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Rediscovering The Lost Skyscrapers Of New York

Many of New York’s early tall buildings were demolished. Some of those that remain are hiding in plain sight.

There are upwards of a million buildings in New York City, so you’d be forgiven for not even noticing the hundreds of the earliest skyscrapers that still dot the city today. After all, a “skyscraper” in 1890 might have meant 10 stories. Today, it means 100.

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While some of these buildings became iconic, many of these early wonders have been largely forgotten–overlooked as the fabric of the city wove itself around them over the past century. “This period of New York architecture is rather neglected,” says Carol Willis, Director of the Skyscraper Museum, which launched an exhibition on the era called Ten & Taller. Between 1874 and 1900, 253 buildings topped 10 stories in New York; about half of them are still standing today, while 120 have since been demolished, largely lost to memory–until now. Online, the museum has published a set of exploration tools that surface these structures as an interactive map, a timeline and, remarkably, a grid that included a photo of each building–even the long-demolished ones.

The process of uncovering them began with a structural engineer named Donald Friedman, who was studying when tall buildings switched from all masonry to all steel structures. As Willis explains, he spent a decade tracking down details about every building in the city that was over 10 stories tall during this era, digging through publications and archives to create a master list. Willis used Friedman’s database as a foundation for the museum’s research process, but finding images of each building was a monumental task–she says that they ultimately spent 1,000 hours pulling together the “hard-won” photos, which range from grainy sepia illustrations to crisp black and white newspaper prints. “Many of the buildings never made it into the publications of the period,” she says, because they weren’t famous, but rather functional offices, apartment buildings, factories, and more.

Together, they form a picture of a time many of us forget–an era when tall buildings didn’t quite look like skyscrapers yet, as architects searched for the right way to design these new structures. “The buildings don’t really look like skyscrapers,” Willis points out. “They’re the tallest buildings in the city, but most of them have flat tops.” It took time for the familiar vernacular of tall buildings, with their spires and crowns, to develop.

Take the Tribune Building, now demolished, built in 1875 by Richard Morris Hunt–founder of the American Institute For Architects and designer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and the pedestal that supports the Statue of Liberty). It was the tallest building in the city, one of the first in New York to include an elevator, and later, the first to include a women’s bathroom on every floor. Rising above its mansard roof? A crowning clock tower–not so dissimilar from the massive spires we top skyscrapers with today. (It was demolished in the 1960s as the city expanded the exit to the Brooklyn Bridge.)

So what saved the remaining 132 buildings from this time? In large part, economic utility. “The reason that older buildings survive in New York is that they’re overbuilt compared to what you could replace it with,” Willis explains. When the city introduced zoning laws that mandated rules on setbacks and density in the 1960s, existing buildings that violating those regulations were grandfathered in. (As the New York Times pointed out last year, 40% of the buildings in New York City couldn’t be built today.) Demolishing and rebuilding on the same plot of land would mean ending up with a much smaller and less lucrative building.

So instead, these structures have been remodeled, renovated, and reshaped again and again. We think of New York’s ever-churning real estate market as destructive–but in some cases, it’s preserved early traces of the city. Check out Ten & Taller here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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