The skyscraper can trace its ancestry back many years, millennia in fact, before the existence of New York City. The book of Genesis tells the story of Babel, the Babylonian city in which Noah’s descendants tried to erect the mythological tower: ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into Heaven.’ For their presumption the people were punished: their words were made incomprehensible to one another. This aetiological tale of the diversity of speech could easily be applied to New York, home to the speakers of some 800 languages, a city in which cab drivers routinely set their satnavs to Russian, Bengali or Serbo-Croatian.
The notion of a building soaring hundreds of feet above the pavement was in the nineteenth century given the name ‘skyscraper’, a nautical term referring to a small triangular sail set above the skysail on a ship. In time, such edifices came to be seen as an intrinsic feature of Gotham’s landscape. By the 1930s, the Manhattan landscape was dotted with about 100 buildings worthy of the name skyscraper, albeit ones that responded to an early twentieth-century definition of the term, from the iconic Flatiron Building to the Gothic Revival Woolworth Building.
How and why did this phenomenon come about? The answer to the How can be found in two events that took place in the nineteenth century, each of which contributed to the radical transformation of the Manhattan landscape. At the 1853 Crystal Palace Exhibition, on the site where the New York Public Library now stands, the master mechanic Elisha Graves Otis clambered onto a platform suspended by a cable above a crowd of onlookers. On a signal, he ordered the cable to be severed. To the spectators’ amazement the platform dropped a few inches and then held fast, thanks to a safety device Otis had installed to prevent it crashing to the ground.
Thus was born the precursor of the modern lift, which in turn was to give birth to the Otis Elevator Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of vertical transport systems. This meant that apartment dwellers and office workers could now ascend to great heights in a building without having to climb stairs.
While Otis was dazzling audiences with his failsafe hoist, a revolution was underway in the European steel-making industry. Until the mid-nineteenth century steel was regarded almost as a precious metal, used mostly for cutlery and weaponry. But technological advances imported from Britain, where Sheffield mills had moved into the vanguard of the industrial revolution with inventions like crucible and stainless steel, greatly reduced manufacturing costs in America. By the late nineteenth century, having incorporated these developments and given the sheer size of its industrial base, the United States had become the world leader in steel manufacturing. This meant that not only could people be transported up and down buildings in safety, but it was possible to erect tall structures without having to rest them on enormously thick and space-consuming masonry walls. With the tools in hand to literally build to the sky, the 1930s became New York’s defining architectural decade. This was when the city’s skyline attained its maximum splendour: the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
As the Great Depression tightened its grip, the down-and- outers huddled on Manhattan’s park benches gazed in wonder at the steady rise of the 77-storey Chrysler Building, which on completion in 1930, became the world’s tallest skyscraper – until it was surpassed only 11 months later by the 102-storey colossus of the Empire State Building.
Ten million bricks, 60,000 tons of steel, 200,000 cubic feet of stone, 300 tons of exterior chrome-nickel steel, 450 tons of cast aluminium, 10,000 tons of plaster, nearly seven miles of shafts for 67 lifts capable of running at a speed of 1,200 feet per minute to serve 1,239 entrances, more than 17 million cubic feet of telephone and telegraph wire, 6,400 windows, 6,700 radiators, 51 miles of plumbing, 396 openings into mail chutes and a ventilating system delivering 725,000 feet of air per minute – all put in place in a breathtaking thirteen months.
That’s the How. As for the Why, almost all of Manhattan’s skyscrapers arose as testimonials to commercial enterprise. By the 1920s, New York had become the nation’s gateway for the export of manufactured goods, as well as the magnet for human capital. The birth of the modern skyscraper corresponds in time to the founding of large American corporations. Woolworth and Bankers Trust, for instance, were among top companies that chose to set up headquarters in New York. With a massive increase in the number of white-collar workers in clerical and managerial jobs, the need for sprawling factory floor space was overtaken by a demand for verticality. These were the years when the skyscraper grew to maturity, when architecture was put securely in the service of engineering and the profit motive, and when the identity of New York became inextricably associated with its skyline.
Manhattan’s skyscrapers, those colossal, in-your- face spires, prevail in breathtaking silence over the uproar of Gotham’s streets. They endure in the mind’s eye, towering above the city lights, which glitter like a spray of crystal beads. The Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand expressed it in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead: ‘I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel.’
Though overshadowed by towers put up since the skyscraper heyday of the 1930s, the showstopper has to be that Art Deco masterpiece, the Empire State Building. To visitors and New Yorkers alike, this is the quintessential symbol of the Manhattan skyline. The 104-storey One World Trade Center may stand as Gotham’s tallest building — but can anyone seriously imagine a great ape perched on its pinnacle, clutching Fay Wray in one hand while beating off a squadron of dive-bombing biplanes with his fist?
Author Jules Stewart is a native New Yorker, a former Reuters correspondent, who has seen the city from every angle, including that of Yellow Cab driver. He is the author of Gotham Rising: New York in the 1930s, which will be published by I.B. Tauris in the US on January 30, 2017 and has written 8 other books. He worked as a reporter at Reuters for 10 years before going freelance in 1994. His articles have appeared in The Sunday Times, the FT Weekend Magazine, The Scotsman, BBC History Magazine, History Today, The Guardian and a few other national publications. He is also a regular contributor to Geographical, Military History Monthly and World Archaeology.
Photo: Skyscraper empire state building, 1930, courtesy Lewis Hine.