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Zoning Laws: A Changing Skyline

By Alexa Spiegel

After 1870, buildings were growing higher and higher in unprecedented ways. Since this was a relatively new phenomena, there were no parameters to restrict the development of these new buildings. Architects were free to design skyscrapers to unlimited (within reason) heights, and patrons were inspired to imagine their buildings as towering, uncontrolled displays of their wealth and success. More buildings started to be built in the popular districts of Lower Manhattan, where there was a concentration of businesses, rising high enough to obscure the sky as it had never been before[1]. The fear arose that skyscrapers prevented light and air from reaching the streets. The citizens of Manhattan began to imagine the threat of a city covered in darkness. In response to these new skyscrapers, the most important being the Equitable Building, New York City enacted the 1916 Zoning Resolution.
The 1916 Zoning Resolution was the first zoning regulation in the country. The goal was not to put a limit on the height of the skyscraper, but rather to regulate its shape. There was no height limitation, but the regulations put in place changed the outward appearance of the building. The main concern was that of the lack of light and air that was currently reaching the sidewalk[2]. There was a problem with too many structures increasing the density of the city and the skyline. As a result, the 1916 Zoning Resolution stated that one could build to the lot line of the building and then rise to a specified height, but once that height was reached, the bulk of the building had to be set back, instead of being a continuous “block” of a building[3]. This led to many buildings of the time after 1916 having a “wedding-cake” like appearance, such as the New York Telephone Building, built in 1926[4]. As a result, the skyline became more dynamic, with differing shapes and outlines that weren’t there before.
The acceptable height of the building depended upon the width of the street on which the building was located. If the street was wider, then the street wall could be higher than a narrow street, where the initial setback of the building would begin lower down the building. This process of simultaneously building higher and setting the building back would continue, and was formulaic in a way. Once twenty-five percent of the lot area was filled, the restriction was lifted and one could build a skyscraper of any height, which would lead to a narrow tower on that twenty-five percent of the lot, but only one narrow tower on that small portion of the lot. These regulations physically changed the skyline, as the outline was shaped by the unique outlines of the new buildings constructed from 1916 to about 1960.[6]

The last skyscraper that was built prior to the code was the newly built Equitable Building, since the old one was destroyed in a fire. The rebuilding was complete in 1915, just before the enactment of the 1916 Zoning Resolution. Based on the development of the building alone, people feared for the construction of new buildings with little or no restrictions. The owners of the neighboring real estate feared that the size of the new Equitable Building would reduce the value of their own properties.[9]

While the neighbors feared for the value of their own properties, the Equitable Life Assurance Society itself was also experiencing problems of their own. There was a law that prevented insurance companies from taking part in building projects based on investments. Instead they were only allowed to take part in developments for their personal offices, and as a result, they sold the land to Thomas Coleman Du Pont, who was the heir to Du Pont chemical business.[10] Although developers in the area and banks wanted Du Pont to sell the plot to develop an eight story building to prevent the building from astronomical heights, he instead chose a forty story plan by Ernest R. Graham.[11]


The building that was eventually constructed in 1915 inspired public discomfort, and the tenants of the neighboring buildings left all together. The city realized that they needed to contain the development of new skyscrapers, or else the economic burden of people leaving, and taking their business and money elsewhere, would be too much for the city to bear. If other developers followed the same building practices as the Equitable Building, the structure of the city would be overloaded. There would be no way to move people into and out of the central business district, and water, sewage, trash removal, and utility services might not function. The mass or volume of the city had to reflect the infrastructure[13].

City finances and developers profited as a result of the setback regulations instituted by the 1916 Zoning Resolution. Each building had a better selling value, and more stable land values, which helped the developer. Also, it helped city finances because of the steady taxing value of well-occupied housing and office developments.[14] The financial contribution of the better selling value that resulted from the zoning regulation inspired strict adherence to the rules, and thus the buildings that were contracted from 1916 on had the unique, set-back profile that changed the skyline over that time period.

It could be said that the 1916 Zoning Resolution brought about an aesthetic that did not exist previously, the “wedding-cake” appearance of buildings. This gave the skyline an entirely new outline. There was a dynamism and movement that was entirely new, with different shapes composing an interesting skyline. However, it was not the desire for a new aesthetic that brought it about. As described, the reasons for this change were based on practicality. Although the early nineteen hundreds are marked by technological advancements and soaring heights, the application of the new building practices in the Equitable Building also alerted the inhabitants of the city to the harm that could be caused by unregulated technology applied to unrestricted height. This inspired the citizens to take a stand, and begin to see the skyscrapers as something other than a marvel of innovation. In August 1915, the New York Times summarized a speech of George B. Ford of the New York Committee on City Plan to students of the American City Bureau Summer School by portraying skyscrapers as “poor business propositions, destructive of adjacent land values, unwholesome obstructions to light and ventilation, and undesirable edifices generally.”[15] The skyscrapers were seen as harmful to the city, the economy, and the citizens.

The unrestrained development of skyscrapers from 1870 to 1916 made people fear for the character and quality of life of the city in general. They were allowed to be built in any way the builders pleased, and began to create unwanted shadows and darkness on the city streets. The Fifth Avenue Association was an integral part in pushing for the preservation of the aesthetic of New York City through zoning legislation, in hopes that these problems would be corrected. They started a “Save New York” movement, which aimed at putting an end to undesirable development. The irony came from the fact that the person who presided over the event was the President of the Equitable Office Building Corporation, George T. Mortimer, and the Equitable Building was the very building that people were so opposed to[16].

The 1916 Zoning Resolution caused a significant change in the skyline. The main goal of the Resolution was to change the skyline, in the way that they were unhappy with the current buildings. While the complaint might not have been particularly about overall aesthetics, the restrictions that came out of zoning legislations did drastically change the skyline. With the inclusion of the setbacks, the skyline gained a unique outline that it did not have before. Change did happen, and because of the unrestrained construction and threat of unconstrained height of the new skyscrapers, advancements were made that would change the face of the skyline.

[1] Andrew Fischler. “The Metropolitan Dimension of Early Zoning: Revisiting the 1916 New York City Ordinance. Journal of the American Planning Association. Published: November 26, 2007.

[2] “City Fixes Limit on Tall Buildings” The New York Times. (New York, NY). July 26, 1916.

[3] Andrew S. Dolkart. “The Birth of the Skyscraper: The First U.S. Zoning Law.” The Architecture and Development of New York City.

[4] Joseph J. Korom. The American skyscraper, 1850-1940: a celebration of height. Branden Books: Boston, 2008.

[5] Edwin Levick, "Barclay-Vessey Telephone Building in New York City, 1955,” photograph, 1955,, (accessed November 27 2014).

[6] Andrew S. Dolkart. “The Birth of the Skyscraper: The First U.S. Zoning Law.” The Architecture and Development of New York City.

[7] "Setback tower options, 1916, described in the 1916 zoning report," illustration, 1916,,,_1916.jpg (accessed November 27 2014)

[9]Joseph J. Korom. The American skyscraper, 1850-1940: a celebration of height. Branden Books: Boston, 2008.

[10] IBID. 316.

[11] Christopher Gray. “1915 Equitable Building Becomes a 1996 Landmark.” The New York Times.

[12] “The Equitable Bldg,, completed in 1915. PR 54, Postcard File,” illustration,, (accessed November 27 2014).

[13] Larry R. Ford. “Reading the Skylines of American Cities.” Geographical Review, Vol. 82, No. 2. Published: April, 1992.

[14] New York Skyscrapers zoning

[15] O’Reilly, Edward. “‘Undesirable edifices generally’: The 1916 Zoning Resolution.” New-York Historical Society.

[16] IBID.

[17] Ewing Galloway, “East River - Shore and skyline of lower Manhattan - South Ferry - Williamsburg Bridge - Peck Slip - Burling Slip,” photograph, 1920,, (accessed November 27 2014).

[18] "Lower Manhattan's Financial District skyline looking east from Hudson River. April 1900," photograph, 1900, wirednewyork,com, (accessed November 27 2014).

[19] "Panoramic general view of Lower Manhattan's Financial District from the Hudson River. February 1917," photograph, 1917,, (accessed November 27 2014),