Go to a Section

The Development of a Skyline Aesthetic:

With a Look into the Brooklyn Bridge and a Case Study on Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building

By Rachel Schwarz


Skyline: the outline or silhouette of a building or number of buildings or other subject seen against the sky

Oxford English Dictionary


For the majority of its history, the Lower Manhattan skyline has grown in an unplanned, unhurried way. It was not until the 1890s, as architects and critics became self-aware of the skyline, that a concentrated effort to develop the skyline emerged. The first images to focus on “the upward thrust of the skyline” appeared in the mid-1890s; the word ‘skyline’ was first used in May of 1896, in the title of a panoramic drawing by Charles Graham in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.[i] Once this image was published, ‘sky line’ caught on immediately.[ii]

Charles Graham, “The Sky Line of New York,” color lithograph, 1896, Eno Collection, New York Public Library, (accessed November 29, 2014).

Following the publication of Graham’s drawing, attempts to capture the skyline began in earnest in the 1890s. The general public, including New Yorkers and tourists, was enthralled with the “immense impressiveness” in the “aggregation” of the buildings on the skyline.[iii] Along with these attempts came architecture critics, zoning reformers, and advocates of the City Beautiful movement, who had mixed feelings for skyscrapers, including distrust.[iv] These critics, through the use of city planning committees, would continue to oppose the growth of the skyline for at least the next two decades, eventually culminating in the Zoning Laws of 1916[RS1] .

The creation and slow development of the skyline aesthetic – the set of principles that guided architects designing the buildings of the skyline – occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the skyline moved from a disconnected gaggle of buildings to the beginnings of an attempted unified, picturesque whole. The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge helped create the concept of the skyline, while architects and critics, like Cass Gilbert and Montgomery Schuyler, worked to make the skyline become the “collective vista” of New York: a “work of art” that is “the single visual phenomenon which embraces the maximum amount of urban form.”[v]


Prior to the invention of the word ‘skyline,’ there was, of course, a skyline. The skyline was not crowded or full, in today’s view, because technology had not progressed to a point that allowed for skyscrapers. 

This is the southern half of the Beal Panorama. It shows the Manhattan tower of the Brooklyn Bridge at right and the southern tip of Manhattan at left. The original panorama continues north, on the right side.

Joshua Beal, “Panoramic View of NYC, Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Tower,” 1876, Collection of The New York Historical Society, neg. #32185.

First, elevators were not implemented in public buildings until the 1850s after Elisha Graves Otis improved their safety features[RS2] . Second, buildings needed improved structural support to continue growing up. This came in the form of a steel skeleton; the first all steel-frame skyscraper in New York was the Tower Building in 1889. This technology enabled buildings to grow taller without needing to increase the width of their stone supports; it also greatly decreased fire concerns.[vi] With these inventions, the skyline did begin to grow upward; however, the word ‘skyline’ does not appear until 1896, indicating the citizens of Manhattan and Brooklyn did not consciously acknowledge the collective whole of the Lower Manhattan skyline. In addition, any photograph of the skyline taken during the 1880s seems to be accidental, according to William R. Taylor; this is supported by most of these images failing to focus solely on the skyline.[vii]

In the image from 1886, we see the main focus as the Brooklyn Bridge with the skyline placed almost incidentally behind it. This was typical of the era; pictures generally focused on the Great Bridge, ships, or the docking area. Another example is below.

Currier & Ives, “The Great East River Suspension Bridge,” cromolithograph, 1886, New York Public Library Digital Collections, (accessed November 29, 2014)

This image, though capturing Trinity Church and City Hall in the background, is mainly focused on the Great Marine Parade occurring on the waterfront.

Charles, Graham, “Evacuation Day—The Great Marine Parade, as Viewed from the Brooklyn Tower of the Bridge,” in Haw, Richard, Art of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Visual History, 71 New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

Because skyscrapers had not been built, the only eye-catching structures on the skyline at the beginning of this time period (1870) were the churches. In lower Manhattan, Trinity Church’s spire reached to the sky. Only a few decades later, neighboring skyscrapers will dwarf this spire. The major change in the Lower Manhattan skyline during this time period was the Brooklyn Bridge, anchored by two towers that were taller than everything surrounding it except the spire of Trinity Church. It had a huge effect on the skyline. In addition, the bridge, as well as the towers, offered a new viewing platform for the skyline. 

Even in as late as 1888, a view from Brooklyn Bridge west to Manhattan shows Trinity Church as the tallest building around (with the Mutual Life Building still under construction in the extreme right of the photograph).

“East River Waterfront, view to the west from Brooklyn Bridge, showing buildings and skyline between Wall Street and Maiden Lane, New York City,” 1888. Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.


Theodore Russell Davis (American, 1840 1894). Bird's Eye View of the Southern End of New York and Brooklyn. From Harper's Weekly, November 19, 1870, p. 752. Engraving. Brooklyn Museum Libraries.

Currier & Ives, “New York and Brooklyn, with Jersey City and Hoboken Water Front,” ca.1877, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, (accessed November 29, 2014).

John Roebling, the original architect of the Bridge, designed the bridge independently and only presented his plan to hired consultants. After several meetings, the consultants decided that the bridge was not only possible, but also practical. In 1869, the New York government hired Roebling’s company to build a bridge and required no final approval rights. Essentially, they gave Roebling free range; Roebling had sole say on both the location and design.[x] This lack of governmental review or opinion in the Bridge is an indicator of how little people thought about the skyline of Manhattan. There was no worry to create an appealing skyline because there had never been any study or discussion of a skyline (a word not yet invented).

The importance of the Brooklyn Bridge in regards to the New York skyline cannot be overstated. A bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan over the East River had been talked about for decades; the first proposal for such a bridge came in 1800.[viii] People were most interested in the bridge as a solution to problems, including crime, overcrowding, transportation delays and dangers, and Brooklyn’s overlooked status. The Bridge, as we see it today, took thirteen years to build and was officially opened to the public in May of 1883. The neo-gothic structure is outstanding in its own right as an engineering feat; the suspension cables are held up by two huge stone structures that would “be a good seven stories tall, or taller than most buildings in New York at the time.”[ix] The towers are identical, 268 feet high, and have a pair of twin Gothic arches each.


“Die East River Hängebrücke.” 1881, (accessed November 29, 2014).


The Brooklyn Bridge dramatically changed the physical skyline of New York. The 268-foot towers supporting the suspension cables would be the largest structures of Lower Manhattan upon completion, surpassed in height only by the thin spire of Trinity Church. In some ways, it also created a definitive bookend to the skyline. Looking out at Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, one identifies the southern tip of the island, or perhaps the Statue of Liberty later, as a concrete left (south) endpoint and then Brooklyn Bridge as the clear right (north) end. Even today, with many buildings dwarfing the towers of the bridge, this holds true, due to the bridge cutting across the river. Through the early twentieth century, with little standing taller than the bridge, this bookend effect would have been even more prominent.

“New York & Bridges,” photograph, ca. 1913, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, (accessed November 29, 2014).

As the first colossal addition to the skyline, the bridge’s aesthetic was not pleasing to everyone. In 1883, the week the bridge opened, Montgomery Schuyler, legendary architecture critic, deemed the bridge “not a work of architecture.” He saw it as a great engineering feat, but its aesthetic purpose was “to disregard…art…and [make] the structure tell of the work it was doing.”[xi] Schuyler greatly disapproved of the utilitarian aesthetic – in which Roebling did not cover up the suspension cables, so he did not hide the support and function of the bridge – and saw the bridge as too singularly focused on function. However, the great majority of people “saw the bridge as a miracle in stone and steel, a perfect expression of the coming age.”[xii] The bridge, in their minds, successfully captured the aesthetic of the age because of its mix of old, in the Gothic arches, and new, in the technological innovation. However, this aesthetic was a very underdeveloped concept; as the skyline grew, so did its definition.

Integral in the plan of the bridge was an elevated walkway for pedestrians, which would give views in every direction. Roebling thought this “would become one of New York’s most popular attractions.” This great promenade would be overwhelmingly important to the city’s population, Roebling argued. New Yorkers are confined to crowded streets of bare capitalistic ventures; the bridge promenade itself offered an escape to fresh air and its purpose as a passageway to Brooklyn offered permanent escape to a less crowded area. In addition, the promenade was unique; no other bridge in the world had a section simply for enjoying a walk. [xiii]

And walk these people did. Within the first few days, there was a horrible accident because too many people walked on the bridge and mass confusion erupted. As news of the bridge spread, tourists rushed to view the bridge and take a walk along it. Over nine million people used the bridge in its first year.[xiv] As McCullough writes, the Brooklyn Bridge “was a highway people just naturally wanted to travel, even if they had no interest in the smaller, more sedate city [Brooklyn] they knew to be at the other end.”[xv] And, as people traveled along the bridge, they looked out at Manhattan. The view from the bridge can be imagined in much the same way as a view from the Empire State building.

People wanted to look down at the tallest buildings, escape from the crowded streets and most importantly, imagine all that New York could be and all that New York could give them. The sheer number of viewing platforms created afterwards – everything from the Empire State Building (1931) and Rockefeller Center (1939) to apartment rooftops and personal helicopter rides – illustrates this obsession with viewing New York from above. But the Brooklyn Bridge offered the first platform. And as a result, architects, planners, critics, and artists began to be aware of the view.

The promenade was certainly unique in its structure, but more than that, it offered the first popular view of the Lower Manhattan skyline. Prior to the Brooklyn Bridge, people looked at Brooklyn as that other, small town. One member of Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet remarked upon walking across the bridge, “Why, I thought that Brooklyn had one hotel and a shipyard or two, but it’s quite a town.”[xvi] This ignorance of Brooklyn is indicative of the time period. Because most people, especially the elite, did not bother to travel to Brooklyn, they had no concept of the Lower Manhattan skyline as viewed from Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge eliminated this ignorance. It was now possible to conveniently walk to Brooklyn. While on the bridge, people viewed the skyline and once in Brooklyn they could view it on the promenade. These two easy ways to look at the skyline helped create the concept of the skyline.

Though the critics and planners took some time to mobilize and concentrate their efforts to regulate the skyline, as soon as the public was walking it, artists flocked to capture images of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge. At first, there were images taken from the towers. Photographer Joshua Beal’s panorama from 1876, before the bridge section was even complete, was the first example of this.

Joshua Beal, “Panoramic View of NYC, Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Tower,” 1876, Collection of The New York Historical Society, neg. #32185.


“The Harbor of New York” From the Brooklyn Bridge Tower – Looking south-west. Ca. 1885 Published by Currier & Ives. Museum of the City of New York, The Ferald LeVino Collection, 57.100.24.

After the bridge was completed, photographers perilously climbed the suspension cables in order to reach the towers.

 The tower was considered a great viewing platform, thought it was not easily climbed. From the beginning, most people contented themselves with simply the bridge as a viewing platform. Artists began to adopt this idea as well. By the early 1900s, the preferred gaze changed from the towers, which offered height over the buildings, to the bridge, which forced a view that looked up at the buildings. 

Anonymous, “Photographers on the Brooklyn Bridge,” n.d. Institute of Archives and Special Collections, Folsom Library, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. From Haw, Richard. Art of the Brooklyn Bridge (New York: Routledge, 2008), 88.

This change was partially pragmatic; the towers were no longer the tallest structures, and not accessible, so they no longer offered a preferential vantage point. The bridge still did though; its distance from the buildings and lowered viewpoint proved popular. According to Richard Haw, “this shift, from above to below, served the trend that made a fetish of the skyline.”[xvii] Placing the gaze of the skyline at its foot created a reverential feeling to the images. It increased its immense impressiveness, which inspired even more awe in viewers. In both viewing instances, the Brooklyn Bridge allowed artists to view the skyline in a very unique, contemporary manner.

Whether in the beginning of its construction or decades after completion, the Brooklyn Bridge enabled and inspired thousands of people to view the skyline of Lower Manhattan.[xviii] This creation of such a unique viewing platform changed both the skyline of the city, but more importantly, the viewing of the skyline. Because the skyline was so readily viewed, people not only started to care about it, but actually invented a word to describe it: skyline. This new awareness of the skyline resulted in critics and city planners who wanted to regulate it. The 1896-1913 skyline would be characterized by attention to the new skyscraper and the problems it presented.


Karl Struss, “Brooklyn Bridge, Nocturne,” ca. 1913, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, (accessed November 29, 2014).


The three tallest buildings (left to right) are the 1908 Singer Building, the 1913 Woolworth Building,  and the 1916 Municipal Building.

“New York Skyline, 1919.” Drawing. 1919. (accessed November 29, 2014).

The Lower Manhattan skyline during 1896 to 1913 experienced rapid change. Skyscrapers started going up with speed and abandon. During this time, there was little planning for the skyline or the city. As businessmen dictated how the city looked, critics and planners became worried for the city as a whole. This concern was described as the skyscraper problem – “a perceived disjunction between the urban actuality of unbridled skyscraper construction, propelled by economic force, and the notion that the city should become a work of art.”[xix]

According to Schuyler, the problem was urgently a civic problem, more so than an architecture problem. In a 1903 essay, Schuyler wrote that even if “every architect employed to erect a skyscraper should do his very utmost to produce a logical, sincere, and beautiful exposition…their united efforts would leave the city of skyscrapers little less appreciably ugly than before.”[xx] Without a cohesive, citywide plan, Schuyler believed that skyscrapers could not beautify the city and the skyline because they would be too disparate. Schuyler’s solution was to invoke “the power of community…to protect the community against the individual.”[xxi] There had been some precedence for this with the Supreme Court Case: Williams v. Parker (1903), which upheld the Massachusetts order that Boston had the power to limit the height of buildings. Yet in New York City, it was not until 1916 that legislation was actually passed to limit building heights. Prior to that, it was only up to the architects and commissioners to determine how the skyline would look, many of whom showed no awareness for this responsibility.

However, there was some planning prior to the 1916 Zoning Laws. Several committees and plans existed prior to the 1910s. Their proposals often reflected the commonly held aesthetic desires for New York, including broad avenues, a civic center at City Hall Park, and better traffic flow between the boroughs and Manhattan in order to create a “consolidated metropolis.”[xxii] Aesthetic concerns for skyscrapers and the skyline were generally ignored by planners. They had no solution; they simply wanted New York to look “whole,” or harmonious; the idea of the skyline as a collective had just begun to take shape. These committees advised different small-scale projects, but their stated purposes reveal the desire in New York to somehow institute city planning. The planning was considered essential “if New York is to take its place as one of the great Metropolitan Cities of the World.”[xxiii] Though the city did not accept most of the proposals, the fact that a mayor commissioned these committees in 1904 and 1907 to consider planning Manhattan is indicative of the desire to create a unified aesthetic, or a city that is cohesive.

During 1896-1913, as these critics publicly ignored and privately tried to solve the skyline and skyscraper problems, the skyline continued to develop. Several architects entirely ignored their concerns, like architects Arthur Gilman and Edward H. Kendall, designers of the Equitable Life Building (1914-15). Others tried to create beautiful, but still commercially viable, buildings, but could not adequately appease the critics, like R. H. Robertson, architect of the Park Row building (1897-99). The first architect to entirely design a building that was considered successful both by contemporary critics and commercial leaders was Cass Gilbert, designer of the Woolworth Building (1911-13).


“The Park Row Building, 21 Park Row,” ca. 1912, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, (accessed November 29, 2014).

“Equitable Life Insurance Co., New York City,” ca. 1870, (accessed November 29, 2014).


Cass Gilbert was a premier architect of New York and of the United States; he was especially popular among his contemporaries. Montgomery Schuyler, a leading architecture critic at the turn-of-the-century, hailed his buildings as solutions to the problem of skyscrapers; contemporary histories of the New York skyline are incomplete without a discussion of his designs.[xxiv] Although Gilbert’s building innovations and lasting structures certainly make him worthy of praise, it is his background in city planning and continual attempts to ensure his buildings encompassed modern aesthetic and artistic qualities – rather than simply turn a profit – that enabled him to build something that could satisfy the skyscraper critics. These interests gave rise to a focus on creating an urban picturesque, which can be seen in the Woolworth Building – a colossal, but well-received addition to the lower Manhattan skyline.

First, to understand Gilbert’s attitude as an architect, it is necessary to review Gilbert’s background as a planner before he began building skyscrapers. According to Gail Fenske, leading scholar on Gilbert and modern New York, Gilbert “made a special effort to relate the architecture of his skyscrapers to their urban surroundings.” [xxv] This effort to add to the skyline as a whole was praised by his contemporary, Schuyler.[xxvi] Moreover, independent of his buildings, Gilbert was viewed as a leading advocate for city planning. Though Gilbert was preoccupied with architecture and furthering his career in that field, at least twice he included himself on a list of the country’s best city planners. Many planning organizations – most notably the New York City Planning Commission – sought his membership, as did representatives from smaller cities across the country.[xxvii] 

He completed two major planning projects, one for Oberlin College in Ohio and another for the town of New Haven, Connecticut. Neither of these projects was completed, but in them we see Gilbert’s knowledge and respect for the past, in addition to Gilbert’s consideration for “the interaction between the built and the natural environment.”[xxviii] This desire to have his buildings fit into the local environment would become a desire for his buildings to work with the buildings surrounding it, and eventually, the skyline. These influences continued to affect his preferences as an architect and can be seen as he starts building in Manhattan.

“Cass Gilbert Building, 1917,” 1917, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, (accessed November 29, 2014).

Before the Woolworth, Gilbert built two other extant structures in the city: the Broadway Chambers Building and the West Street Building. Schuyler writes, “in architecture, [and] all arts, every success and every work must be precedented and developed out of what has been done before.”[xxxix] So, we too shall look at his three skyscrapers as natural progressions of one another. First is the Broadway Chambers Building, completed in 1900. Drawing on his training as a picturesque designer and his tours of European cities, Gilbert began to use more color, texture, and ornamental elements than previously seen in the city. Gilbert designed with the idea of “enriching the experience of the city for all observers.” As Fenske writes, this “obsession…was symptomatic of the larger need for a structure mode of understanding [New York’s] physical character, particularly in the face of the disorientation, even chaos brought on by the modernization process.”[xl] Gilbert, like many other architects, wanted to create a distinctive mark on the city, one that would ideally come to be a symbol of New York internationally. The unmatched, chaotic city – the product of all these differently stylized buildings – was something of great concern to architecture critics and those opposed to modernism.

The next New York building Gilbert designed was the West Street Building in 1905. This time, Gilbert introduced many Gothic elements into his ideal of a skyscraper. This introduction adds to the idea that at this time, Gilbert believed the city did best with an eclectic array of urban buildings.[xli] He worked in a time before the existence of zoning laws or New York City planning committees. His West Street Building was meant to stand on its own, especially with the pinnacle ornament that was admired by critics.[xlii] This success and growing fame resulted in Gilbert catching the attention of Frank Woolworth, the commissioner of his next project.

"Broadway Chambers Building, New York," color printed postcard, postmarked 1906, Newark, N.J. (accessed November 29, 2014).

“West Street Building, New York,” 1910, (accessed November 29, 2014).


“View of Woolworth Building and surrounding buildings, New York City,” ca. 1913, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, (accessed November 29, 2014).

The Woolworth building is one of the most famous buildings in New York City. Though Gilbert’s career was far from over, the Woolworth was really a culmination of Gilbert’s thoughts from the first half of his career on skyscrapers and modernism. Frank Woolworth had a significant impact on the project, allowing Gilbert to keep expanding and create something that would surpass everything that had come before, both in height and magnificence. According to Gail Fenske, the Woolworth Building embodied American’s ideas in both traditional culture and progress; the building sacrificed office space in order to enhance its aesthetic qualities. This mixture also lessened criticism from the emerging zoning reformers and architecture critics.[xliii] The City Beautiful movement consisted of people who thought the skyscraper was the main reason behind the horrors of American society. Skyscrapers, in their eyes, contributed to congestion while representing extreme individualism. They wanted low-lying communal buildings; however, the Woolworth seemed to represent the best of what a skyscraper could be. Though the building attained extreme height, it did not cast a gigantic shadow on the buildings around it. In addition, it looked to past European influences and traditional values in order to construct a building that would “raise the standard of American architecture by establishing a line of continuity” with European tradition.[xliv] The response to the Woolworth was overwhelmingly positive. Schuyler summed up the praise by stating that “those who own themselves grateful for an object so well worth looking at, so worthy of its as yet unequalled conspicuousness, owe gratitude to the enlightened liberality of the owner as well as to the inspired labors of the architect.”[xlv] Gilbert managed to achieve the seemingly impossible: creating a building of great commercial success and civic beauty.


This commercial and critical success was not lost on the other architects of the time. Through our case study of Gilbert’s New York buildings, we see a clear growth into building for the aesthetic. In fact, Gilbert grew so much that he would dismiss his earlier buildings. In part because of constraints placed on him by the commissioner of the building, Gilbert later declared that his Broadway Chambers building was “merely a machine that makes the land pay.”[xlvi] Later though, Fenske argues, Gilbert was acutely aware of the Woolworth’s role in the city and on the skyline. Gilbert and Woolworth wanted to play “to the crowds’ perceptions of the skyline as emblematic of New York’s new status as a twentieth-century commercial metropolis…Both men were conscious of the pivotal role they played in shaping the skyline and hence the city’s new urban identity.”[xlvii] Gilbert knew that the Woolworth existed in relation to other buildings and especially in relation to the skyline. As a city planner, he aimed create a building that could be a part of a unified city. As an architect, he took into account the critics’ views on individualism and eclecticism in the skyline. The Woolworth marks the first step toward a building succeeding in making all parties happy; everybody thought it could be a part of a unified whole and add to the picturesque quality of the Lower Manhattan skyline.


The argument between two factions explains how the skyline was invented. On one hand, there are the architects and commissioners slowly putting together a skyline in a fragmented, piecemeal process. They wanted commercial success, but slowly became aware around the 1910s of a responsibility that they had to a supreme symbol of New York: the business district’s skyline. The other faction is the critics, the planners, and the reformers who consistently pushed back against the greed of commissioners to build without regard to their neighbors and the city. Gilbert, as a planner and contemporary of other planners and critics, was greatly influenced by this pushback in his design of the Woolworth. The skyline slowly went from being only impressive and grandiose, to eventually being perceived as a collective whole, a process that took some twenty to thirty years.[xlviii] This can be attributed to the inevitable, but unplanned, working together of reformers and architects. It is exemplified by the Woolworth Building, which was created before any legislation that regulated buildings, though still exemplifies what the reformers wanted. Reformers wanted beauty; to many, that meant the comfort of the past, or the comfort of European styles. The architects and the commercial businessmen wanted height and modernity. In the Woolworth, there is height, but there are also certain architectural elements, like “an expanded base and cornice, and there are four intermediate horizontal divisions marked by architectural treatment.” These unnecessary decorations could be seen as “a failure to achieve functional expression, or it may be seen as an intentional and comforting echo of the nineteenth-century urban building tradition.”[xlix] The latter makes much more sense in understanding what Gilbert was doing; he appeased both factions. His example set a precedent for the next few decades.

After the Woolworth Building, critics, like Schuyler, saw a hope in the skyline. Through years of effort, sometimes passive and sometimes aggressive, the critics, the planners, the architects, and the businessmen had somehow come together to create a skyline aesthetic. As buildings tried to live up to the Woolworth and architects recognized more and more that the skyline would be the great symbol of New York, aesthetic desires continued to emerge. Schuyler writes that it was recognized that “with the increase of altitude and conspicuousness in the skyscrapers, there is a corresponding requirement for an increase of architectural attractiveness…that it is a public malefaction to protrude a shapeless bulk” onto the skyline.[l] Critics still wanted traditional horizontality, they wanted beauty, and they wanted to hide the functions of buildings. However, commissioners and modern architects wanted form to follow function and to be higher, in a cleaner, structured way. For at least 1914 to the 1920s, verticality would slowly become more celebrated than horizontality, though verticality would continue to be associated with commercial buildings and horizontality with public buildings.[li] Regardless of any time’s prevailing aesthetic, the Lower Manhattan skyline had taken its place as a symbol of New York and as something that needed to be discussed and considered.


New York’s skyline is not considered beautiful in contemporary architectural terms. The city, especially Lower Manhattan’s conglomerate of buildings, has been panned by architectural historians and called “a plague spot of American architecture” by Louis Sullivan, the “father of skyscrapers.”[lii] Though tourists flock to see it, the elites in the field have stated it is a detraction from modernism and a move toward eclecticism, a period when no school of design reigned supreme.[liii] Siegfried Giedion in his classic Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition regarded New York City with distaste. He believed that the skyscraper of New York “lacked scale, dignity, and strength…where [it] went astray was in the exaggerated use of the tower, with its intricate mixture of pseudo-historical reminiscences and its ruthless disregard of its surroundings, as well as of the entire structure of the city.”[liv] However true this assessment is, it does not discuss the background of the skyline and the city planning history of New York. As Thomas Bender writes, the literature today is missing something:

Nowhere does one find discussion of the interesting tug-of-war that took place between private and civic values: between vertical and horizontal structure, and, in planning, between laissez-faire attitudes and deliberate efforts to give shape and unity to the city’s heterogeneous and often conflicting functions.[lv]

This discussion is an important one and should be developed further. As illustrated by Cass Gilbert and the Woolworth building, Gilbert did not design without regard to surroundings and neither did his contemporary architects. While they may not have been entirely successful in creating a unified, picturesque skyline, they certainly led the charge in attempting to do so. This “tug-of-war” contest is perhaps unique, but certainly typified in New York and a good study for urbanism and modernity in the United States. The contradictions of this time are evident in the buildings, but the skyline of Lower Manhattan has still come to be regarded as, at the very least, something worth looking at.

“Manhattan’s changing skyline – 20-story buildings are being town down to make room for 40- and 50-story structures,” ca. 1910, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, (accessed November 20, 2014).

The Brooklyn Bridge succeeding in making the Lower Manhattan skyline relevant. The next twenty years saw a passive battle to control the skyline. And from 1910 to at least 1930, we see the results of architects internally resolving this battle. Perhaps the skyline still is not “whole” today. Perhaps the attitude of New York will not allow it to ever be “whole.” However, the Lower Manhattan skyline is a testament to the struggle of New York to balance laissez-faire capitalism with concentrated city planning, to balance individualism with community-led desires. It is a skyline of contrasting aesthetic desires, of both harsh criticism and touristic delight. In short, it is a true representation of New York.


[i] John Atlee Kouwenhoven, “Group Six: Transit to the Greater City, 1890-1910," in The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York; an Essay in Graphic History (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953), 394. The Oxford English Dictionary states the creation of the word, when used to define “the outline or silhouette of a building or number of buildings or other subject seen against the sky,” occurred in 1896 by George Bernard Shaw in the October issue of The Saturday Review.

[ii] “Moving Uptown: Nineteenth Century Views of Manhattan” (New York Public Library, 1998), accessed November 10, 2014, Also, note the original use of the word as ‘sky line’ in 1896, which changed to ‘sky-line’ by 1897, and eventually ‘skyline’ a few years later.

[iii] Montgomery Schuyler, “The Sky-line of New York,” Harper’s Weekly 41 (New York: Harper’s Weekly, 1897): 295.

[iv] William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). The City Beautiful movement was popularized in the late 1890s to about 1914 in New York. Though it never achieved the success in New York that it did in other cities, there were still many proponents for the ideals of the movement. Primarily, the City Beautiful movement focused on the beautification of urban areas; to them, this meant adding in wide, tree-lined boulevards and creating low-lying buildings, both in an effort to break up the gridiron of clogged streets.

[v] Paul D. Spreiregen, Urban Design: The Architecture of Towns and Cities (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 63.

[vi] Charles Peck Warren, "Excessive Height A Trying Problem," New York Times, May 2, 1915.

[vii] William R. Taylor, “New York and the Origin of the Skyline,” in In Pursuit of Gotham: Culture and Commerce in New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 27.

[viii] David G. McCullough, The Great Bridge (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 24.

[ix] Ibid., 28.

[x] The only public review of the bridge took place from officials in Washington; it was intended to ensure that the bridge not hurt navigation of the East River, especially to the Navy Yard.

[xi] Montgomery Schuyler, “The Brooklyn Bridge as a Monument,” in American Architecture and Other Writings by Montgomery Schuyler (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 334.

[xii] Richard Haw, Art of the Brooklyn Bridge (New York: Routledge, 2008), 86.

[xiii] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 32.

[xiv] Haw, Art of the Brooklyn Bridge, 88. For reference, it is estimated that about 1.8 million people lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn at the time.

[xv] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 512.

[xvi] Ibid., 541.

[xvii] Haw, Art of the Brooklyn Bridge, 105.

[xviii] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 540.

[xix] Gail Fenske, “The Skyscraper Problem and the City Beautiful: The Woolworth Building” (PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1988), 1.

[xx] Montgomery Schuyler, “The Skyscraper Problem,” in American Architecture and Other Writings by Montgomery Schuyler (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 445.

[xxi] Ibid., 446.

[xxii] Gail Fenske, “The Skyscraper Problem,” 241. See example of the New York City Improvement Commission of 1904 and 1907.

[xxiii] New York City Improvement Commission, The Report of the New York City Improvement Commission (New York, 1907), 7.

[xxiv] Montgomery Schuyler, “The Woolworth Building,” in American Architecture and Other Writings by Montgomery Schuyler (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 605-621.

Fenske, “The Skyscraper Problem.”

Gail Fenske, “Cass Gilbert’s Skyscrapers in New York: The Twentieth-Century City and the Urban Picturesque” in Inventing the Skyline: The Architecture of Cass Gilbert, ed. Margaret Heilbrun (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 229-288.

[xxv] Fenske, “Cass Gilbert’s Skyscrapers in New York,” 229.

[xxvi] Schuyler, “The Woolworth Building,” 606.

[xxvii] Barbara S. Christen, “The Architect as Planner: Cass Gilbert’s Responses to Historic Open Space” in Inventing the Skyline, ed. Margaret Heilbrun (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000) 177-228. Gilbert attempted to work with open space and create entire workable towns. Through these plans, we can see Gilbert develop as an architect who wants to continue treating buildings as part of their environment.

[xxviii] Ibid., 211.

[xxix] Schuyler, “The Woolworth Building,” 609.

[xxx] Fenske, “Cass Gilbert’s Skyscrapers in New York,” 248-249.

[xxxi] Ibid., 249.

[xxxii] Montgomery Schuyler, “The Evolution of the Skyscraper,” in American Architecture and Other Writings by Montgomery Schuyler (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 436.

Fenske “Cass Gilbert’s Skyscrapers in New York,” 257.

[xxxiii] Fenske, The Skyscraper Problem, xiii.

[xxxiv] Ibid., xiv.

[xxxv] Schuyler, “The Woolworth Building,” 621.

[xxxvi] Cass Gilbert, quoted in “Building Skyscrapers—Described by Cass Gilbert,” Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide 65 (June 23, 1900): 1091.

[xxxvii] Fenske, “Cass Gilbert’s Skyscrapers in New York,” 271.

[xxxviii] Taylor, “New York and the Origin of the Skyline,” 29.

[xxxix] Thomas Bender, “Culture and Architecture: Some Aesthetic Tensions in the Shaping of New York,” in In Pursuit of Gotham: Culture and Commerce in New York, ed. William R. Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 65.

[xl] Schuyler, “The Woolworth Building,” 605.

[xli] Bender, “Culture and Architecture,” 65.

[xlii] Louis Sullivan quoted in Thomas Bender, “Culture and Architecture: Some Aesthetic Tensions in the Shaping of New York,” in In Pursuit of Gotham: Culture and Commerce in New York, ed. William R. Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 52.

[xliii] It is interesting to note that while interviewing viewers about their modern day opinions of the skyline, one resident of Brooklyn stated that the skyline was far from beautiful. However, he did not discount it entirely. For more information, see here.

[xliv] Siegfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 747.

[xlv] Bender, “Culture and Architecture,” 52.