The Manhattan skyline: A history of watching it rise (and rise and rise) at the Skyscraper Museum

The Manhattan skyline is greater than the sum of its parts, even when those ‘parts’ are some of the greatest examples of architecture in the world. It remains a breathtaking site from an airplane, looking like a majestic, living circuit board. For most of its existence it was the only skyscraper-made skyline in the harbor; today it’s reflected by newer constructions in Brooklyn, Queens and the New Jersey waterfront, the product of the modern age’s newest skyscraper boom.

In SKYLINE, an impressive new show at the Skyscraper Museum, you can watch the growth of this ever-changing treasure, an evolving structural personality, from the late 19th century and into the future. Below: the New York skyline, 1896

In the late 1870s, when buildings first began rising to ambitious heights in lower Manhattan, they were anomalies, hardly peeking over the Trinity Church steeple. But by 1932, by the time skyscraper construction had taken over Midtown, they had collectively formed a spectacular profile from the harbor, like a futuristic mountain range, illuminated with electric lights from lofty perches.

The exhibition features arduously produced, interactive photo sliders, piecing together archive photography, in particular, one revealing a glorious evolution from 1908 to 1932, the most beautiful structures in New York rising before your eyes.

Before the skyline, New York celebrated its image with individual landmarks or with symbolic (often Dutch or colonial) imagery. But its ever-morphing collection of skyscrapers gave the city a personalized look and one that grew more recognizable throughout the 20th century (thanks to glorious magazines and postcards, many featured in the exhibit).

The show also provides a look at future constructions planned for the city via mock-up drawings of projects in the works. That glorious skyline of yours, that romantic silhouette that made you fall in love with New York City, is disappearing, the city’s most classic skyscrapers overshadowed by newer, super-tall newcomers. But, then again, the skyline has never remained still, and you may learn to love the new one.

now through January, 2019
The Skyscraper Museum is located in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City at 39 Battery Place. Museum hours are 12-6 PM, Wednesday-Sunday.


At top, 1931 skyline, photo by Samuel Gottscho, cleaned-up image by Shorpy