A Modern Manhattan Skyline

By Ruben Cuellar

At the end of the nineteenth century, a surge in Modernism occurred in New York City that revitalized the city and caused it to grow in size and transform into a new metropolis, both structurally and culturally. Technology around the 1890s saw innovations that led to dramatic changes in the city, and contributed to the idea of a modern Manhattan. The lower Manhattan skyline in the years between 1870 and 1920 was a radiant symbol of Modernity, due to a combination of the advances in technology of that era and the spread of modernist ideals in New York City.


Modernism was a movement that started in the late nineteenth century and affected many aspects of society including literature, art, culture, and of course the lower Manhattan skyline. There are many ideas within Modernism, making it difficult to define, but the overarching theme was a desire for distance from all things traditional. Modernism focused on the idea of technological and social progress in a society, and it caused a definite change: “Early and late, apologists convinced us that Modernism arrived with a single shudder, breaking suddenly with the past on all fronts. Many cultural changes come down to us in this shape of a single determinate birth, but in truth this one, no doubt like many of the others, has many markers rather than one.”[1] Rather than appearing all at once, the changes created by Modernity happened slowly, in a variety of ways. Modernity is characterized by progressive ideals such as novelty and innovation, much like the technology that accompanies this movement. In the same way that the culture of technology today always focuses on the latest tool or gadget, Modernity was centered around what was new and futuristic, culturally, socially, and technologically, and it challenged traditional or conventional establishments.


The overall aesthetic of the skyline, as well as the individual buildings constructed between 1870 and 1920 embodied several modern concepts. Because skyscrapers did not really exist before this time period, their appearance after 1870 defined them as creations of Modernity.

The increased height of the buildings made the city appear futuristic and advanced, especially since they caused such a drastic change in the appearance of the skyline in such a short period of time, relatively. They appealed to the modern sensibility of triumph over nature as well as to the aesthetic of industry. Individually, skyscrapers were symbols of Modernity: “But rather than linking skyscraper form to an older frontier optics, strengthening the the visual epistemology between the two as a result, visual artists wielded the skyscraper to signal Modernity’s break with these older aesthetic modes.”[2] Here, Brown observes the connection between the ideas of Modernism in art and its ideas as applied, physically, to the skyscraper. The skyscrapers became a symbol of Modernity because they rejected the visual aesthetics of the past. Of course, if an individual skyscraper can have such a modern presence in a city, then a collective concentration of skyscrapers would logically have an even greater modern presence.

This collection of skyscrapers, as well as other aesthetic aspects, are what formed the lower Manhattan skyline. At the turn of the century, the presence of the skyscrapers in the skyline was a big part of what made the lower Manhattan skyline so modern. The shape of the skyline, however, was only the surface of the its modern identity.


The the modern city made full use of the latest technology, including, first and foremost, the widespread use of electrical lighting both on the streets and in the newly built skyscrapers. Electricity was one of the greatest components of the modern Manhattan skyline: “The new city would never have been possible without the aid of new inventions, new machinery, new techniques and new forms of production and distribution. Certainly the most blessed of these was electric light.”[3] Electric lighting and use of electricity to power other types of machinery was a relatively new concept, and therefore these new technologies had an air of Modernity as part of their very nature. Combined with the skyscraper, the classic symbol of Modernity in the skyline, electric lighting made a huge impact in the aesthetic of the lower Manhattan skyline. Electric lighting allowed the skyline to look more modern than it ever had because the skyline had never before been lit up. Compared to the dim skyline that was Manhattan before electric lighting, the new skyline after near the end of the nineteenth century must have seemed like a scene from the distant future.


In addition to electric lighting, other significant technologies that contributed to the modern identity of New York City in this time period were telephone wires, various forms of transportation, and of course the modern, electric elevator. Use of these technologies by several designers led to more efficient and directed city planning that allowed for a more modern city.


The effort to make New York City, and specifically its skyline, appear modern was heralded at the beginning of the twentieth century by several architects and designers such as Cass Gilbert. Perhaps the most well-known architect of his time, Gilbert was best known for his involvement in designing the Woolworth building.

Debatably the most impressive building at the time it was completed, 1913, the Woolworth Building was designed by Gilbert, as commissioned by Woolworth, to be the most beautiful and modern skyscraper that it could be: “For his skyscraper that beauty was to be all at once European, Gothic, and ‘modern’.”[4] When it was completed, the Woolworth building was, indeed, one of the most modern buildings of its time, fully equipped with the most advanced technology that had been seen in a building. “The artist Joseph Pennell was especially intrigued by the Woolworth’s contribution to New York’s skyline. His New York from Hamilton Ferry (1915) . . . showed a magical, modern city on the water, with the Woolworth Building’s tower commanding neighboring skyscrapers.”[5] The result of the various designs and intentions of the architects of the skyscrapers between 1870 and 1920 was a new skyline that was certainly very modern. The designers and architects of the modern skyscraper had more power to shape the skyline, but the public also had reactions and opinions on the ways that the lower Manhattan skyline was changing.


Modernity began to spread throughout New York City at the end of the nineteenth century, but the general public’s reaction was not necessarily accepting, especially initially. A lot of people were not comfortable with distancing New York City from the idea of a traditional city. A large part of this was a general disdain for the skyscrapers, which were often called ugly and excessive. Additionally, many people disliked skyscrapers because they were unknown, cold , and corporate:

While it certainly contributed to the “newly scaled spaces” that made the modern city into a site of estrangement, for the bourgeois subject, the skyscraper’s contribution to this scale shift was too outsized to ever resonate with the homely in any subtle, playful, or haunting way. The skyscraper’s relationship to the homely was oppositional rather than appositional, as the structure increasingly threatened to openly obliterate the domestic with each new record-breaking height.[6]

This passage essentially states that public opinion of the tall buildings was that they were foreign outliers to the otherwise similar and comfortable landscape.

Despite initial opposition to the spread of Modernity public opinion gradually shifted to see these buildings more favorably, especially after they were recognized for their aesthetic value in a skyline and illuminated by electric light. They eventually ceased being ugly to the public eye.


A combination of advanced technology and the spread of Modernism between 1870 and 1920 caused New York City to become one of the most modern cities of that time period. This was clearly reflected in the lower Manhattan, which became an iconic, modern skyline.

[1] Bochner, Jay. An American Lens. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005). 1.

[2] Brown, Adrienne R. Reading Between the Skylines: The Skyscraper in American Modernism. (Princeton University, 2011). 5.

[3] Tunnard, Christopher and Henry Hope Reed. American Skyline. (New York: NY Library, 1956). 119.

[4] Heilbrun, Margaret, ed. Inventing the Skyline: The Architecture of Cass Gilbert. (New York: Columbia UP, 2000). 166

[5] Ibid., 271

[6] Brown, 333