The Skyscraper Museum is devoted to the study of high-rise building, past, present, and future. The Museum explores tall buildings as objects of design, products of technology, sites of construction, investments in real estate, and places of work and residence. This site will look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.
Our TEN & TALLER survey is the first to include every building in the category of those erected in Manhattan that were ten stories of taller from 1874-1900, and our three interfaces thus present an unprecedented way of visualizing the historical development of New York’s commercial architecture. Each interface – the Map, the Timeline, and the Grid – offers a way to see the entire group of buildings, in effect, simultaneously.
By encompassing all uses (offices, apartments, hotels, lofts, and a category called “other”, which includes stores, factories, warehouses, as well as some institutional structures), this survey creates a more accurate picture of the complexity of the city’s high-rise commercial development than a census of only office buildings.
The video summarizes our historical observations based on a new ability to see the footprints of tall buildings added to the map by year. This mapping process clearly reveals two key insights. First, from the early proliferation of big, multi-story buildings in the 1880s, there were two principal use types that were equally large: office and residential. Second, these were separated into different zones of development – with offices in lower Manhattan and apartments and hotels in the area north of 23rd Street and especially bordering Central Park.
In addition, the map demonstrates the importance of Broadway as the corridor for high-rise, high-value development. Our map’s interactive slide bar that can add footprints by year dramatizes the explosion of construction in the last years of the century, especially from 1896 through 1900 (the end year of our survey). Slide the bar slowly to add footprints from 1893 – when there were just four buildings of ten or more stories on Broadway from Chambers Street to 34th Street – to 1900, when there were fifty. This high-rise development was not only office buildings, but also lofts and hotels. And as the slide bar also demonstrates when the yearly loading is animated, the development along Broadway was not a steady march northward, but a simultaneous filling in along the length of the corridor.
Broadway acted, in effect, as an elevated causeway between the areas that eventually grew into New York’s two distinctive central business districts (CBDs), Downtown and Midtown. This is important to note, because the area between the later twentieth-century skyscraper clusters has often been referred to as a “valley” of lower-rise buildings. Some even explain the alleged valley as the result of the greater depth of solid bedrock in the area that would make skyscrapers’ foundations less stable or more costly. While such arguments can easily be debunked by examining the variety of foundation technologies in New York’s early skyscrapers, the fallacy of “bedrock beliefs” is not the point here: it’s the fallacy of the “valley” that needs to be reexamined.
In the last years of the century, tall loft buildings crowded onto Broadway or very close to it, especially near Washington and Union squares, and on both the cross streets and Fifth Avenue from 16th to 22nd Streets. Lofts were erected as purely speculative real estate, rented for any use, including light manufacturing. Many contained businesses related to the garment industry, New York’s largest manufacturing sector. Lofts generally housed multiple tenants who leased part or all of one or more floors; they had small lobbies and minimal elevators, services, or amenities. As our map shows, the number of tall lofts on Broadway far exceeded the number of new office buildings: 21 lofts from Canal Street to 23rd Street, as opposed to 12 office buildings.
As the orange bands on our timeline chart make clear, there was an extraordinary boom in loft construction from 1896 through 1900. The design and construction, as well as the economics and financing of this building type, which becomes even more prominent and ubiquitous in the early years of the twentieth century, is a subject in need of closer study.
Click to expand the timeline
TIMELINE OF CONSTRUCTION
This timeline, which was reproduced as a 12-foot mural on the south gallery wall, represents, by year, all buildings of ten or more stories erected in Manhattan from 1874 through 1900. The bars, which are color-coded by building use, also indicate height. The chart documents a pure capitalist market for commercial construction operating during a period of unregulated growth. Until the first zoning law was passed in 1916, New York City imposed no height or bulk restrictions on high-rise development, with the exception, after 1885, of apartments, which were broadly classified and regulated as “tenements.”
The data for the timeline was developed from the exhaustive research of Donald Friedman, who for more than a decade poured through old engineering and real estate publications and city docket books to gather information on all new high-rise construction during the last quarter of the 19th century. Friedman’s particular interest lay in the structural systems employed in early high-rises, and the information he gathered formed the basis for his 2014 study Structure in Skyscrapers. Setting a baseline minimum of ten stories allowed Friedman to create a manageable list of buildings, which for Manhattan still numbered 252. Information on height was taken from original permits filed with the NYC Department of Buildings. In most cases, unless our research suggested a more accurate number, the exhibition uses his research. Not shown in the timeline - though included on the map and grid - are 16 buildings classified as “other,” which comprise stores, warehouses, and institutional buildings.
HEIGHT LIMITS ON RESIDENTIAL BUILDINGS
Easily discernible in the large mural in the gallery – and still visible in the pop-up timeline here – is a dotted light-blue line that begins in 1885 at the 80-foot level and continues until 1897, when it rises in two stages. The line represents height caps on apartment buildings that are detailed in the texts below, which were printed on the gallery mural.
On June 9, 1885, the New York State Legislature passed a law limiting the height of apartment buildings in New York City to 70 ft maximum on narrow streets and 80 ft on wide streets. The law covered all classes of residential buildings from tenements to luxury apartments. As a result, there were no multi-family dwellings of ten or more stories. Hotels – even long-term residences – were considered commercial structures and thus were exempt from height caps.
Revised legislation passed by the New York State Legislature on April 23, 1897, raised the height cap to a maximum of 100 ft for buildings on narrow streets and 150 ft for buildings on wide streets.
In December 1899, New York City adopted a new code that allowed residential buildings to rise 125 ft, or 10 stories, on narrow streets and 150 ft, or 12 stories, on wide streets. In addition to height caps, the law also regulated slenderness, ruling that any buildings exceeding 100 ft must have at least 40 ft frontage.