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Equitable Life Assurance: The First Skyscraper and Its Impact on the Early Skyline

By Alexa Spiegel

Between 1850 and 1874, buildings were constructed with an increasing focus on height, in an attempt to form an identity as a city. The taller the building was, the better, and new technologies along with very specific conditions in the economic and social life of the times allowed this to happen. While the lower Manhattan skyline had been populated by low-rise buildings of four or five stories up until the middle of the nineteenth century, seemingly all at once, the skyline was closer and closer to the sky. The movement upwards had begun.

One of the historical factors that allowed the building heights to increase was the economic growth that occurred after the Civil War and an increase land used for urban purposes. Apart from historical factors, there were also technological improvements, that allowed for height to be achieved in a safe method. Iron frames were now made fireproof. Electricity and elevators contributed to the commercial viability of these buildings. Businesses wanted buildings with elevators and electricity, which would allow for expanded workdays and more viable rental space. At the very least, the technological advancements made buildings more practical for daily use.

There is debate as to the first true skyscraper, but the first tall office building was the Equitable Life Assurance Building, which was finished on May 1st, 1870 and stood at one hundred and thirty feet tall.[1] At the time, life insurance was a new business in the United States, and the life insurance business attempted to use architecture as a way of promoting themselves, and specifically to encourage people to take out life insurance policies[2].


The commissioners of the buildings, often the owners of the companies that would inhabit them, were a significant factor in the early development of skyscrapers. The Equitable Life Assurance Building was contracted under Henry Baldwin Hyde. He founded the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States and served as president from 1874 until his death in 1899. During the 1860s, the company had offices in seven major foreign cities, yet none notable in America. As the company grew, Hyde decided that there was a need for a larger and more permanent office home in Manhattan, after operating in a series of lower Manhattan locations and following years of sustained growth with the resultant increase in staff[3].


The first step was to choose a location where they would be able to attract the most customers, and in the late 1880s, Lower Manhattan was the commercial center of the city. This was the beginning of the creation of a skyline visible from Brooklyn Heights, across the Hudson River. In an attempt to raise awareness and publicity of life insurance, Hyde held a contest in 1868 for architects to submit designs for the building. The winning design would be used for the actual construction. The competition attracted many important architects of the late nineteenth century--those who wanted to make their mark on the city, at a time when the city was evolving and creating its own unique style[4]. The only requirement was that the design contain an elevator.

The Equitable Life Assurance Building was, in fact, the first office building to have an elevator. This development forever changed the notion of space within a building. Before this time, renters considered the lower levels the best floors, as one did not have to climb multiple flights of stairs, and therefore the rents were higher for the more desirable lower levels. After the invention of the elevator, the higher levels seemed more desirable and the rents were higher for them. The higher someone was in a building, the quieter the floor, the better the light and view, and the less distraction from the street. The entire space of the building could then be utilized, and through the high quantity of renters from the higher quantities of floors, more money could be made from the rent.


The building was finally completed in 1870. The Equitable Company moved in to the bottom floors of the building, which meant the upper floors were vacant. While Equitable only occupied the lower half of the building, they decided to take advantage of the height and the elevator, and increase their profits by renting out the upper floors of the completed building to tenants[6].


The competition was eventually won by the firm of Gilman and Kendall, two prominent architects of the late 1800s. As it was a conservative firm, the outward design of the building reflected that, with its lack of innovation; however, they did try to utilize a new form of commercial architecture in the interior, specifically with the inclusion of the elevator[7]. While the building was actually seven and a half stories, it did not seem to be more than four or five, and between 1874 and the turn of the century, it expanded, eventually consuming the block[8]. The original portion of the building was completed in 1870, and the Equitable Life Assurance Company gained the publicity that they desired, and became the largest insurer in the world.

The Equitable Life Assurance Building, and its steam driven passenger elevator, set a precedence for office buildings in the city, and thus changed the landscape of the skyline as more buildings grew taller and taller[10]. The skyline became something visible from across the river, and attracted the eyes and attention of the public. Office building owners clamored for elevators by the hundreds and by 1873 (only three years after the Equitable Life Assurance Building was constructed) there were two thousand elevators in hotels, stores, and office buildings across the country. After the steam power elevator became standard as a result of its use in the Equitable Life Assurance building, it paved the way for technological breakthroughs in passenger carriers. There was a drive to keep searching for more efficient forms of the now standard invention of elevators.[11] Hydraulic elevators were able to move an elevator car, fully loaded with passengers, at six hundred to eight hundred feet per minute. This was an improvement over the steam-powered elevator, and was rapidly developed after the initial steam creation. Only eight years after the steam driven passenger elevator, in 1878, the first hydraulic passenger elevator was installed in a Manhattan office building at 155 Broadway.[12] Throughout the 1870s, and throughout the country, thousands of hydraulic and steam elevators were installed in buildings[13]

[14]

The Equitable Building was an icon to the people of New York City. People from cab drivers and mailmen to brokers and bankers were able to easily recognize the building as it was so distinct compared to anything else. It was viewed as a triumph among architects and citizens alike. The Equitable Building was part of a select genre of American skyscrapers and a pioneer of larger and taller urban office buildings. It was one of the first major developments in the Manhattan skyline, paving the way for more skyscrapers of the like to follow. Upon the completion of the building, however, the idea of the skyscraper was so new, that the term was not even invented yet. It was the first of its kind in Manhattan, and an example for development in the future.


According to a New York Times article from January of 1887, the Equitable Building was welcomed with open arms. It was hailed a “model Broadway structure,” and details all of the positive aspects that come with such a tall building. The different floors were home to differing groups of people, and the ability to house them all in the same building, and maximize profits, was the drive for building upwards. The building is referred to as “elegant,” and in “a slightly location, a solid, substantial structure, a handsome building to look at, and a most desirable one to be located in.” The light of the high office buildings is praised, along with the view, and the maximization of space. If the words of the reporter represent the view of the people as a whole, there was nothing but good things to be said about the building. The experiment paid off, and it seems that it would not only be economically desirable to build up, but aesthetically pleasing for the city. The height of the Equitable Life Assurance Building and its success only furthered the desire to keep building higher[15].


The Equitable Life Assurance Building was important in bridging the gap between the traditional and modern forms of architecture[16]. The exterior may have had a traditional style, but the interior was new and innovative. As previously noted, the Equitable Building was home to the first elevators, but it was built before the discovery of electricity, so oil lamps and candles contrasted with the technologically advanced steam powered elevator. Its load-bearing walls exemplified ancient engineering, but its architectural style of “dipping” flags from the tower, flags lowered at a forty-five degree or horizontal angle, was distinctively modern[17]. As a result, the Equitable Life Assurance Building was a visual representation of the change from the nineteenth century architecture to that of the twentieth century, combining ancient and new styles. While the outward appearance harkened back to the Renaissance, the inward technological advancements assured the city and the people of the city that it was a “modern” building; a sign of innovation.


Without the technological developments and the innovations of the Equitable Life Assurance Building, the skyline would not have developed as it had. Inspiration to go higher, and the technology to do so, was drawn from the success of the Equitable Building, and the invention of the elevator proved it to be possible. The move upwards had begun, and is still being continued today.

[1] While the Equitable Life Building of 1830 was the first tall office building to use the elevator, the Home Insurance Building in Chicago of 1884 could be the first skyscraper because of its use of structural steel in a metal frame design

Merill Schleier (1986). The Skyscraper in American Art, 1890–1931. New York, US: Da Capo Press

[2] Andrew S. Dolkart. “The Birth of the Skyscraper: The First Elevator.” The Architecture and Development of New York City. http://ci.columbia.edu/0240s/0242_2/0242_2_s2_text.html

[3] Joseph J. Korom The American skyscraper, 1850-1940: a celebration of height. Branden Books: Boston, 2008.

[4] Andrew S. Dolkart “The Birth of the Skyscraper: The First Elevator.” The Architecture and Development of New York City.

[5] “An illustration of the Equitable Building at Broadway and Cedar Street, New York City,” illustration, 1872, ci.columbia.edu, http://ci.columbia.edu/0240s/0242_2/slides/0242_2_100091.html (accessed November 27, 2014).

[6] Andrew S. Dolkart “The Birth of the Skyscraper: The First Elevator.” The Architecture and Development of New York City.

[7] IBID

[8] Joseph J.Korom The American skyscraper, 1850-1940: a celebration of height. Branden Books: Boston, 2008.

[9] “Looking northeast from Trinity churchyard across Broadway, at the Equitable Life Assurance Building, New York City (1870) destroyed by fire in 1912,” photograph, 1870, commons.wikimedia.org, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Equitable_Life_Assurance_Building_1870.jpg (accessed November 27, 2014).

[10] “First Skyscraper With an Elevator” The New York Times (New York, NY), . Jan. 10, 1912

[11] Joseph J. Korom The American skyscraper, 1850-1940: a celebration of height. Branden Books: Boston, 2008.

[12] IBID

[13] See Ruben Cuellar’s paper for more information about the invention and use of elevators in skyscrapers

[14] Joe Seamans “This drawing from Otis Tufts’ 1859 patent shows details of the steam-driven machinery positioned under the passenger compartment,” drawing, 1859, pbs.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/elevator-inventor.html (accessed November 27, 2014).

[15] “A Great Insurance Building.” The New York Times. (New York, NY). Jan. 10, 1887.

[16] Joseph J. Korom The American skyscraper, 1850-1940: a celebration of height. Branden Books: Boston, 2008.

[17] IBID