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The Water Barriers of Manhattan and the Creation of the Skyscraper

By Alexa Spiegel

When picturing skyscrapers, we tend to think of buildings that overpower nature. Where natural landscapes once existed manmade structures now stand, overwhelming the landscape with their steel and artificial qualities. These buildings have taken away from the natural world; technology has changed nature and allowed structures to get higher and higher without any controls. Surprisingly, it might not be technology controlling nature that caused the creation of the skyscrapers, but nature compelling the technology. The natural obstacles to the expansion of cities inspired people to create technology to overcome them. In particular, the water barriers of New York City were a key factor in determining the use and development of technology in the city, in response to the restrictions on outward expansion posed by the barriers. Ferries, bridges, and tunnels, were all expensive but necessary inventions that were put in place by the early 1900s, in response to the challenge of the water surrounding Manhattan. The only way to access the island, was via the water. Connection to outside boroughs was well worth the money spent on water transportation. It can be said therefore, that the natural form of Manhattan Island was the reason for the development of skyscrapers. There was nowhere left to go, but up in an attempt to find new, unused space.

Ellsworth Huntington describes in “The Water Barriers of New York City” the challenges of building “up” on an island and making it more accessible, during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This was the time when the popularity of skyscrapers was increasing exponentially. The reasons for the increasing popularity of building taller, are given as seen through the eyes of the author, during the time of its occurrence. Since Manhattan is an island, there was only so much space for new buildings. Eventually, there was no more land to build outwards, because everyone wanted to stay close to the center of the city, in lower Manhattan. The center was where business was concentrated, and people desired to remain close[1]. The only solution left, therefore, was to build in the only other direction available: skyward. Skyscrapers had become “such an everyday thing, that people fail to realize that they are a highly peculiar type of architecture which has developed within the last twenty-five years,” between 1891 and 1916[2]. The invention of a true New York City skyline was something that had not preciously existed, as there was not the means for it to exist.

In 1916, New York had more than two hundred buildings over fourteen stories high, with only three over forty stories--about seven hundred feet high. These massive buildings are compared to hills, and the idea that most people have never seen a hill that is seven hundred feet tall. This comparison by Huntington furthers a comparison to the natural world at large. The height of these new skyscrapers is seen in relation to the natural world, as two things existing together in the same space. A quote from American Pulitzer Prize-winning author and dramatist Jesse Lynch William’s “The Water-Front of New York” refers to the tall buildings as a “cluster of mountains,” furthering the comparison to nature[3]. Mountains and skyscrapers are not two distinct entities, but structures that, demonstrated through the use of diction, are actually quite similar. There is a connection that allows one to influence the other.

Nature and technology have worked together to bring about the development of Manhattan. Technology has not been a force of destruction on the natural world as so many fear it to be. Instead, the natural world has been enhanced by the use of technology. Heights and wonders, as exhibited through the new, tall, skyscrapers, have been created in forms that would not normally be seen in the natural world; they are exalted as wonders nonetheless.

The evolution of the skyscraper is a direct result of the water barriers of Manhattan. The city began on the lower tip of the island, in the early seventeenth century, which happened to be too small to accommodate the immense growth that was taking place, and the businesses that wanted to move there. The only way for businesses to stay in the center and most populated portion of the city was to build higher. This desire to build up, referred to as the “skyscraper mentality of New York,” spread around the country, but was only successfully implemented in places with water barriers. He makes an aesthetic argument here, claiming that without water barriers to give them a frame and an outline to conform to, skyscrapers form “a blot on the landscape, where it rises in ugly squareness amid a host of smaller buildings, and its presence leads to congestion where no such thing is necessary”[4].

Water is important to the beauty of the skyline. It is believed by the average viewer, that a view of the New York skyline from across the water is pleasing to the eye. A view of the skyline from across a section of land would not be as beautiful. The number of buildings become a solid mass when seen across the water, in a way that it cannot be viewed from land[5]. The height of the buildings rise above the water, contrasting with the blue, and perhaps it is this contrast between the water and the buildings that creates the beauty.
The perceived “beauty” could also lie in the fact that the water itself was the obstacle that needed to be overcome to achieve the goal of expansion, which would make the “beauty” derive from symbolic meaning. Seeing the silhouette of the skyline, outlined against the flowing water, perhaps symbolizes the success of the skyscraper in overcoming nature’s challenge. There is the ability to view the challenge presented by the water barriers, and the accomplishment of overcoming them, in a single frame of the skyline, that is not present if skyscrapers are looked at in a city that is surrounded by land. When there is only land, there is no challenge that needed a solution. There is open space all around for more buildings to be placed in, there are no confines that need to be overcome. The beauty of what would be the skyline disappears as a result.

The invention of the skyscraper had its roots in the excessive land value of lower New York, but after the construction of several skyscrapers around the city, some of these developed areas experienced lower land value[7]. Height became an issue when it came to value. Lower stories were darker and thus were not as desirable to rent as the other floors. However, New York’s prices for rent were astronomical in and around 1916. The cause of the high rents, starting in the early 1900s and carrying through to the modern day, is a direct result of Manhattan’s island nature.

New York being a large city would be enough to increase the price of rent, but the fact that it is also an island increases the price even more so. The fact that Manhattan is an island cost the average family at least $100 a year in 1916[8]. The water barriers cause rents to be higher, because there is so little land available[9]. Everything becomes more valuable when there is less to go around, and when there is excessive demand.

The taller the building, the lower the property values, as there is an increase in housing supply. Skyscrapers cost less per square foot to build, so they also are cheaper for the neighborhood than other alternatives. Skyscrapers are economically a better option than any other form of residential building[10].

It is nature that contributes to the high prices, just as it is nature that causes the high buildings. As it currently stands, the nature that humans are convinced they have overpowered, is really overpowering them, and there is no choice but to give into the demands placed by the water barriers, and pay the excessive rents.

Huntington states “as we look at the effect of New York’s water barriers on the cost of living, on architecture, on rents, on problems of transportation, on health, on morals, can we say that man has overcome his physical environment? By our attempts to overcome it, have we not made ourselves a hundred times more subject to it?[11]”. This accurately describes the effects of the water barriers on the city of Manhattan. While attempting to advance technologically and overcome the limitations set by the natural world, what really occurred was the natural world fighting back with its own limitations. Skyscrapers were not a direct result of human power over nature are they were a result of human power influenced by nature. The upward development of New York only resulted from the natural barriers that existed.

Without the water barriers, and the technological advancements encouraged by the water barriers of the early 1900s, the skyline would not be viewed in the way it was, and still is, today. The height that was made necessary by the water barriers and the proximity of the skyscrapers, seen in conjunction with the water, creates a skyline that is iconic and memorable throughout the world, as well as one that is uniquely New York. The beauty that people associate with the skyline is a direct result of the water barrier. The rents did increase, and there was an influx in population density, but that did not stop people from moving and developing Manhattan in the early 1900s. Nature’s controls led to the technological advancements needed to create and sustain the sweeping skyline that came to define Manhattan.

[1] Mona Domosh. Scrapers of the Sky: The Symbolic and Functional Structures of Lower Manhattan. Clark University: Massachusetts, 1985.

[2] Ellsworth Huntington. “The Water Barriers of New York City.” In Geographical Review, 2, no. 3 (Sep., 1916) : 169-183.

[3] Jesse Lynch Williams, "The Water-Front of New York,"

Scribner's Vol. 26, 1899, p. 385.

[4] Ellsworth Huntington. “The Water Barriers of New York City.” In Geographical Review, 2, no. 3 (Sep., 1916) : 169-183.

[5] IBID.

[6] Edwin Levick, “East River - Shore and skyline of lower Manhattan - South Ferry - Williamsburg Bridge,” photograph 1915,, (accessed November 27, 2014).

[7] Ellsworth Huntington. “The Water Barriers of New York City.” In Geographical Review, 2, no. 3 (Sep., 1916) : 169-183.

[8] IBID

[9] Mona Domosh.. Scrapers of the Sky: The Symbolic and Functional Structures of Lower Manhattan. Clark University: Massachusetts, 1985.

[10] David Ward and Oliver Zunz. “The Landscape of Modernity: New York City, 1900-1940.” JHU Press, 1997.

[11] Ellsworth Huntington. “The Water Barriers of New York City.” In Geographical Review, 2, no. 3 (Sep., 1916) : 169-183.