The Skyscraper Museum
The Skyscraper Museum

The Skyscraper Museum is devoted to the study of high-rise building, past, present, and future. The Museum explores tall buildings as objects of design, products of technology, sites of construction, investments in real estate, and places of work and residence. This site will look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.


A skyline is a horizon interrupted by verticals. Seen from a distance, a city’s tall buildings make a collective, coherent image – a silhouette against the sky that creates an identity. Throughout history, cities have been distinguished by their prominent structures: Florence by the Duomo, Paris by the Eiffel Tower. New York is defined by its multiplicity of skyscrapers.

Manhattan grew a skyline before writers found a word for it. The earliest skyscrapers, office buildings of ten stories, rose near City Hall Park in 1874, but it was not until two decades later that a burst of towers of twenty stories, 300 feet or taller, truly transformed the city’s image. Located especially along the spine of Broadway from the Battery to Chambers Street, they composed a profile visible from both rivers. One critic mused in 1897: "it is in aggregation that the immense impressiveness lies. It is not an architectural vision, but it does, most tremendously, look like business!"

Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn, 1896. Library of Congress

There are millions of Manhattan skylines – viewed across time, from myriad vantages, by countless observers. This exhibition attempts, for the first time, to simplify and organize New York’s nearly 150 years of skyline development into five significant periods in which buildings take characteristic forms shaped by economic, technological, and regulatory factors. Today’s city is a collage of multiple eras, built and rebuilt over decades. Under- standing the constituent factors of the five formative periods allow us to read urban history in the glorious jumble.

The overarching story of Manhattan’s high-rise growth is an evolution from small to tall, then taller. Cycles of boom and bust created the crowded clusters of Downtown and Midtown and today energize new geographies such as Hudson Yards and a new typology of supertall, slender towers. Ever-rising, New York’s skyline continues delineating its verticality.

Lower Manhattan, 1999. Richard Berenholtz

Use the interactive sliders to view the skyline across time (above).





Five periods of the Skyline

Installation view

The three large panoramic photographs of lower Manhattan on this wall span the years 1876 to 1921 and encompass the first two eras of the development of New York’s characteristic commercial skyline.

The first period, from 1875 to 1900, began with the completion of the city’s first buildings of ten stories, the Tribune and Western Union buildings, which were all-masonry structures and rose to 260 and 230 feet, respectively.  This period of early invention in the mid-1870s was followed by stagnation in the construction of office buildings until the late 1880s, due in part to the effects on the business economy of the financial Panic of 1873. Indeed, the majority of 10-story structures in these years were cooperative apartments. Office construction revived by 1890, and was followed in mid-decade by a dramatic spike in both the height and the number of tall buildings. The introduction of steel-skeleton construction was officially allowed by the NYC Department of Buildings in 1892, and by 1900, it became nearly ubiquitous.  The tallest skyscraper in the city in 1899 was the 30-story Park Row Building near City Hall Park, which topped out at 391 feet. At the turn of the century, the greatest concentration of tall buildings was in lower Manhattan, and most were offices. But high-rises had also spread across the city, although the only 10-story or taller buildings north of 28th Street were hotels or apartments.

New York Skyline. Irving Underhill, 1908. Library of Congress.

In the technological and economic development of skyscrapers and the skyline, 1900 is a convenient marker to note the change to generally taller and bulkier buildings. Improved construction technologies and elevator efficiency pushed the standard height of high-rises to stretch to 14 to 18 stories. Early in the century, there were some stand-out towers in new parts of the city: in 1902, the Flatiron Building at 23rd Street and Madison Square, and in 1904, the new New York Times headquarters in Times Square. Uncharacteristic in both their height (22 stories) and sites, the towers were isolated, wedge-shaped masses. For the most part, though, until the introduction of zoning in 1916, commercial high-rises across the city rose straight up from their lot lines and formed a portion of a continuous street wall, with a range of façade decorations. In a surge of construction from 1908 to 1913, a handful of towers competed for the title of the world’s tallest building. The downtown skyline crested with the Singer Building in 1908, which reached 612 feet. On Madison Square in 1909, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower stretched to 701 feet. In 1913, the title returned to lower Manhattan with Woolworth Building, whose spire soared to 792 feet.

New York Skyline. Irving Underhill, 1921. Library of Congress

Still, throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century and until 1916, the common characteristic was the absence of any regulatory constraint on building height or form. In this laissez-faire environment, skyscrapers could cover every inch of their lot and, in theory, rise to unlimited height. In practice, they were limited by a “form follows finance” formula of the necessity of good light from large windows and by the goal of earning the highest percentage of return of rents on the money invested.


New York, 1876 - 1900

Panoramic view of Manhattan, showing Brooklyn Bridge under construction. Joshua Beal, 1876. New York Public Library.

This remarkable panorama of Lower Manhattan, captured in January 1876, is one of the earliest photographs of New York at the dawn of its high-rise history. Taken from a high vantage – the eastern tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, under construction and as yet without connecting cables – the perspective reveals a dense urban fabric of 4- and 5-story buildings, sprawling from the harbor to Pike Slip (now under the Manhattan Bridge). The monumental Manhattan tower occupied the center of the original photograph, which joined five separate exposures into a single image: we have reproduced only three panels here. The city is so uniformly low-rise that one sees clear across the island to the Hudson River and New Jersey. The only structures that interrupt the horizontal mass are ship masts, church spires, and the clock tower and cupola of the city’s first skyscrapers, both completed in 1875, the Tribune and Western Union buildings. All-masonry structures, rising to 260 and 230 feet respectively, they were the first commercial buildings in the city of ten stories and among the first office buildings to employ the elevator, although those early machines were powered by steam engines.



The photographer was Joshua H. Beal (1832–1902), a commercial photographer who advertised his services and studio at 16 Beekman Street. It must have been extremely difficult to haul his heavy equipment to the tower’s summit and to control the five radiating exposures of the glass plate negatives that he would later combine into the sweeping panoramic print. The precise history of the image is unclear. At more than 8 feet long, the combined print was an awkward size for display: in October 1876, an article reported that Beal mounted it on a stretcher 25 by 97 inches and offered prints for $25 ($600 today).  He entered it in the Photography section of the 1878 Paris International Exhibition and won an Honorable Mention.

The year 1876 was a harbinger of the future vertical city, but the skyline remained relatively low until the next major spurt of office towers in lower Manhattan beginning in 1890, as the timeline above shows. The Tribune and Western Union buildings remained the tallest rooftops in the city through the 1880s, when most office buildings, as well as tall apartments and hotels (blue in the timeline), rose no higher than 150 to 180 feet.

Only four complete vintage prints of the Beal photograph seem to have survived: one each in the collections of the New York Public Library, the New-York Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and one complete and one three-panel view in private hands. In addition, the Canadian Centre for Architecture owns an unusual composite collage that features the full-scale panorama surrounded by 52 images of “Buildings Occupied by Prominent Firms,” all individual photographs of typical 4- or 5-story structures that were pasted onto the background, but had type-set labels. This apparently unique piece, which may have been a mock-up for commercial publication that was never realized, makes especially clear how, through the 1870s, the city remained a densely-built mass of typical low-rise office and business buildings where upper floors were still accessed by stairs, not elevators.


Skyline, 1900 - 1916

New York Skyline, Irving Underhill, 1902. Library of Congress.

By the turn of the century, as the 1902 panorama by the commercial photographer Irving Underhill shows, the lower Manhattan skyline had filled in considerably and grown much taller. The majority of high-rise construction began after 1890, when the World Building topped out at 309 feet, and accelerated in the years after 1893 with a spate of new towers. The boom related to advances in building technologies, including steel-skeleton construction, caisson foundations, and more efficient elevators, and it continued even in the wake of the Panic of 1893, a worldwide financial crisis. The skyline changed most dramatically in the last three years of the century: an 1896 photograph by William W. Silver in an oval pictures an earlier silhouette with towers widely spaced, like charms on a beginner’s bracelet. By 1900, the Park Row Building with its twin cupolas stretching to 391 feet, anchored a cluster of skyscrapers around City Hall, and skyscrapers crowded lower Broadway.

Chart of ten-story and taller skyscrapers 1874 - 1900

According to a survey of building permits, from 1874 to 1900, there were a total of 252 structures erected in Manhattan that were ten stories or taller. The Museum charted them all in a timeline seen above: each colored bar represents a building by date, height, and use: red for office buildings, blue for residential and hotels, and orange for lofts. While these structures spread across the island, the greatest concentration was office buildings in lower Manhattan. The ten tallest buildings in New York in 1900 were all located south of Chambers Street.

Park Row Building, 1899 – 391 ft.
Manhattan Life Insurance, 1893 – 348 ft.
St. Paul Building, 1897 – 315 ft.
American Surety, 1895 – 312 ft.
World Building, 1890 – 309 ft.
Commercial Cable Building, 1897 – 304 ft.
American Tract Society, 1895 – 291 ft.
Empire Building, 1898 – 287 ft.
Standard Oil Building, expanded, 1899 – 280 ft.
Gillender Building, 1897 – 273 ft.

ten tallest NYC skyscrapers in 1900
Click here to view the TEN & TALLER Timeline For illustrations and information on the ten tallest buildings in 1900 click here.

Most of these can be seen in the 1902 Underhill photograph. The mix of rooflines, flat-topped and jagged, illustrate the eclecticism of New York architecture in the last years of the nineteenth century when the skyline was the arena of stylistic battles between picturesque profiles and classical cornices. The attachment to historical precedents lasted through the 1910s, as is clear in the panorama on the right, dominated by the neo-Gothic 1913 Woolworth Building, the ‘Cathedral of Commerce.’

What forces drove this vertical climb in the mid-1890s? Broadly, the rapid expansion of both population and businesses. In 1880, the city’s population was about 1.2 million: by 1900, it was more than 3.4 million. This growth fueled a wave of work and investment in buildings across the city, and especially in lower Manhattan where local, national, and international companies competed for space for their workers and headquarters. In an early article on the dynamic of rising land prices, The Lofty Buildings of New York City,” in October 1896, Scientific American noted “an appreciation in the value of land for which no parallel can be found in any city of the world.” Citing the concentration of vast commercial interests within a restricted area and the prevalence of steel-frame construction, which had “quadrupled the size of building…formerly possible to erect upon a given area,” the anonymous author observed: “in regard to the relation of land values to the height of buildings, the effect has, in some measure, become the cause.”


Skyline through 1916

New York Skyline. Irving Underhill, 1921. Library of Congress.
New York Skyline. Irving Underhill, 1921. Library of Congress.

The scale of buildings increased dramatically after 1900, especially in the years from 1908 to 1916, as this third skyline panorama, also by Irving Underhill, illustrates. A series of record-breaking towers vied for attention. Completed in 1908, the Singer Building (at center) lifted its slender shaft to 612 feet, finally surpassing the turn-of-the-century Park Row Building and besting it by more than 200 feet. In 1909, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, located uptown on Madison Square, topped out at 701 feet. The title returned to downtown in 1913 with the completion of the Woolworth Building, which soared 792 feet to the tip of its spire. Woolworth remained the world’s tallest office building until the Chrysler and Empire State buildings topped out in 1929 and 1931, and still ranked as fifth tallest in the city until One Chase Manhattan Plaza was completed in 1961.

These skyscrapers were exceedingly ornate and expensive ventures. They carried the names of their companies, which were among the largest in the U.S., and their stature on the skyline helped advertise their success. While the buildings served as corporate headquarters, they were also real estate investments in a competitive rental market. Both the Singer and Woolworth companies kept only executive offices in their name-brand buildings: in the 55-story Woolworth, only one and a half floors were occupied by the company, while the other floors were leased to more than a thousand tenants, according to 1914 rent rolls.


Overall size, measured by total floor space rather than by height, was the other dimension of unprecedented growth in these years. Rising on the same city block as the Singer Tower in 1908 was the City Investing Building, which with 559,000 square feet was briefly the largest office building in the world. It was surpassed in quick succession by the Hudson Terminals complex in 1909; the Municipal Building in 1914; and in 1915, the flat-topped, 33-story block of the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway. At just 542 feet, it loaded 1.2 million square feet onto the downtown rental market. Big buildings added acres of office space to lower Manhattan, creating the largest central business district in the world.

Left: Land Map of office buildings in 1900 from the Skyscraper Museum’s exhibition TEN & TALLER.
Right: Map showing land values in 1903, published in Richard M. Hurd’s Principles of City Land Values, 1908. Collection of The Skyscraper Museum.

The absence of municipal restrictions on the height or bulk of commercial buildings was the key factor in the development of the Manhattan skyline from the time of the first towers in the 1870s until the enactment of zoning in 1916. The laissez-faire environment and demand for the best locations created the tall, high-value corridor of Broadway and shaped the mound of buildings that crowded into the blocks around Wall and Broad streets and surrounding City Hall Park. This 3D expression of land values was reflected in the sales price of land per square foot, as can be seen in the map created in 1903 by economist Richard Hurd, illustrated in an oval above. This map shows the extraordinary range of values in very close proximity in lower Manhattan: for example, land on Wall Street near Broadway was valued at $400 per sq. ft., while a few blocks west, prices plummeted to $10 per sq. ft.  The oft-repeated idea that Manhattan’s skyscrapers “grew upwards” because there was no room to expand out is contradicted by ’s map. There was space to build tall away from the business center, but few desired to rent there.

 

Skyline, 1930 – The Third Period

Lower Manhattan from Jersey City, 1932. Irving Underhill. Courtesy of the Woolworth Building.

Top: Lower Manhattan from Jersey City, 1932. Irving Underhill. Courtesy of the Woolworth Building.
Below: Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn, ,1931. Iring Underhill, Library of Congress.

Two Irving Underhill perspectives of lower Manhattan in the early 1930s, seen from across the Hudson (top) and from Brooklyn, show the characteristic setbacks and slender towers that shaped the downtown skyline after 1916 and until the early 1960s. There was a new scale of the tallest towers, which rose to between 50 and 71 stories and crowded on and near Wall Street, representing the peaks of land values in that area.

Below: Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn, ,1931. Iring Underhill, Library of Congress.

It was government regulation -– New York’s first zoning law, passed in 1916 – that sculpted these skyscrapers into ziggurats and pyramidal bases with slender tower shafts. Rather than the blocky, straight-up sides of the high-rises of the previous decades, these buildings followed rules that, after a certain height above the sidewalk, required the mass to step back as it rose. This setback formula was designed to preserve a measure of light and air for the streets below and better access to light for the workers on upper floors. In addition, a tower of unlimited height was allowed over one quarter of the area of the lot – thus producing the spindly shafts of the Wall Street cluster. The details of the zoning formula are illustrated in a model case in the gallery.

Top: New York Telephone Building
Top: New York Telephone Building, American Architecture of the 20th. Century,1930. Collection of The Skyscraper Museum.
Bottom: Royal Insurance Building, 150 William Street, and Bank of America Building at 44 Wall Street, Irving Underhill, 1927. Collection of The Skyscraper Museum.
Far right: 40 Wall Street illustration. Plate from Starrett Brothers and Eken, Inc., Builders, A portfolio of photographs of office buildings, hospitals, university buildings, industrial plants, financial houses, housing projects, apartment houses, department stores, insurance company home offices, 1925 – 1931. Gift of HRH Construction, Collection of The Skyscraper Museum.

The impact of the zoning law was delayed initially by a lag in construction during World War I and the long postwar recovery. Activity resumed around 1923, and one of the first major projects designed under the new regulations was the New York Telephone Building, which filled the block between Barclay and Vesey streets and fronted on West Street (at far left of the top photo). This mountain-like pile combined offices in the tower section and acres of mechanical operations in the deep base, so its unusually massive size and distance from the Financial District were logical. The design by architect Ralph Walker was heralded by critics as one of the first “modern” skyscrapers of the new era.

In the East River view, a trio of white buildings illustrates the ziggurat form prescribed by the zoning law and adapted to different size lots. The largest is the 33-story 120 Wall Street, completed in 1930 and notable for its “wedding cake” shape and wide façade on South Street. Its slightly asymmetric profile and abundant dormer sections followed the zoning template precisely and squeezed every cubic foot of rentable space allowed by the code.

1931 skyline from east river

These views of 1931 and 1932 capture the downtown skyline after it peaked as a result of the surging stock market of the “Roaring Twenties” and after the crash in October 1929. Most high-rise projects continued after Black Tuesday and well into 1930, but as the recession deepened into the Great Depression by 1932, no new skyscrapers were started in lower Manhattan until the 1950s.

 

Impact of 1916 Zoning

Hugh Ferriss zoning model
Installation view. For a detailed history of the 1916 Zoning Resolution click here.

The 1916 Zoning Resolution changed both the shape of the city’s skyscrapers and the skyline. The zoning law had two key features. It divided land into districts according to “use” in three broad categories: commercial, residential, and unrestricted (generally industrial). In addition, in order to preserve a measure of light and air on the streets and sidewalks, the law regulated the shapes of tall buildings by requiring setbacks: there were five different “height” zones and setback formulas that specified a maximum vertical above the sidewalk, after which the building had to step back within a set diagonal. Because developers sought to exploit every square foot of rentable space allowed, this template for the maximum mass or “envelope” a building could fill determined the characteristic stepped-pyramid shape of the city’s skyscrapers.

In addition, the law allowed a tower of unlimited height to rise over 25 percent of the lot. The larger the lot, therefore, the greater possible dimensions for a tower. The most profitable tower form for large lots was a pyramidal base with a slender tower shaft, such as the Cities Service Building at 70 Pine Street (1932) in lower Manhattan or the Chanin and Chrysler buildings near Grand Central.

The other major determinant of building form was the standard of a well-lit office with light from large windows, which meant no workspace deeper than 28 feet from an outside widow to an interior corridor and elevator core. In this period and until advances in glass curtain wall technology after WWII, skyscrapers were masonry-clad in brick or stone, with inset, operable windows.

The many real-photo 1930s postcards of skyscrapers of era mounted in the frame at the right make clear the characteristic forms produced by the 1916 zoning law and the “form follows finance” rules of returning a maximum return on the money invested in these commercial buildings.


Hugh Ferriss, The Zoning Envelope

Installation View

The architectural delineator Hugh Ferriss, working in collaboration with the architect and zoning advocate Harvey Wiley Corbett, created a series of drawings in 1922 called the “Four Stages of the Maximum Mass of the Zoning Envelope.” The First Stage is illustrated on a page in Ferriss’s 1929 book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, displayed here.

These drawings, which were widely exhibited and published, illustrate the step-by-step shaping of the maximum mass allowed by the zoning law into a profitable commercial structure. The first stage with sloping planes represented the angle of light required to preserve some sunlight on the streets and included a tower that filled the allowable one-quarter of the site. In the next stages, light courts were cut into the mass, and diagonal planes were squared off. The model, created by The Skyscraper Museum after Ferriss’s drawings, shows the final stage: an imposing structure with a central tower that would have been around 70 stories, flanked by 40-story stepped wings. The drawings made clear the benefits of a large site that would allow for a substantial tower with, in fact, no legal limit to its height.

The power and inchoate modernity of Ferriss's diagrams derived from their simple sculptural mass and monumentality. Many architects and planners in the 1920s cited their influence on skyscraper design and on their conception of the future city.

 

Midtown Skyline

1951 aerial of Midtown Manhattan
High aerial view of midtown Manhattan, New York City. Fairchild Aerial Surveys, July 24, 1951. New York State Archives.

Midtown occupies the center of the island, so its skyline is best viewed not as a frieze from the water, but from on high, as a crowded chessboard with pieces covering every square. This 1949 Fairchild Aerial Survey photograph below shows the pyramidal mound of the Financial District in the foreground, and about four miles to the north, the beginnings of modern Midtown, dominated by the two giants, the Empire State and the RCA Building, the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center. The majority of skyscrapers still lined Fifth and Madison avenues. 

1949 aerial view of Midtown Manhattan
High aerial view of Manhattan, New York City. March 8 1949. New York State Archives

The anchor for modern Midtown and the corporate corridor of Park Avenue is clearly Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street. But when and how did high-rises come to this area and then expand northward, as well as fill out the east-west swath of blocks from 34th Street to 59th Street?

Even before the completion of the Beaux Arts terminal in 1913 – which replaced the 1871 Grand Central Depot – high-rise development had begun in the area in the form of large hotels, such as the 14-story Manhattan (1897), and continued with the Biltmore (1913), Commodore (1919), and Roosevelt (1924) in the area dubbed “Terminal City.” In the 1920s, true skyscraper hotels, often for extended residence, concentrated on Lexington Avenue: these included the Shelton (1924), the Beverly and Lexington (1927; 1929), and in 1931, the mountainous, ultra-luxury Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue.

Park Avenue and 51st Street, 1932. New York Public Library.
Park Avenue and 51st Street, 1932. New York Public Library.

Office buildings followed a similar pattern of high-rise growth on an east-west axis of 42nd Street. For a decade after 1904, when the Times Tower pioneered skyscraper heights at the crossing of Broadway and 42nd Street, the theater area renamed Times Square remained intensely urban, although mostly mid- and low-rise. In 1914, the 24-story Candler Building opened, then in 1917, the 30-story Bush Tower. The significant skyscrapers near Grand Central – the Chanin, Chrysler, Lincoln, Graybar, and Daily News buildings – were erected around 1927-1930: a photograph taken from the south shows the dramatic change of scale of the new development. Madison and Fifth avenues, as well as 57th Street in the Plaza District, also saw many new towers in the late 1920s.

Skyscraper Museum historic postcard collection
Skyscraper Museum historic postcard collection

The large Fairchild Aerial Survey mural of Midtown in 1951 captures the multitude of setback skyscrapers from around 51st and Lexington Avenue, near the bottom, and the Empire State Building in the distance near the middle. In its singularity, as much as its height, the Empire State – the tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1971 – has always commanded attention. Yet its separateness from the concentration of towers and transit near Grand Central was a disadvantage for the rental market. Finished as the economy slipped into the depth of the Great Depression, it earned the nickname the “Empty State Building” and did not become profitable until 1951. In the competitive environment of New York, skyscrapers cluster for basic economic reasons: location, location, location.

Skyscraper Museum historic postcard collection
Skyscraper Museum historic postcard collection


Fourth Era: Impact of 1961 Zoning

Installation view
Installation view: Context model (left) of lower Manhattan from the office of Emery Roth & Sons, 1970s. On loan from the collection of Jordan Auslander.

In 1961, after a decade of discussion, New York City changed the basic concept of how it regulated the height and bulk of high-rise buildings. The characteristic stepped pyramids and tall, thin towers created by the 1916 law were replaced by an entirely new formula that set a maximum amount of floor area. Based on a multiplier of the size of the particular site, this formula, called “FAR” (floor area ratio), was substantially more restrictive than the 1916 law, so across the city, commercial buildings were, effectively, “down-zoned.” For tall buildings, the 1961 law also allowed for the purchase and transfer of “air rights” and created the concept of bonus FAR, by which the City traded developers extra interior space for their creation of a privately-funded public plaza around the building, later known as POPS (privately-funded public space). 

The model on display in this case is half of a larger “context model” of lower Manhattan that was used to test designs. It was created, probably in the 1970s, by the office of Emery Roth & Sons, a three-generation, family-run firm that in the post-war era became the city’s most prolific commercial architects. Shown as the black tower, set back from the street in an open plaza, is 1 Battery Park Plaza, a 35-story simple slab, reminiscent of the Seagram Building in its brown tinted glass and dark mullions, developed by the Rudin family and completed in 1971. Emery Roth & Sons also designed a tower at 17 State Street, one block to the south, as well as 55 Water Street and other downtown towers. Several buildings in the model are missing, due to interventions by grandchildren.

Midtown at Dusk, Thomas O'Halloran, 1975. Library of Congress

In form and materials, the modern “International Style” skyscraper contrasted completely with the masonry-clad towers of the previous decades. In general, the key characteristics can be summarized in two words: glass boxes. Simple rectangular volumes, enveloped by a glass curtain wall with fixed, not operable, windows, air conditioned or heated, and brightly illuminated by fluorescent lights. This style had been popular since the 1950s, following the influential models of Lever House (1952), the Seagram Building (1958), and One Chase Manhattan Plaza (1961), and it became nearly ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

WORLD TRADE CENTER

Installation view

Upon their completion in 1971 and 1973, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were the tallest and largest skyscrapers in the world. Innovative engineering carried the structures to 110 stories – 1368 and 1362 feet (417 and 415 meters) – creating floors an acre in area, with more than 4 million square feet per building. Except for the contemporary Sears Tower in Chicago, nearly 100 feet taller, but slightly smaller in total area, no single skyscraper has ever matched their scale.

To be both big and tall was a phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s, the climax in the evolution of skyscraper size. The World Trade Center epitomized the era when faith in technology and a fascination with monumentality spurred designs for mega-structures and urban master plans. The sixteen-acre site was a “superblock” that combined fourteen city blocks into a single parcel, de-mapping streets and creating a car-free zone. The PATH commuter trains that crossed the Hudson entered the site under the towers and five-acre plaza that was also the area of the underground parking garage and the world’s largest underground shopping mall.

The World Trade Center was a government project of the bi-state agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). The PANYNJ owned the land, which had been ceded to them by the City, so as a government project, the regulations over private commercial development did not constrain their design. Seven buildings comprised the complex, with 1 WTC and 2 WTC, the North and South towers, and the plaza as the centerpiece of the design. Creating the edges of the site were low-rise structures, a suite of seven story buildings known as 4 WTC, 5 WTC, and 6 WTC (the U. S. Customhouse), all designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki to harmonize with the towers and to frame the plaza. The building with the address 3 WTC, the Marriott Vista Hotel on the southwest corner of the plaza on West Street, was envisioned in the original site plan, but was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1981. The almost-square site was extended on the north to include two blocks for an electrical substation.

September 11, 2001 defines our memory of the Twin Towers, and the profound proportions of that tragedy continue to reverberate in New York and beyond. The question of size in the urban scheme remains a complex issue for the future of tall buildings everywhere. As new spires around the world exceed the sheer height of the supertalls of the seventies, none have surpassed the overall scale of the giants of the twentieth century.

The model of the World Trade Center on display is an original model developed for, and on loan from, the Engineering Department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

 

MODERNIST SKYLINE, 1961 - 2000

New York skyline from Jersey City. Richard Berenholtz, 1999.

Lower Manhattan at the end of the 20th century is captured here by photographer Richard Berenholtz in a sweeping panorama taken from a pier near Liberty State Park that embraces the Statue of Liberty and the skyline along the Hudson all the way to the Empire State Building. The inevitable focus of the image is the World Trade Center; the massive height and scale of the Twin Towers, designed and constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, overwhelmed the surrounding mixed historical context. At 1368 and 1362 feet (417 and 415 meters), these giants were more than three times the height of the Park Row Building, the tallest skyscraper in 1900, and each tower contained more than thirteen times the floor area.

In 1999, Downtown was still a powerhouse of the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) economy, even as those sectors were changing. The bright lights that transform modern towers into glowing lanterns, especially in this vibrant sunset view, signal that, even at dusk, everyone is still working. This was a district dedicated to business.

In form and materials, the modern skyscraper departed completely from the masonry-clad towers of the earlier eras. The International Style “glass box” had been popular since the 1950s, following the influential models of Lever House, the Seagram Building, and One Chase Manhattan Plaza. Through the Sixties and Seventies, architects designed innumerable variations of pure rectangular volumes, enveloped by a glass curtain wall, air conditioned, and brightly illuminated by ceiling planes of fluorescent light. Often the simple slabs were set in an open space, a tower-in-the-plaza model that was encouraged by incentives introduced by the 1961 zoning law that gave bonus interior floor area for public space created around the building.

Richard Berenholtz has photographed the Manhattan skyline for more than thirty years. He is partial to the vivid, saturated colors of deep blue skies and pinks and yellows of the setting sun reflected on facades. Like Feininger, he favors a distant view, and he often returns to the same vantage over the years. This practice has allowed the museum to use his images, shot from Exchange Place in Jersey City in 1999, 2002, and 2018, to create a poignant sequence of the World Trade Center site — with and without the Twin Towers, and as rebuilt in June 2018. This series can be viewed on an interactive “slider”

 

NEXT: SKYLINE 2018