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Who Characterizes the New York Skyline: 1920 to 1940

By Heath Hampton

It is only useful to discuss the New York Skyline if it remains understood that as an idea it is necessarily a composite. The skyline as a topic of discussion only exists as an arbitrarily defined view of a collection of buildings against the horizon.

Those buildings each contribute uniquely to that view, and thus inform any understanding or reaction to the skyline as a whole. The skyline of a city is not separable from an holistic evaluation of the city itself. To elaborate, if a viewer approaches a city from a distance they are confronted with the city’s skyline. Whether they fly in or arrive by water, however the approach is made, they are unavoidably struck by it. The skyline then serves, in part, as a first impression, the skyline is conflated with the city in the minds of viewers. The skyline, as an idea in itself, is representational or symbolic of the city it belongs to. This is where it becomes necessary to think of the skyline as a composite; as being composed of essential individual elements.

If the New York Skyline, as a partitive of the city, can be said to represent the city in the minds of viewers, then it is important to understand what precisely is being represented. It is important because the New York Skyline can only be one part of the city and to conflate it with the entirety of the city is to lose sight of every other part. Not only are certain aspects necessary to fathoming the city lost due simply to the natural synecdoche of the skyline, but the skyscrapers that make up the skyline are not pure, simple embodiments of their context. A skyscraper isn’t built with the singular intention of expressing the ideals of the whole city in order that the people see and understand. Meaning that they aren’t even very good synecdoches for the city. Rather, they are self-conscious constructions; incarnations of revisionist reflection. 
That is to say, each building was carefully planned, not to perfectly present the city to the interpretation of the masses, but to epitomize disparate goals, ideas and ideals that are not necessarily related to each other. However, these buildings, out of context, out of time, out of a firm reality do in fact create a sensibility by which an observer believes themselves to become cognizant of the whole of New York.
One particular perspective of the Skyline of New York City that has persisted as a symbolic representation of the city for centuries is directed from Brooklyn, specifically the Heights. More specifically, it is a view that glares across a waterfront at the most business-minded portion of Manhattan. The recently constructed Brooklyn Heights Promenade capitalizes on the global social depth this specific angle on the urban has accrued throughout its existence. This is a photograph from the waterfront of 120 Wall St., an art deco building made in 1931. It has been a persistent member of the skyline as seen from the Promenade for roughly eight decades[i]. It is not a comparatively tall building and yet it is definitively part of the skyline when perceived from the aforementioned location and its signature shape makes it an easily distinguishable member of the skyline indeed. Its an extremely recognizable building, it houses 36 major not-for-profit organizations, this building plays a role in shaping anyone’s understanding of the city, first and foremost aesthetically.

The building was originally made by the infamous American Sugar Refining Company, or the Sugar Trust.[ii] As a product of that company this part of the skyline necessarily reflects, upon research, the strivings of an individual man, namely the founder of the Sugar Trust H. O. Havemeyer. This man achieved the economic success necessary, from apprenticeship up, to foster the creation of a monumental testament to his legacy against the eastern shore of the most prominent island in the United States.

Perhaps the most strident example of a construct in the skyline being the direct product of one man’s ambition is the Standard Oil Building.[iii] Commissioned by John D. Rockefeller in the 1920’s the Standard Oil Building was meant to be his company’s New York headquarters.[iv] It is built in what is termed ‘renaissance revival’ style, meaning that it was intended to resemble renaissance era architecture, and was one of the most prominent buildings in the lower Manhattan skyline for quite some time.

Individual men, throughout the history of New York City, have created imposing monuments to their own success along the horizon of a city and thus impose their personalities, albeit in a heavily interpretive, filtered way, upon the sensibility of the skyline, which alters its representational usefulness, and therefore its symbolic validity.

The New York Skyline from Brooklyn Heights provides a viewer with a case study in the historical transformation of architectural styles. The skyscrapers within that purview juxtapose roughly a century of technological and social developments that changed the context in which buildings were made and changed the limitations of their construction.[v]

The very first skyscrapers in New York were built as a response to the so-called Chicago School, est. 1868[vi], which produced the first buildings thought of (in modern terms) as skyscrapers. They were skyscrapers, of course, because they appeared strikingly tall when compared with pre-existing structures. Architects were able to achieve this height by abandoning traditional masonry-oriented building techniques, which could only progress higher by thickening the support structure of the bottom floors.[vii] Instead they made use of high-quality cheap steel, produced as a result of the Thomas-Gilchrist (or Bessemer) steel manufacturing process, rolled and riveted into a framework to which concrete walls and floors could be fixed. The earliest skyscrapers still relied heavily upon stone masonry as a support structure for the wrought-iron and then Bessemer steel girders, but ambition inspired invention and eventually, all steel support systems allowed for modern heights to be achieved.

Most early skyscrapers in Chicago and New York focused on revival style architectural motifs. A prime example, which would have been visible from Brooklyn Heights when it was made, is the Standard Oil Building. It’s neo-classical dome and arches intend to harken back to Renaissance styled building. Not only that but, as it was built after the 1916 New York Zoning Law, it fit the “set-back” rule nicely. The enforcement of the ‘set-back’ zoning law created the next stylistic era of New York skyscraper style, the appropriately named, set-back style.

The set-back style essentially consists of an arbitrary ratio decided upon by New York legislature, the rule was that for x height the building can only be y wide. Thus as the building grew taller, it lost consecutively greater amounts of width. This ruling can be seen very prominently in 120 Wall St., a large pyramidal building right up against the water front. This was not the only style of building to adapt itself to the zoning ordinances but it is the one most specific to New York and is therefore an highly representative type of skyscraper. The set-back style of architecture didn’t catch on in other major cities, because the same ordinances weren’t enacted in other urban zones. On Manhattan there was a great fear that skyscrapers would blot out the sun for all the people living on street level and thus the set-back rule was intended to allow light and air to make it down.

This ordinance also led to Art-Deco skyscrapers, which fit the rule by having tall, thin towers with pyramidal or spiral caps. All of the art in this time was influenced by the Art-Deco movement, but the way in which it applied specifically to the architecture of lower Manhattan can be seen in buildings like 40 Wall Street, which is capped with a large copper pyramid. The Art-Deco style is characterized by a tendency towards opulent and almost gaudy displays of wealth on the interior of the building and a gothic tendency on the facades of buildings. The fact that 40 Wall Street and similar buildings are in an art-deco style is a direct result of technological advancement, the economic boom of the 20’s and of course zoning laws. The art-deco style lost prominence during the building lull of The Great Depression, and was practically abandoned by the end of World War II[viii].

After World War II most skyscrapers were made in what is referred to as an International Style. These buildings focus on uninterrupted verticality, monstrous edifices of concrete and glass rising directly out of the city blocks. The Zoning reform of the 1960’s allowed architects to construct much taller, non set-back, buildings given that a public space is established around the building. This was intended to prevent immense urban density that would arise from erecting large buildings directly against each other. The most absolutely striking example of International Style buildings coloring the skyline, were of course, the Two Towers. They exemplified the International, or Modern style, of building which has an intensity of height and an imposing lack of adornment. They were modelled upon the idea that form, of necessity, follows function and that the buildings would make a good addition to the skyline, because they would be good for New York.

New York’s Skyline provides a neat history of humanity’s grandest architectural feats in the past century. We can see from the very beginning of our fascination with ever taller structures, to the grand epitome of our attempt in one short glance.

[i] “New York City Skyscraper Map -” Accessed October 28, 2014.

[ii] “Henry Osborne Havemeyer - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” User-edited encyclopaedia. Wikipedia. Accessed October 28, 2014.

[iii] “New York Architecture Images- SEARCH-Lower Manhattan.” Accessed October 28, 2014.

[iv] “John D. Rockefeller - Biography - -” Accessed October 28, 2014.

[v] “New York City Skyscraper Map -” Tom Paradis. Accessed October 28, 2014.

[vi] Lowe, David Garrard. “Architecture: The First Chicago School.” Accessed November 10, 2014.

[vii] “Early Skyscrapers.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 24, 2014.

[viii] “International Style (architecture).” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed October 29, 2014.