IT is easy to point out the important skyscrapers on the New York skyline – like the Woolworth (1913), tallest in the world until 1930; the Chrysler (1930), the Art Deco masterpiece, and the Empire State (1931), which superseded the Chrysler as the tallest. But there are also buildings significant in the history of the skyscraper that one never sees on a walking tour or a Circle Line cruise – because they have been demolished.
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Earliest on the list, and by most accounts the Mayflower of skyscraper real estate is the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway. Completed in 1870, this was the first office building with elevators – spurring ad hoc elevator installations in many other downtown buildings – and, more important, the first where the top floors were not just marginal space, several long flights up.
The original Equitable Building, 1870 – 1912.
Henry B. Hyde, president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, had trouble convincing his fellow directors of the scheme, but his ultimate success – the top floors rented out just fine – marked a radically different chapter in urban real estate, where the heights of buildings were no longer regulated simply by the willingness to climb stairs.
Over 125 feet high, the Second Empire-style Equitable could have been any bank or public building of its period. It lasted but four decades, vanishing from the scene following a spectacular fire in 1912.
The replacement Equitable Building, 1916 – now.
Its 40-story replacement – still standing at 120 Broadway and known as the Equitable Building – was so massive that it provoked the first serious regulation of office buildings in New York, the Zoning Resolution of 1916. The resolution pioneered setback lines for skyscrapers that would permit more light and air to reach the street.
The next great leap after the original Equitable Building was taken in 1873, when Western Union and The New York Tribune announced plans for buildings with the first really pronounced skyscraper profiles.
This giant turreted building located at Broadway and Dey Street was built by George P. Post in 1872-5. Its height of 230 feet was made possible by the recent invention of the passenger elevator. 100 telegraph operators worked in this building which was open 24 hours a day and lit by night. Its tower was an important landmark for mariners in New York Harbor. Here it dwarfs its neighbor, the Goodyear Rubber Goods building. It later burnt down, and was the first major fire in a high-rise building in New York.
The Western Union Building, designed by George B. Post, opened in 1875 at the northwest corner of Broadway and the Dey Street, a great wedding cake of a building topped by an improbable pyramidal mansard roof and clock tower.
The Tribune Building 1875 – 1966
The Tribune Building at Nassau Street and Park Row, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, had an even more vertiginous clock tower, in this case rising directly from the front building line.
The Tribune and Western Union Buildings were tall, 260 and 230 feet respectively, but still shorter than the steeple of nearby Trinity Church, at 280 feet. But in their great bulk and clearly skyscraping ambitions, they signaled the end of the hegemony of the church steeple on the New York skyline.
The Western Union Building was substantially altered in the 1890′s, and then demolished for the A.T.&T. Building in the 1910′s. The Tribune Building, however, survived until 1966 when it was demolished for the present Pace University complex.
As buildings grew in height, the walls at the lower floors had to increase in width. Although few large buildings had outer walls that actually supported the interior floors – metal cage construction had been introduced for this purpose – the outer walls still had to support themselves top to bottom.
No one had yet introduced the full metal skeleton that, by supporting the outer walls on metal beams at each floor, created the curtain wall essential to all modern skyscraper construction. But in 1888, John Noble Stearns, a silk manufacturer, gave his architect, Bradford Lee Gilbert, a problem that could not be solved by conventional methods. Stearns had a plot running from New Street to Broadway, just south of Wall Street. Since the Broadway frontage was just 21 feet, traditional construction would have left room on the lower floors only for a hallway.
So Gilbert used a metal framework to support both the 10 floors and the outer walls, the first use of skeleton construction for an entire building in New York. Gilbert’s skeleton at 50 Broadway was crude – it was iron rather than steel, some of the uppermost walls were not curtain but bearing walls and it was not really revolutionary in terms of advancing skyscraper construction. Gilbert simply had an unusual problem and used an obscure structural system to solve it. The implication of skeleton construction caught most others unaware, also. The Real Estate Record & Guide discussed the building at length in 1888 and 1889, barely mentioning the structural system, focusing instead on the neo-Romanesque facade, ”a good story spoiled in the telling.” The architectural press ignored the Tower Building.
The Tower Building, 1888 – 1926.
The Society of Architectural Iron Manufacturers put up a commemorative plaque recognizing the building’s structural significance, but it was demolished in 1926.
According to an article by William J. Fryer in ”The History of Real Estate, Building and Architecture in New York City” (1898), the second metal skeleton building was put up in 1889-1890 at 25 Pine Street on a 24-foot-wide lot. For the Lancashire Fire Insurance Company, J.C. Cady designed a 10-story steel skeleton office tower that survived until 1928.
The Lancashire Fire Insurance Company, 1889 – 1928.
The third skeleton construction, the Columbia Building, had a comparably narrow plot, but a prominent site – with 30 feet of frontage on Broadway, at the northwest corner of Morris Street. But the corner site gave the architectural firm of Youngs & Cable the opportunity for a much more interesting facade than its predecessors, and its 12-story chateau-like design, completed in 1891, survived until 1930.
The Columbia Building, 1891 – 1930.
AS improvements in elevators, framing and mechanical services permitted higher and higher buildings, opposition to them began to mount. Reforms were proposed, and Ernest Flagg was one of those interested. Throughout the 1890′s and early 1900′s, he often wrote and spoke on skyscraper regulation.
He got a chance to put his ideas into practice in 1903, when he was asked to design a 47-story building for the Singer Company at 149 Broadway.
Flagg’s concept was that the tower of the building should be allowed to rise without limit – as long as it occupied only 25 percent of the site. His tower, completed in 1908, was exuberantly Beaux-Arts in style, mixing glass, steel and red brick.
He was the most effective proponent of the free-standing tower, and his narrow Singer tower was the earliest large office building to adhere to some sort of restriction. As such, it encouraged the acceptance by the public and the real estate industry of skyscraper regulation.
The Singer Building was demolished in 1967 amid widespread protest, but the two-year-old Landmarks Preservation Commission did not act. Its executive director, Alan Burnham, was quoted in The New York Times in 1967 as saying, ”If the building were made a landmark, we would have to find a buyer, or acquire it.” He added that the panel did not ”have a big enough staff to be a real estate broker for a skyscraper.”
The Singer Building, 1908 – 1967.
Since the demolition of the Singer and Tribune buildings in the 1960′s, no skyscraper of first-rank significance has been demolished, and now the most important examples of skyscraper construction in Manhattan – perhaps a score of buildings, such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center – are protected by landmark designation.
Most steel-frame buildings were designed, with proper maintenance, to last for centuries, so it seems that the gap in New York’s skyscraper legacy will remain relatively fixed for years to come.
CHRISTOPHER GRAY, NYT, May 15, 1988