions for segregation of uses--commercial, residential, and unrestricted--followed the approach of several American cities in the first decade of the century. Its important innovation was the concept of the "zoning envelope," a formula that restricted the maximum mass that could be constructed on a given site. Designed to protect some measure of light and air for Manhattan's canyons, the law required that after a fixed height above the sidewalk (usually 100 or 125 feet), a commercial building must be stepped back within an "angle of light" plane drawn from the center of the street. A tower of unlimited height was permitted over one-quarter of the site. The resulting "setback" or "wedding cake" massing, with or without a tower, became the characteristic form for the New York skyscraper from the 1920s through the 1950s. By the 1930s, the zoning law had transformed Lower Manhattan into a landscape of pyramidal masses and pinnacle towers.

The 1961 Zoning Law

The first finite limits on the height and bulk of commercial buildings were imposed by the 1961 zoning resolution. A sweeping revision of the 1916 law, it eliminated the open-ended provision for unrestricted height over one quarter of the lot and established the principle of FAR, or Floor Area Ratio, which keyed the maximum floor space permitted in a building to a multiple of the area of the lot. It also created "incentive zoning," which traded bonus stories in the sky for public amenities such as plazas, arcades, and subway entrances. By increasing the allowable area for a sheer tower from twenty-five to forty percent of the lot, the 1961 code encouraged the modernist paradigm of the tower in the plaza that had been so widely applauded at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza and the Seagram Building in midtown. The urbanistic effects of the new open space were powerfully demonstrated in Lower Manhattan with the three interconnecting plazas of Chase, Marine Midland, and Liberty Plaza and, less successfully, in the pedestrian paths along Water Street.



The drawings, models, and other historical material illustrates the four major phases of skyscraper design in New York: 1) The laissez-faire period with its typical towers "extruded" along lot lines; 2) The "setback style" of the 1920s, dictated by the 1916 zoning law; 3) The glass-box and tower-in-the-plaza of postwar High Modernism; 4) The boxy, big-floorplate, "smart-buildings" of Post-Modernism.

Items in this section include models, drawings, photograph, books, and postcards. The centerpiece ifs an 8-foot by 9-foot scale model of Lower Manhattan prepared in the late 1960s-early 1970s by the modelmaker Theodore Conrad for the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association.

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