Category Archives: Skyscrapers

Ten & Taller: Height Makes Might in the latest Skyscraper Museum exhibition

Skyscrapers feel like constructs of the modern age because their appearances are constantly evolving — from Frank Gehry’s 76-floor twisty, silvery rocket at 8 Spruce Street to the elegant glass monolith of One World Trade Center.

But buildings with ten or more floors are an invention of the Gilded Age. Skyscrapers are older than subways, recorded music, and the cinema. And a concise new show at the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park City — Ten & Taller: 1874-1900 — excellently lays out New York’s contributions to the form.

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The subtitle to the show is key — “Mapping all Manhattan buildings ten stories or taller by use and date.” The show is a living catalog come to life. Or rather, a living map, specifically this one, illustrating the development of every tall building in Manhattan up to the start of the 20th century.  The show is based on the research of structural engineer Don Friedman who organized this special group on Manhattan structures (252 in all) in chronological order here.

Central to the exhibition is a gloriously massive map of Manhattan,  arduously stitched together from dozens of map plates derived from the 1909/1915 G. W. Bromley and Co. Atlas of The City of New York. This alone is worth the price of admission. If you are a map junkie, just the scale of this impressive work may distract you from subject at hand.

Below: George Post’s Produce Exchange Building (1884-1957) which once sat near Bowling Green.

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By studying this map, two facts about New York’s earliest skyscrapers will become obvious — 1) they weren’t merely a lower Manhattan phenomenon, and 2) builders sure loved to line Broadway. Animated maps like this one slowly fill the vast expanse of Manhattan with blips representing the presence of a new skyscraper.

Observing development overhead like this reveals vast numbers of new works, from the tip of Manhattan to the area around the American Museum of Natural History.

Below: The far less glamorous side of the Dakota, 1899

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The Dakota Apartments, one of the most northerly contributions, may not strike you as a skyscraper per se.

One wall of the exhibit lines up most of these tall buildings like a rogue’s gallery, and the overall effect is striking. Most ten-story buildings of this period, whether masonry or steel-frame construction, weren’t built to feel tall.  Many are ornamented in the Beaux-Arts style, the sort of decor seen more frequently on shorter buildings.  A design language specific to skyscrapers was yet to be developed.

Below: The sleekest of the pre-1900 buildings often shot up from small lots like the ones featured in this display.
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In addition, the exhibit focuses on one particular building — the Havemeyer Building, a 14-story skyscraper constructed in 1892, once located on Church Street — presenting massive blueprints to illustrate the grandiosity of its architect George B. Post. Nearby displays offer models revealing the evolution of building techniques up to steel-frame construction, finally allowing buildings to reach higher into the sky.

You’re certain to find at least one odd, long-departed building to fall in love with.  I was personally enamored by the Gillender Building, a short-lived marvel so slender that it was virtually useless. What a very curious (and very beautiful) use of space.

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Visit the Skyscraper Museum website for more information.  The museum is located in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City at 39 Battery Place, near the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Museum hours are 12-6 pm, Wednesday-Sunday.  General admission is $5, $2.50 for students and seniors

 

25 GREAT BOOKS ABOUT NEW YORK CITY ARCHITECTURE

“Manhattan has been compelled to expand skyward because of the absence of any other direction in which to grow. This, more than any other thing, is responsible for its physical majesty. It is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village – the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.”

— E.B. White (in Here Is New York)

Architecture is the art of how to waste space.”

— Philip Johnson (in the New York Times, Dec. 27, 1964)

Over the past few months I’ve done a couple of podcasts that specifically focused on New York City’s architectural prominence, the aesthetic flair that separates it from the rest of the world.  In the show ‘The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History, New York becomes a testing ground for engineering one-upmanship, a race to touch the sky that employed the grandeur of the Gilded Age, the beauty of Art Deco and the practicality of Modernism.  In ‘Ruins of the World’s Fair: the New York State Pavilion‘, architecture in New York breaks into the realm of the weird and the fantastic as a community struggles to figure out how to re-purpose a  strange work of art by an iconic architect.

Throughout these and other podcasts, I’ve amassed quite a list of books on New York architectural history.  So if you’re looking for something to read during these cold winter months, give one of these a try!

Here is a list of my 25 favorite books on the subject, from histories of specific buildings to theoretical (but very readable) essays on the future of architecture.

This is by no means a complete list. I’m just a historian dipping his toe into architectural history.    If you have any suggestions of books on this topic that I may have missed, please leave them in the comments section.  (NOTE: Comments are moderated so it may take an hour or two for your comment to appear.)

Some notes on this list:

— Many of these books deal with specific buildings in New York while others delve into specific concepts or theories that played out here in the city.  Some of these authors have more famous books on architecture (Le Corbusier‘s Towards An Architecture, for instance) but I felt that The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning spoke to the sort of New York style that would eventually emerge in the mid-century.

— There are two guide books here that are essential for your collection — the recent  AIA Guide To New York City and the Guide to New York City Landmarks.

— Yes, I’m plugging Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities again.

— Okay, so many you can’t read all 25 books.  If you have to go to just one book,  try the Ada Louise Huxtable anthology On Architecture which takes its name from a Roman treatise written in 15 BC for Augustus Caesar!  Or perhaps reach for Rem KoolhaasDelirious New York which revels in the power of New York’s specific cultural background in shaping its structures.

Manhattan Skyline: I. South Street and Jones Lane, Manhattan.. Abbott, Berenice — Photographer. March 26, 1936. Courtesy New York Public Library

 

UPDATE: I’m getting some additional selection from readers on Twitter.  Lavelle Porter recommends Harlem Lost and Found by Michael Henry Adams.

The grand opening of the World Trade Center on April 4, 1973; Richard Nixon, labor strikes and “General Motors Gothic”

Photography on this page, from various periods, by Edmund V. Gillon, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.  Check out their online gallery for some more beautiful black-and-white shots. 

Let me take you back to a simpler time, back to a time where it might have been okay to hate the actual World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center was originally seen as a representation of New York’s own dreams and failures.  The buildings represented progress to some, disruption to others.

An entire business district — Radio Row — was eliminated in its construction.  Another neighborhood — Battery Park City — sprang up in its shadow.  The monumental design by Minoru Yamasaki radically altered (distorted?) the skyline. Some of New York’s oldest streets were now blocked from sunlight. On the other hand, an area of Manhattan that would have been susceptible to rising blight was now renewed.  It was the apotheosis of post-modern design, the apex of New York City construction.

Everything grand and intolerable about New York City in the late 1960s/early 1970s was embodied here in these two impossibly tall shafts of metal.

Many saw a waste of resources and state governments with skewered priorities.  Business interests were hopeful the buildings would reinvigorate the Financial District.  They would, eventually.  But back in 1973 many openly wondered how its owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were even going to attract tenants.

Below: The view of downtown Manhattan from a New Jersey marina

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Edmund V Gillon
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Edmund V Gillon

After years of construction that transformed lower Manhattan, the buildings were officially opened in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 4, 1973.  Far from a rapturous embrace, the opening of the world’s tallest buildings was met with relief, resignation and turmoil.  Few were in a mood to celebrate two shiny new symbols of wealth in a city slowly nearing bankruptcy.

Here are a few more details from its opening day and its aftermath:

People were already over it:  The opening was occasioned by severe rain. (It’s in good company; the opening of the Statue of Liberty was also met with a downpour.)  Even without it, however, the celebration would have been heavily muted.  The ground was broken on the World Trade Center site almost seven years before, and New Yorkers had plenty of time to get used to the rising towers. The first tower had been completed by 1970, but by then, the city had become rather jaded to the expensive buildings.  As it was, lower levels of the second building were still not even completed.

Disagreements: The top luminaries at the opening were New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and New Jersey governor William T. Cahill.  The World Trade Center was a Port Authority project;  PATH trains to New Jersey were rumbling underneath (or were supposed to be, see below).

While the two governors seemed in playful spirits, Cahill openly resented the backseat his state took in the finished product.  According to author Eric Darton:  “Cahill implies that New Jersey’s commuter rail needs have taken second place to the trade center, and Rockefeller, still grinning, points towards the Jersey shore. ‘You see all those magnificent container ports,’ he says, ‘that took all those jobs away from New York.’ ”

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In Absentia: Gone were the days when U.S. presidents showed up at the opening of New York landmarks, but President Richard Nixon did send a statement, hailing WTC as “a major factor for the expansion of the nation’s international trade.”  That very same month, the Watergate cover-up erupted into the scandal that would eventually lead to his resignation the following year.

STRIKE! Not only was Nixon not there, but the man he designated to read the speech — Peter J. Brennan — was not even there.  Three days earlier, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen union began a strike against Port Authority.  Because of the strike, the PATH train — that glorious feature of the new World Trade Center — was closed for a total of 63 days.  Brennan was Nixon’s new Secretary of Labor, so it would hardly seem proper to break the picket line.  Nixon’s speech was delivered instead by a Port Authority chairman.

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Critics, Part One:  Noted labor leader and powerful mediator Theodore W. Kheel was violently against the states’ interest in the World Trade Center.  Calling it “socialism at its worst,” he demanded the governors take the podium on ribbon-cutting day and sell the building to private investors “at the earliest possible date.”

Others were perhaps understandably concerned that the buildings, given special tax status, were now a quarter-filled with state offices and certainly destined to empty and bankrupt office buildings with no such tax breaks in the surrounding area.  Luckily, Kheel did live to see the building sold to private concerns in 1998.

Critics, Part Two: Somebody else was saving up some vitriol for opening day — noted architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable.  Having years to craft some well-worded jabs, she did so in a column in the New York Times the following day. “These are big buildings, but they are not great architecture…..The Port Authority has built the ultimate Disneyland fairytale blockbuster.  It is General Motors Gothic.”

Critics, Part Three:  Labor leaders were disgruntled. Critics dismissed it.  But many New Yorkers outright loathed it. It’s a bit disturbing to read such outright disgust over structures that we have very different feelings about today.  From the Village Voice a week after the opening:  “The ecology-minded and those who are concerned with the energy crisis are fond of predicting that the building will have to be torn down — or at the very least abandoned — on that not-to-distant day when the power it consumes puts an intolerable strain on our already-diminishing power reserves.”

 

Nowhere to Eat:  The World Trade Center could facilitate thousands of employees, but, on opening day, it had one restaurant, called “Eat and Drink,” where “the waitresses wear hard hats and its busboys wear vests inscribed “Ecologist” on the back.” [source]  In the second building, a makeshift sandwich shop opened on the unfinished 44th floor.  Needless to say, outside food vendors in the area were not displeased.

Subversion The ribbon-cutting ceremony also marked the end of One World Trade Center’s dominance as the world’s tallest building.  Chicago trumped it when Sears Tower topped out at 1,454-feet less than one month later.

In New York, the buildings quickly became a totem of excess, of something that could be symbolically overcome.  You may be familiar with the daredevil Philippe Petit and his insane and unbelievably majestic (and illegal) tightrope walk between the towers.  But you may not remember that it took place just sixteen months after the opening, on August 6, 1974.  Two years later, King Kong performed a similar sort of feat in the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange.

But there was magic in the air.  On the very same day as the ribbon-cutting, in a hospital across the water in Brooklyn, a woman went into labor and gave birth to a child who would later become the nightclub-loving illusionist David Blaine.  The World Trade Center and David Blaine — born on the same day!

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The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History


Postcard from the past: When the Singer Building was the world’s tallest (NYPL)

PODCAST One World Trade Center was declared last year the tallest building in America, but it’s a very different structure from the other skyscrapers who have once held that title. In New York, owning the tallest building has often been like possessing a valuable trophy, a symbol of commercial and social superiority. In a city driven by commerce, size matters.

In this special show, I give you a rundown of the history of being tall in New York City, short profiles of the 12 structures (11 skyscrapers and one church!) that have held this title.  In several cases, these weren’t just the tallest buildings in the city; they were the tallest in the world.

At right: The Metropolitan Life Building, the tallest building in the world in 1909

Skyscrapers were not always well received.  New York’s tallest building in 1899 was derisively referred to as a “horned monster.”  Lower Manhattan became defined by this particular kind of structure, creating a canyon of claustrophobic, darkened streets.  But a new destination for these sorts of spectacular towers beckoned in the 1920s — 42nd Street.

You’ll be familiar with a great number of these — the Woolworth, the Chrysler, the Empire State.  But in the early days of skyscrapers, an odd assortment of buildings took the crown as New York’s tallest, from the vanity project of a newspaper publisher to a turtle-like tower made for a sewing machine company.

At stake in the race for the tallest is dominance in the New York City skyline.  With brand new towers popping up now all over the five boroughs, should be worried that they’ll overshadow the classics? Or should the skyline always be in a constant state of flux?

ALSO: New York’s very first tall buildings and the ominous purpose they were used for during the Revolutionary War!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #169 The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History
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And we would like to thank a new sponsor Audible, the premier provider of digital audiobooks. Get a FREE audiobook download and 30 day free trial at www.audibletrial.com/boweryboys. Over 150,000 titles to choose from for your iPhone, Android, Kindle or mp3 player Audible titles play on iPhone, Kindle, Android and more than 500 devices for listening anytime, anywhere.
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CORRECTION: Ack, I keep saying Crystal Palace Exposition when it’s actually Crystal Palace Exhibition! I mean, they basically mean the same thing, almost, right?
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Photo courtesy Huffington Post

The current tallest buildings in New York City are

1) One World Trade Center — 1,776 feet
2) 432 Park Avenue — 1,394 feet
3) 225 West 57t Street — 1,394 feet
4) Empire State Building — 1,250 feet
5) Bank of America Tower — 1,200 feet
6) Three World Trade Center — 1,171 feet
7 tie) Chrysler Building — 1,046 feet
7 tie) New York Times Tower — 1,046 feet
9) One57 — 1,005 feet
10) 4 World Trade Center — 977 feet

It should be noted that eight of these buildings didn’t exist 10 years ago

Statistics courtesy the Council On Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
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The sugar houses owned by the Rhinelander family. Others owned by the Van Cortlandts and the Livingstons would have all been the tallest structures in the city.

Trinity Church in 1889, the final year that it was the tallest permanent structure in New York City. (NYPL)

Trinity would be unparalleled in the New York skyline by any permanent buildings for almost 46 years.  But the Latting Observatory at the Crystal Palace Exhibition for a short time allowed New Yorkers the highest vantage on the island.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building, in context with its surroundings, including its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. This location would be its undoing, as the building was demolished later to make way for an automobile ramp.  (Courtesy Rotograph Project)

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building became a new neighbor for Trinity Church in 1894.  Its lantern top served as a lighthouse and an office for the New York Weather Bureau. (NYPL)

The Park Row Building, the original ‘twin towers’ of lower Manhattan, was criticized for its two-dimensional design but it’s managed to survive into modern times.  It used to host J&R Music World on its ground floor until that business closed last year.

The extraordinarily unusual headquarters for the Singer Sewing Machine Company.  The Singer Building has the rare distinction of being the tallest building every purposefully torn down when it was demolished in the 1960s.

Madison Square was already graced with both the Flatiron Building (below) and Madison Square Garden when it finally got its tallest skyscraper….. (NYPL)

…the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, pictured here with an early airplane above it, in a postcard produced by Underwood & Underwood. (NYPL)

The Woolworth Building (featured here on a cigarette card) is one of the greatest extant examples of pre-zoning law construction with no setbacks along the front side.

The Manhattan Company Building (or 40 Wall Street) sat among a host of other skyscrapers and was only briefly the city’s tallest building until Walter Chrysler and William Van Alen debuted their surprise uptown.

The Chrysler Building in 1930 with its spire freshly attached to the top, making it (for a little over a year) the tallest building in the world.

The Empire State Building became the tallest building — and the defining symbol of New York City — thanks to a determined executive from General Motors and Al Smith, the former governor of New York.

The World Trade Center returned attention to lower Manhattan and set a new record for height, literally leaving other former record holders in its shadow. (Photo courtesy Life Magazine)

SOURCES and RECOMMENDED READING

AIA Guide To New York City 2014
Empire State Building: The Making Of A Landmark — John Tauranac
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City — Neal Bascomb
Manhattan Manners — M. Christine Boyer
Pulitzer: A Life In Politics, Print and Power — James McGrath Morris
Rise of the New York Skyscraper — Sarah Bradford Landau
Skyscrapers:A Social History of the Very Tall Building In America — George H. Douglas
Supreme City — Donald Miller
and resources from the Landmark Preservation Commission and the New York Skyscraper Museum

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library

Supreme City: The ascent of Midtown Manhattan in the 1920s


A view of Midtown Manhattan, looking southeast, by the Wurts Brothers (NYPL)

Supreme City
How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America
by Donald L. Miller
Simon & Schuster

Supreme City, by Donald L. Miller, certainly one of the most entertaining books on New York City history I’ve read in the past couple years, is also one of the strangest.  Almost as an obligation, New York’s Prohibition-fueled nightlife and the rowdy administration of Jimmy Walker are conjured up front, and colorfully so, only to then be placed aside.

This is not a book about the standard subjects of the 1920s.  This is indeed an epic about New York City in the Jazz Age, but it’s a wildly different tune than the one in which you’re familiar.

This is a tale of architecture and invention, of a boldness and proportion that New Yorkers take for granted today.  Supreme City recounts the invention of Midtown Manhattan, but it’s also about a spiritual shift in urban life.  This is the story of how New York City became not only a supreme city, but a supersized one.

Miller, a professor of history at Lafayette College perhaps better known for his works on World War II, approaches the sprawl of New York’s most ambitious decade almost like a mathematician. He ties this epic — a swirl of large personalities and impossible ideas — into a specific intersection of time and place.

It’s as though a slew of particles (comprised of ambitions and personalities) just slammed into each other one day, creating a new form of urban environment.

Industrial visions and personal journeys alike culminate in the year 1927, a watershed date for New York history, and arrive within the Manhattan grid system, mostly along 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the nucleus of a new urban vision.  The story ventures out through the entire city of course but always to the beat of this new Midtown.

From here, Miller brings in the components of growth, the great innovators and personalities, plotted in relation to each other and to the great city blossoming under their feet.

These aren’t just the standard innovators, the expected cast — David Sarnoff, Duke Ellington, Charles Lindburgh. Sure, you get a bit Texas Guinan‘s drunken swagger, a little of Jack Dempsey‘s scrappiness.  But Miller gives equal prominence to perhaps less colorful real estate gurus and planners whose contributions created the playing field of modern New York. While it’s always nice to relive the 1920s through a lens of champagne and The Great Gatsby, Miller’s concern is with the players who actually built the city.

The engineer William Wilgus receives deserved placement in Supreme City for his innovations of covering the unpleasant tracks of Grand Central to create acres of new land, “taking wealth from the air” and inventing New York’s ultimate canyon of wealth — Park Avenue.

Architect Emery Roth brought the apartment skyscraper to Midtown and practically invented the allure of the penthouse.  The almost faceless Fred French — his section is actually called “Who on Earth was Fred French?” — turned the apartment complex into a swanky, thematic thrill with such Midtown projects as Tudor City (a 1928 illustration pictured at left).

Of course, it took the wealthiest New Yorkers to fuel these changes. New money sparked the new playing field.  The old families hastened their migration up Fifth Avenue, their mansions abandoned, torn down and replaced with the high-end shops in which they would later shop.

While department store masters like Edwin Goodman swept out the socialites to build his Fifth Avenue temple of commerce Bergdorf-Goodman, the pleasant rivalry between Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden helped generate the avenue’s reputation of social perfection and high glamour.

Sensing the upward surge of Midtown — its almost-amoral infinite rise — impresarios like Samuel “Roxy” Rothefeld, Florenz Ziegfeld and George “Tex” Rickard rose to create venues to corral the masses.  Midtown became home in the 1920s to the industries of entertainment — publishing, radio, television.  Even Seventh Avenue below Times Square found purpose in the swell as America’s Garment District.

As Midtown grew in the 1920s, the instruments of getting there also rose to the challenge, finally conquering the Hudson River, from the Holland Tunnel to the George Washington Bridge.

The story is so big that Miller can’t contain all of it. Supreme City captures that place before the Great Depression, perhaps New York’s single most decadent moment. He does not venture out into the other boroughs and rarely even ventures below 42nd Street. From the vantage of the Chrysler Building — the treasure most indicative of the age — those places are hazy and distant.  By the last page of this heavy tome, Midtown Manhattan creates everything, drives everything, almost entirely is everything.  That energy is certainly infectious, making Supreme City is an rich, propelling read.

Before Woolworth: The early towers of lower Broadway at the birth of the skyscraper boom

Next week is the 100th birthday of the opening of the Woolworth Building.  The classic skyscraper designed by Cass Gilbert changed everything about perceptions of tall buildings in Manhattan — for good and ill.  Suddenly, towers could be as graceful and important as monuments, and as playful and enigmatic as castles.

New Yorkers were anxious to fill their downtown with glorious towers for business, to best their rivals in Chicago (where many of the finest architects worked) and to prove the city’s grandeur to the world.

To that end, the New York Sun on April 13, 1913, ran this curious map in their real estate section, under the header “Rebuilding of Lower Manhattan Progressing Slowly.”  The point of the section is clear;  lower Manhattan was filled with useless old, rundown buildings that needed to be replaced at once!

It was this push at the start of the 20th century that gives lower Manhattan its unusual character, with few buildings before 1890 still standing.  The ‘canyon’ of lower Broadway was beginning to develop by 1913, only to be further dramatized with taller, more dramatic structures in the coming years.  The height of the structures along Broadway and around Wall Street soon eclipsed those structures on Park Row and most of the early skyscrapers built further up Manhattan, around Madison Square.

Some of the buildings lining Broadway before 1913 included:

The Singer Building (149 Broadway), the tallest building in the world in 1908 (at left, with St. Paul’s Chapel in center, photo from 1910):

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building (64-70 Broadway), the tallest building from 1894-99 (pictured here in 1895) There’s an entire blog devoted to his building. Pic is from there.

The building being constructed in the photo above is the American Surety Building (100 Broadway) which is still standing today.  The building was constructed in 1896.  In the background you can also see another mighty skyscraper, the very Venetian-styled Bankers Trust Company Building (14 Wall Street), finished in 1912. (Pic courtesy LOC)

And the Trinity Building (111 Broadway), completed in 1907, also still around today.  It replaced a five story office building from 1853 that had been designed by Richard Upjohn. (LOC)

I love that most of the above buildings can be seen in relation to Trinity Church (79 Broadway), once the tallest building at 284 feet.  (Pictured below completely surrounded by skyscrapers by 1916, picture courtesy LOC)

All of these buildings pre-date the Woolworth Building and, of course, the 1916 Zoning Resolution that required architects to build setbacks into their designs.  In fact, in the photo of Trinity above, you can see the principal reason the zoning law was enacted — the colossal Equitable Building, finished in 1915.

Next week: More on the 100th anniversary of the Woolworth Building!

You can read the New York Sun section from April 1913 here.

The Big Wind of 1912: New York skyscrapers in peril, as monster gales hurl “men and women down city streets”

Trauma in Times Square: An electrical sign destroyed by the massive windstorm of February 22, 1912. One Times Square sits to the left, and the Hotel Astor is in the distance. [LOC] Shorpy has an another angle of this damaged storefront.

“The great gale that blew in with Washington’s birthday will not soon be forgotten. It was the biggest New York ever knew.” — New York Evening World, Feb. 23, 1912

 I hope you’ll indulge me for just one more post about life in February 1912. In fact, my last two posts on pilot Frank Coffyn and the exhausted women of Astor Place have led up to this event, a catastrophic weather anomaly which occurred on February 22, 1912, an event the New York Times referred to as ‘The Big Wind’.

This particular day has also been called “a significant day in the history of tall buildings,” although I doubt anybody today will be celebrating this rather vicious and sudden test of architectural endurance.

New Yorkers thought it might be worse. The storm system began the previous day as a blinding Midwestern blizzard, paralyzing the railroad and killing cattle. St. Louis received its greatest snowfall ever up to that time from this churning storm, and Chicago reported winds of up to 50 miles per hour. If it held this pattern by the time it hit the East, New Yorkers feared another storm of the level of the Blizzard of 1888, which buried the city in snow, rendered transportation useless, and killed more than 200 people.

In one respect, the city was fortunate that snowfall was relegated to upstate New York. The grim meteorological trade off, unfortunately, was a day of powerful, otherworldly wind gusts, almost double the strength of those during the infamous 1888 storm.

The worst of it came after midnight, when a terrifying frozen bluster “swooped down on the city with all its length and breadth” at speeds of 96 miles per hour. At one point, devices in Central Park registered an unthinkable 110 miles per hour. By morning it had settled to 70 miles per hour and held that speed steady for much of the day. [source]

Some called this “giant among gales” a day-long cyclone, and it certainly acted like one — uprooting trees, destroying rooftops and even depositing whole houses into the river. People were blown off their feet, carts went flying and pedestrians dodged falling telephone poles in terror. Most leaving home wearing hats ran back inside without them.  If any of those women from yesterday’s Astor Place post were trekking through the plaza with their home-work today, they most likely lost it to the wind.

Foremost on the minds of most New Yorkers was the fate of its skyline. In 1888, during the last harsh storm, there were no skyscrapers. In 1912, there were several over 30 floors, including the city’s tallest, the 50-floor Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower off Madison Square. Although most buildings were designed to withstand significant wind trauma, none of them were prepared for winds above 70 miles per hour. And the building slated to become the next tallest in New York — the Woolworth Buildingwas still under construction, its metal skeleton now a potential arsenal of deadly debris.

Panes of glass shattered throughout the city, but it appears most of New York’s tallest structures survived without significant damage. In fact, it was the shorter, older structures that fared worst, many of them designed with little protection from powerful winds.

Below: the downtown Manhattan skyline in 1912. Most of these buildings survived the ‘Big Wind’ with only damage to their windows. [pic]

Not that modern invention came away unscathed that day. The electrical signs of Times Square, many no more than a few months old, were no match for the powerful gusts. Several were destroyed, including a one provocative sign at 47th Street, featuring “two scantily clad electric boys who box nightly in Summer underwear.” [source] Next to the Hotel Knickerbocker, a 200-foot electric sign crumbled to the sidewalk below in front of Hepners Hair Emporium, a police officer racing into the establishment a minute before the sign crashed into the plate glass window of the railroad ticket office next door.

Across the street, at the Times Building, a drug store window exploded, and “many bottles of perfume and drugs” were hurled at passers-by.

Most boats all along the waterfront were either damaged or untethered. Predictably, beach houses on Rockaway Beach and other quieter locales fared the worst. The luckiest structures survived with nary a window remaining; those less fortunate were found floating offshore. In Astoria, Queens, the roof to the jail was taken off, to the fright of the occupants inside.

At right: Times Square in August 1912. The White Rock sign was probably not around for the February wind storm. The ‘electric boys’ sign described above sat at this intersection.

In Red Hook, Brooklyn, turbulent winds kept a raging fire alive at a brick manufacturing plant, distributing flaming pitch shrapnel to several buildings across the street, including a hay and horse feed dealership! (One of many reasons they don’t keep hay dealerships in crowded cities today.) The brick factory, which took several hours to control, was about three blocks from the location of today’s IKEA store.

February 22, 1912, happened to be the 180th anniversary of George Washington‘s birth, and hundreds of veterans tried marching from Jefferson Market to Union Square. Flags raised aloft in celebration were torn to ribbons. Nobody was injured, although the gusts caused major inconvenience, “Salvation Army object lessons and banner bearers bowled over by the wind.”  [source]

Others were not as fortunate. The Times attributed at least one death to the storm and over a dozen concussions from flying debris, messenger boys and seamstresses blown into windows or railings or hit by signs or dislodged cornices. One man, waiting for his wife at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, had his neck slashed by flying glass. Where physical harm was avoided, humiliation took its place. A society woman on Riverside Drive, wearing “superabundantly costly furs,” was picked up and thrown into a horse.

Meanwhile, down at the Battery, Frank Coffyn was preparing for another takeoff off the water on his pontoon-equipped airplane. The wind had other plans, ripping the wings off the plane and spoiling Coffyn’s flight. Later that day, Coffyn wired his old boss Wilbur Wright for replacement parts. (See my post from last week for more information of Coffyn’s harbor flights..)

By the late evening, winds had died down to a mere 44 miles per hour. (For comparison, New York City’s average wind speed today is just 12.2 miles per hour.) In the morning, things were back to normal — except for huge mess of metal and glass left scattered on the streets.

A century ago, excitement builds as the Woolworth ascends

The Woolworth Building, as it appeared on January 20, 1912 (Courtesy LOC)

The Woolworth Building was the biggest story in real estate one hundred years ago, long before it was even completed.

By the waning moments of 1911, something finally began to rise out of the belching smoke and clutter collecting at the northwest corner of Broadway and Barclay Street . The building’s architect Cass Gilbert was busy at work drafting the details of the interior, and as the tower rose, so too did the cost. Luckily, retail king Frank W. Woolworth would eventually pay the entire bill ($13.5 million, from an original project cost of $5 million) in cash.

In a Jan 7, 1912 article, the New York Times assessed the state of real estate in the city, observing that the greatest developments for the year were in ‘apartment houses and lofts’, particularly on the Upper West Side and the neighborhoods west of Broadway between 14th Street and 42nd Street. While residential property was the hot commodity, they made note of seven ‘purely office structures’ that were also debuting. Of those listed, the clear standout was the new office building being designed for Woolworth.

The New York Sun was also dazzled by the Woolworth’s construction that month, announcing its construction as the crown of the ‘world’s greatest building construction era’. Any firm hired for the project promptly touted its involvement in full-page advertisements. Otis Elevators boasted of its ‘Marvelous Vertical Railways … That Are to “Whiz” the Army of Workers Up With Lightning Speed.’

It would take over fifteen months from that moment for the Woolworth Building to be completed, and what a game-changer it was when it officially opened on April 24, 1913. The tallest building in the world until 1930, the Woolworth is also distinctive to this day for its monolithic surface of terra cotta, built before the requirements of setbacks turned future skyscrapers into virtual ‘wedding cakes’.

But back in January 1912, as you can see, it rose on a few floors from street-level, not even as high as the City Hall Post Office which sat across the street. The picture below (from NYPL), taken over a month later, indicates its proximity to the post office:

(As for the picture at top, the Library of Congress dates it as January 20, 1912, while the New York Public Library has it as December 28, 1911. You get the idea. Regardless, it’s a photo by favorite photographer Irving Underhill.)