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A History of New York City Skyscrapers

Many people are drawn to the beautiful skyline of New York City, in all its spired brilliance and Art Deco style.

But the sheer beauty of the buildings often belie their interesting — and complicated — origins. Let us assist you in impressing your fellow travelers — and even New Yorkers — with a deep-rooted knowledge of our vertical landmarks.

One World Trade Center

NYC's Freedom Tower
Credit

Known as "The Freedom Tower" during its construction, this new addition to the NYC skyline serves as the main building in the new WTC complex. Named for one of the towers destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, it stands 104 stories and is the fourth-tallest skyscraper in the world, and the tallest in New York City. The 9/11 Memorial Museum is located nearby.

The Flatiron Building

The Flatiron Building

In the late 1800s, real estate values forced the city to be build upward. Considered the oldest skyscraper in New York (although no longer a skyscraper by today’s definition—500 feet), the 285-foot Flatiron Building is an architectural favorite, and arguably the most dramatic and sophisticatedly designed building in the city. Designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham in order to create a business center north of Wall Street, the building’s shape is due to the awkward lay of land at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Ave. at 23rd St. Structural steel weighing 3,680 tons stabilized the building, making it the first in New York City to be constructed this way, and it was covered with limestone and a terra-cotta façade. Although hardly among the city’s tallest buildings now, it remains the most photographed, as it can easily be captured in its entirety.

The Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building NYC

The Chrysler Building (left), as seen from the top of the Empire State Building

In 1929, the intensity of the “race for the sky” rose exponentially and automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler was up to the challenge. For him, building the tallest building in the world was a status symbol, and he battled the Bank of Manhattan Trust Company for the distinction. In the spring of 1930, it appeared that the Bank was going to win with its 927-foot building — that is, until the Chrysler’s seven-story pinnacle was hoisted through the roof and positioned on top of its crown within 90 minutes. This made it the world’s tallest structure at 1,046 feet, the first to surpass the height of the Eiffel Tower. In addition to being the world’s tallest, the Chrysler Building (Lexington Ave. & 42nd St.) was also one of the most decorated office buildings in the world.

The Empire State Building

Empire State Buiding

The Chrysler Building retained the title of the world’s tallest for four months—until the Empire State Building (Fifth Ave. & 34th St.) ultimately won the competition, standing at 1,250 feet tall. Developed by John Raskob, a former vice president of General Motors, the ESB was built on the former site of the Waldorf-Astoria. Raskob is said to have asked architects Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, “How high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” Amazingly, the ESB took only one year and forty-five days to build, and cost less than $25 million. (Labor costs were low due to the Great Depression.) It officially opened on May 1, 1931 to a lot of fanfare — a ribbon was cut, Mayor Jimmy Walker gave a speech, and President Herbert Hoover lit up the tower with the symbolic push of a button in Washington, D.C. The ESB held the record of highest skyscraper until the World Trade Center opened in 1973.

The Empire State Building remains one of the most beloved structures in the world. As striking as it is in the daytime, it has used outside lights to celebrate events since 1932, when a searchlight beacon shone from the top, announcing that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected president.

One very foggy morning in 1945, a U.S. Army B-52 bomber accidentally crashed into the 79th floor, creating a hole 18-feet wide and 20-feet high. The fuel caught fire, hurtling flames down the side of the building and the stairwells all the way to the 75th floor. Fourteen people were killed and the damages amounted to $1 million, but the structure itself was not seriously damaged. In 1985, a 22-story television antenna was attached to the top, bringing the total height to 1,454 feet. The antenna also serves as a lightning rod that absorbs around 100 lightning strikes a year, protecting surrounding buildings.

The ESB has acted as “Ambassador to New York” to many of the world’s renowned political figures, including kings, queens, and dictators, and is visited by millions of tourists every year. It has been scaled by King Kong and — in real life — by French urban climber Alain “Spiderman” Robert, who climbed the building in 1994 using only his hands and feet. Although it is no longer the world’s tallest building (Dubai's Burj Khalifa now holds the honor), it is quite possibly the most famous, and will always be a New York City icon. (For observatory info, click here.)

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