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The Skyline as a Symbol

By Alexa Spiegel

Between the years 1900-1919, skyscrapers became the standard for new buildings. New skyscrapers were no longer shocking and incredible feats, but were rather something expected. While some applauded the new structures, and integrated them in artistic representations, others were unsure how to feel about the imposing figures. Nonetheless, the skyscrapers and the skyline took on a meaning themselves in the minds of the people who consumed their image. The skyline became a symbol of progress to not only the city of New York, but to the world.
Skyscrapers were built at unprecedented rates between the years of 1900 and 1919. The image of the skyscraper and the skyline became embedded in the minds of the public through their proliferation, and it was discovered that the image itself could be profitable. Manufacturers, publishers, newspapers, and memento and souvenir producers decided to take advantage of the pervasive image of the skyscraper and the skyline, and the natural connotations that were in the mind of the public, and use it to make a profit[1].
The image of the skyline, the grouping of all the new skyscrapers, could be seen on post cards, glassware, and pot-metal building models: souvenirs that were available to anyone who visited skyscrapers in the early twentieth century[3]. It was the beginning of the skyscraper and skyline being used in commercial enterprise and advertising.

Artists, painters, sculptors, and photographers captured the skyscraper for purely artistic purposes. Some artists derived immense inspiration from the tall buildings, and it was portrayed in their artwork.

The skyscraper became something available to the entire country through the availably of works of art featuring the skyline, not just to the large cities where they resided[6]. There were visual representations readily accessible to those who had none existing. In this way, the skyscrapers, and the skyline, became its own symbol. For those who did not live in towns with skyscrapers, the only way to see them was to see the representation, which itself carried its own meaning to its viewers. The way they would think of the skyline was not the way that it actually existed, as concrete buildings, but as it was imagined in artistic rendering of the actual buildings. The visual representations of the skyline allowed people all over the world to create their own ideas of what the skyline was and what it meant to them, whatever that may have been. As a result, there was no universality that might come about from seeing the skyscrapers in their original context. Instead, the viewers of the visual representations were allowed to contribute their own thoughts and feelings into the skyline. This brought different backgrounds and ideas than those that would normally be found on the streets of Manhattan.
In the twentieth century, some architectural literature protested the trend of skyscrapers. Though the general public admired them, the arguments presented by the architects against the skyscrapers won in some respects. Zoning laws were enacted to counteract the “blocked sunlight, stagnant air, and overcrowded sidewalks,” which occurred as a result of the skyscrapers.[7] [8] The skyscrapers were viewed as threatening to those who opposed them. It is possible that it was the threat not only of the blocked sunlight and stagnant air, but also the threat of overbearing technology that caused them to react so viscerally. The overwhelming skyline, rising higher above the city than it ever had before, could have symbolized for some an aggressive move towards more technology, one that would block out important aspects of healthy living[9]. For those who opposed skyscrapers, the symbolic meaning of the skyline was one of fear of what was to come.

One building in particular that changed the notion of the skyscraper, and that of the skyline itself, was the Singer Building, built in 1908. It was one of America’s most famous and recognizable buildings, and the first building to rise above 600 feet. It was also the first building that enticed the public[10]. It inspired people to think about skyscrapers in a new way. The building’s image was used as widespread publicity in a way that no building had been before. The Singer Building was photographed and sketched by the company for its ability to make customers feel awestruck. The image was used for promotional purposes and promotional materials[11]. It was the first time a skyscraper was marketed, as one would market a product. The building itself became an icon, which lead the way for other buildings to become icons in their own right. Eventually, the accumulation of these icons led to a skyline.

An aspect of the Singer Building that challenged the typical notion of viewing the skyline was the observation platform on the forty-first floor, which opened to the public on June 23rd, 1908. The floor was 548 feet above the sidewalk and became a very important destination.[13] It was the highest point in the city. From there, one could see out over Manhattan in a way that was not possible beforehand.

It helped to draw the view upwards, but in a way so that the gaze itself was not upwards, but outwards. Instead of thinking of buildings from the ground up, it was possible to see the buildings from eye level. It provided the ability to see the view from inside the skyline itself. They were not seeing an outline of a mass of buildings, but the individual buildings themselves. The Singer Building therefore provided the skyline with a feeling of innovation and discovery, a symbol of progress and hope, expanding to the outermost limits of the city.


Was up in the tower can get plenty of fresh air here, Fritzie"[15]

Dear daughter this is from papa here up 394 feet from St.201[16]

In the distance looms the Montgomery Ward Tower, from which the watchdog, can scan the whole lake front [sic] when his duty impels him to do so.[17]


The increasing prominence of skyscrapers in the city of New York from 1900-1919, as well as the minds of the general population, led to a new appreciation for the buildings. The skyscrapers were no longer just buildings, but took on meanings themselves. They were used as promotional devices, to help companies thrive, or in other cases, were used in artistic renderings. This helped give the skyscrapers, and as a result the skyline, a symbolism that it had not had before. Now, when people looked at New York City, or thought of it, they had predetermined ideas in their head, created from prior viewings, although not necessarily of the actual skyscraper. For some, the skyline brought with it a negative connotation, but for most, it was a symbol of progress and innovation for the country, and possibly a symbol of hope for the future.

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

[2] "1939 New York World's Fair Souvenir Plate New York Skyline Mason England,” photograph, 1939 (plate made), etsy.com, https://www.etsy.com/listing/209640363/1939-new-york-worlds-fair-souvenir-plate?ref=market (accessed November 27 2014).

[3] Joseph J.Korom. The American skyscraper, 1850-1940: a celebration of height. Branden Books: Boston, 2008. p.244

[4] “Sterling Silver Demitasse Souvenir Art Deco Nouveau Spoon Spoons, c.1900-1950," photograph, 1930 (spoons made), etsy.com, https://www.etsy.com/listing/120853262/8-is-never-enough-sterling-silver?ref=market (accessed November 27 2014).

[5] “The skyscraper became part of American culture early in the infancy of the art-form. Here New York’s Park Row Building is seen from the eyes of two toasted gents, the caption reads: Oh! Those fine buildings, what a pitiful sight, none of them, soberly standing upright.”

Joseph J.Korom. The American skyscraper, 1850-1940: a celebration of height. Branden Books: Boston, 2008. p.245

[6] IBID.

[7] See my paper about zoning regulations for a more in depth discussion of the 1916 Zoning Regulation

[8] Claude Bragdon, “Architecture in the United States III The Skyscraper,” The Architectural Record Aug. 1909: 85-96.

[9] City Fixes Limit on Tall Buildings” The New York Times. (New York, NY). July 26, 1916.

[10] Richard Panchyk. New York City skyscrapers. Arcadia Publishing: 2010.

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

[12] Ernest Flagg (architect), “Singer Tower, 149 Broadway, New York, New York County, NY,” photograph, 1933, loc.gov, http://loc.gov/pictures/item/ny0428/ (accessed November 27 2014).

[13] Randall Gabrielan. Along Broadway. Arcadia Publishing: 2007.

[14] Ernest Flagg (architect), “Singer Building, New York City. 1906,” postcard, 1906, bc.edu, http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/tallsing.html (accessed November 27 2014).

[15] Postcard, handwritten message dated July 11th, 1907.

[16] Postcard, handwritten message dated December 7th, 1904

[17] Roger Shepherd, ed., Skyscraper The Search for an American Style 1891-1941 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003) 169.