Lighting up the Skyline

By Ruben Cuellar

Between 1870 and 1920, a new age of technology began that pervaded every aspect of life. The new technologies had a huge impact on the shape and culture of the big cities. The lower Manhattan skyline, as seen from Brooklyn Heights, was in many ways shaped by these new technologies, specifically ones that were electric in origin. The advent and spread of electric technologies in New York City and in big cities around the world allowed for a new type of skyline, one that was tall, erect, full of skyscrapers and was illuminated for everyone to see.

New York City’s electrical history began with gas, a substance manufactured from coal in the early nineteenth century in order to replace the oil that was used for street lamps and domestic lamps. The early nineteenth century, beginning around 1806, was the era of gas, which was characterized by many gas companies, including the New York Gas Light Company, the Manhattan Gaslight Company, and the Knickerbocker Gas Light Company, all in competition for exclusive franchise rights to the city[1].

It wasn’t until around 1880 when the Brush Electric Light Company unveiled their electric arc streetlights, and was commissioned to put up street lights on Broadway between 14th street and 34th street that electricity became a serious rival for the gas companies. Arc lighting was the earliest form of electric light and worked by sending an electric arc, or a voltaic arc, through the vaporized carbon formed between two electrodes. As electric lighting became more popular, the Brush Electric Light Company built the city’s first central electric station, an industrial facility to generate electrical power from mechanical power, on 133 West 25th street.

This central electric station led to several more after the company received a contract from the city in 1880. Arc lighting was soon afterwards eclipsed in usage and appeal by Thomas Edison’s incandescent lighting[2]. Edison’s company, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, quickly gained traction and was awarded the city’s first electricity franchise in April of 1881. In September of 1882, “the Edison Electric Illuminating Company opened its first station at 257 Pearl Street, initiating the modern era of electricity”[3].

The invention and eventual domination of Edison’s incandescent lighting began a new era of electricity that changed the city, its skyline, and its image forever. The beginning of this era was widely regarded as a significant turning point in history. Some authors call this time period “the end of the Age of Steam and Iron.”[4] They also put forth a description of the events that brought about this ending: “The new city would never have been possible without the aid of new inventions… Certainly the most blessed of these was the electric light.”[5] Edison invented the electrical lamp in 1879 and went on to build the first power station with the financial backing of J. P. Morgan two years later. Needless to say, the new era of electricity allowed for the illumination of the lower Manhattan skyline.

Many significant new technologies were developed as a result of the spread of electricity through New York City, and they allowed the city to grow exponentially. Among these new kinds of technologies were electrical equipment that lead to quicker and more efficient production of building materials like machines that manufactured steel, and the power-operated equipment that revolutionized the construction of buildings by making it faster, safer, and more effective.

Machines and construction equipment that came before the electric revolution were often steam-powered or hand-operated. These machines were very slow and became far too expensive and burdensome to use because each piece of equipment needed its own power supply or parts of the sites would have to be closed off[6]. In addition to that, labor costs were high because many people were necessary for operation of the machines. Eventually costs became so high that builders couldn’t afford to not use electric power. As Landau and Condit put it, “At the same time--and largely because of the construction advantages afforded by the changeover--the height, size, and number of high-rise buildings constructed in New York began to increase at unprecedented rates”[7]. With these new technologies that sprung from the era of electricity, buildings could go up faster and higher than ever before, and the first skyscrapers came into existence in lower Manhattan; A new skyline was created.

In addition to powering the machines and equipment necessary to build skyscrapers, electric technology also provided an aesthetic aspect to the lower Manhattan skyline through lighting. Even though Edison’s electric lighting was already popular and widely used on the streets of Manhattan, it began lighting buildings up as well.

The taller buildings that were being built at the time were also being illuminated by electric lighting. This gave the lower Manhattan skyline a whole new dimension because it could now be seen at night and appreciated as much as, if not more so than the daytime skyline. With the added attraction of being illuminated at night, the skyline became an object for admiration or awe around the clock. An account by the poet Rupert Brooke in American Skyline sheds some light on how the illuminated, nighttime skyline was viewed:

New York Harbor is loveliest at night perhaps . . . On the Staten Island ferryboat you slip out from darkness right under the immense skyscrapers. As they recede, they form into a mass together, heaping up one behind another, fire-lined and majestic sentinel over the black gold-streaked water. . . From further off all these lights dwindle to a radiant semi-circle that gazes out over the expanse with a quiet, mysterious expectancy[i].

New York Harbor is loveliest at night perhaps . . . On the Staten Island ferryboat you slip out from darkness right under the immense skyscrapers. As they recede, they form into a mass together, heaping up one behind another, fire-lined and majestic sentinel over the black gold-streaked water. . . From further off all these lights dwindle to a radiant semi-circle that gazes out over the expanse with a quiet, mysterious expectancy[8].

The skyline, then, becomes a beautiful sight at night as well as during the day. It turned into a familiar, yet dazzling image that was reproduced all over the place, like in postcards and photographs.

The lighting of the first few high-rise buildings at this time period became precursors to the magnificent, lit buildings that we have in Manhattan today, such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, which are known for being beacons of light, and form crucial parts of the modern glittering skyline.

The Woolworth Building is a great example of buildings with respect to new electrical technologies at the time. Completed in 1913, the Woolworth building was one of the first high-rise buildings in lower Manhattan.

F.W. Woolworth and his architect Cass Gilbert were ambitious with the Woolworth building, and wanted it to be the most modern building in lower Manhattan. Naturally, they included many new, electric technologies into the building’s design, including indoor heating, ventilation, and lighting as well as outdoor illumination[9]. At its official opening, the Woolworth building put on a show for everyone in Manhattan, even those who were skeptical because they thought the high-rise buildings that were popping up were ugly and monstrous: “The thousands of electric lights filling its interior flashed on at once and the building leapt into full view as a brilliantly illuminated object against the evening darkness”[10]. The flashy display that was the opening of the Woolworth building is an excellent example of how electric technologies like lighting can shape a skyline, especially at night.

With the era of electricity that began around the 1870s came new technologies that changed the skyline. This resulting skyline was characterized by taller buildings, made possible by new construction technologies, and a glowing presence at night, made possible by electric lighting. Despite the initial public disdain that marked the skyscrapers’ first ascent, the new skyline eventually grew into a brilliant, iconic image.

[1] Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. (New York: Yale UP, 1995).

[2] Ibid., 673

[3] Ibid,. 673

[4] Tunnard, Christopher and Henry Hope Reed. American Skyline. (New York: NY Library, 1956). p.118.

[5] Ibid., 119

[6] Landau, Sarah Bradford and Carl W. Condit. Rise of the New York skyscraper, 1865-1913. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1996).

[7] Ibid., 39

[8] Tunnard, 155

[9] Fenske, Gail G. “The ‘Skyscraper Problem’ and the City Beautiful: The Woolworth Building.” vol. 1. 1988.

[10] Ibid., 211