The Skyscraper Museum
The Skyscraper Museum

MARCH 9 & 10, 2017


The Rise of the Skyscraper City: ​
All the Tall Buildings in Manhattan, 1874-1900 ​

In conjunction with its current exhibition ​​TEN & TALLER, 1874-1900, The Skyscraper Museum presented a symposium that explored new narratives of the first decades of high-rise history. Organized into four sessions, on Thursday evening, March 9 and on Friday morning and afternoon, March 10, the symposium brings together a range of scholars and authors who have studied nineteenth-century New York from the perspectives of architecture, engineering, and urban history.

New York’s first “skyscrapers” were erected in 1874, initiating the city’s ascent into the vertical. The all-masonry Tribune and Western Union buildings were ten-story office buildings that lifted their decorative towers to 260 and 230 feet. By 1900, the steel skeleton of the 30-story Park Row Building – tallest in the world–topped out at 391 feet.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Manhattan added 250 buildings of ten or more stories – more than triple the number of Chicago. Elevators and new methods of construction enabled this rise, but it was the phenomenal growth of the city itself, whose population swelled from less than a million in the 1870s to more than 3.4 million in 1900, that drove New York into its vertical expansion. ​

In particular, the symposium explored a new narrative of “All vs. Tall” that considered other uses beyond office buildings, including apartments, hotels, and lofts, and emphasized the commercial motive of high-rise development. The comprehensive survey of every building in Manhattan of 10 or more stories from 1874 through 1900 that is the subject of the TEN & TALLER exhibition and the three interfaces – the GRID, the MAP, and the TIMELINE – offer new ways of viewing the architectural and urban development of the period that was the a focus of our symposium.

​THURSDAY EVENING, MARCH 9       Session 1 5:00 – 8:00   
The Skyscraper Museum, 39 Battery Place

The symposium began at 5:00 with a tour of the exhibition TEN & TALLER by curator Carol Willis that explained in detail the premise of the show to visualize and map all buildings in the survey by year, use, and location. After the one-hour tour, there was a break before the first seated session, which began at 6:30.

6:30 – 8:00     All vs. Tall: Manhattan, 1874-1900   (1.5 LUs)

After a brief talk by Carol Willis that illustrated some of the buildings and themes that have formed the standard histories of the high-rise and the different approach of the TEN & TALLER survey, a group of the symposium’s invited speakers engaged in a conversation about their research and new ways of viewing the architectural and urban history of New York in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Donald Friedman, Lee Gray, Kathryn Holliday, Andrew Alpern, and Thomas Mellins considered some of the major changes in the design and construction of tall buildings, the impact of new technologies such as electricity and telephones, and the rise of multi-family dwellings and hotels. The discussion identifed issues to be explored in the Friday sessions.

1​.​5 LUs were provided for this section​

Friday morning, March 10       Session 2: 10:00 – 12:00   
The Skyscraper Museum, 39 Battery Place
Re-framing the Debate over the “First Skyscrapers” ​
Tall Building Construction in New York vs. Chicago, 1883-1900 ​

Two professors of structural engineering and historic preservation who have researched and published extensively on the beginnings of metal-frame construction in New York and Chicago revisited the partisan debate over definitions of the “first skyscrapers.” New Yorker Donald Friedman, author of Historical Building Construction, and Thomas Leslie, author of Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934, discussed the introduction and adoption of steel skeletons in the practice of construction in the 19th century’s two leading skyscraper cities. ​

The session was framed as a mock “debate” only to emphasize the historiography of the bi-city competition. The real intent of the session was to develop a new and more nuanced narrative of the transition from masonry to metal-frame construction in the last decades of the 19th century. ​

2 LUs were provided for this section​​

Friday afternoon, March 10    Session 3: 1:00 – 3:00    (2 LUs)
This program is held at the Cornell AAP facility at 26 Broadway, 20th Floor
New York’s First Skyscrapers: When, Where, & Why?

Why did some office buildings and apartment houses begin to get taller in the mid-1870s and the early-1880s, respectively? Where did developers build and why? How did corporations design buildings for their needs, as well as for profit?

Speakers in the first Friday afternoon session addressed these and other issues, from the introduction of elevators to telephone technology, as well as the cooperative movement in residential architecture.

1:00 - 1:10     Introductions by Carol Willis

1:10 - 1:40     Riding High in the Age of Masonry:
                      Elevators in Office Buildings, 1870-1875

                      Lee Gray, Prof. of Architectural History, School of Architecture at                           UNC Charlotte

1:40 - 2:10     Vertical Expansion: Telephone Infrastructure and
                      Density in the Urban Market

                      Kathryn Holliday, Assoc. Prof. of Architectural History, School of                           Architecture, University of Texas Arlington

2:10 - 2:30     Uptown Apartments: Layout Planning for Extra Height

                     Andrew Alpern, Independent scholar

2:30 - 3:00     Questions and Colloquy

2 LUs were provided for this section​​

Friday afternoon, March 10    Session 4: 3:30 – 5:30    (2 LUs)
This program is held at the Cornell AAP facility at 26 Broadway, 20th Floor

The Rise of the Skyscraper City

The second Friday afternoon session continued to explore new narratives on nineteenth-century New York. Speakers focused on lesser-studied typologies of commercial architecture, hotels and lofts, and on the extraordinary importance of Broadway as a high-value corridor, made visible by the Ten & Taller survey.

3:30 - 3:40     Introductions by Carol Willis

3:40 - 4:00     Hotels: Big and Tall

Tom Mellins, architectural historian and independent curator

4:00 - 4:20     Broadway: The Tallest Street in the City

Michelle Young, Adjunct Professor, Columbia, GSAPP
                     and founder of Untapped Cities.

4:20 - 4:40     Lofty Lofts and the Broadway Bridge to Midtown

Carol Willis, Director, The Skyscraper Museum

4:40 – 4:50     Response and Comment

                      Fran Leadon, Assoc. Prof., School of Architecture at the                                      City College of New York

5:00 – 5:30     Questions and Colloquy

                     All symposium speakers

2 LUs were provided for this section​​


Andrew Alpern is an architectural historian, architect, and attorney. An expert on historic apartment houses, he has authored nine books on the subject, including The Dakota: A History of the World's Best-Known Apartment Building (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015) and Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History (Dover, 1993). Valuing the history of real estate development, he is the co-author with the late Seymour Durst of Holdouts!: The Buildings That Got in the Way (2011).

Donald Friedman, a structural engineer, is the president of Old Structures Engineering and author of several books, including Historical Building Construction (1995, rev. 2010). His 2014 study, “Structure in Skyscrapers: History and Preservation” was the inspiration for the exhibition,“TEN & TALLER, 1874-1900.”

Lee Gray is Professor of Architectural History in the School of Architecture at UNC Charlotte. An expert on early commercial buildings and elevator history, Lee Gray is the author of From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century (2002). He has written monthly articles on the history of vertical transportation for Elevator World Magazine since 2003. The Tribune Building was a focus of his dissertation, “The Office Building in New York City, 1850-1880” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell Univ., 1993).

Kathryn Holliday, Associate Professor of Architectural History in the School of Architecture at University of Texas Arlington, is an architectural historian focused on American architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries. She is the author of Leopold Eidlitz: Architecture and Idealism in the Gilded Age (W. W. Norton, 2008) and Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century (Rizzoli, 2012). Her current research focuses on the typology of telephone buildings.

Fran Leadon is an Associate Professor at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. He is a co-author, with Norval White and Elliot Willensky, of the fifth edition of the classic guidebook, AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010). He is at work on the forthcoming volume Broadway: A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles (W. W. Norton).

Thomas Leslie is the Morrill Pickard Chilton Professor in Architecture at Iowa State University, where he researches the integration of building sciences and arts both historically and in contemporary practice. He is the author of Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013), among other books. A winner of the 2013 Booth Family Rome Prize in Historic Preservation and Conservation at the American Academy in Rome, he is at work on a study of the buildings of the Italian engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi.

Thomas Mellins is an architectural historian, author, and independent curator specializing in New York City. He is the co-author, with Robert A. M. Stern, of New York 1880, New York 1930, and New York 1960. He has organized exhibitions at the National Building Museum, Yale University, and, most recently, “Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy” at the Museum of the City of New York.

Carol Willis is the founder, director, and curator of The Skyscraper Museum. She is the author of Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago (Princeton Architectural Press, 1995), among other publications. An Adjunct Associate Professor of Urban Studies at Columbia University's GSAPP, she teaches in the program Shape of Two Cities: New York and Paris.

​Michelle Young​​ is Adjunct Professor at Columbia GSAPP, where she leads the Urban Studies Studio in the New York/Paris: Shape of Two Cities program. The founder of Untapped Cities, a popular urban discovery and exploration website, she is also the author of ​​Broadway​​ (Arcadia Publishing, 2015), as well as other publications on New York City.

Support for the symposium has been generously provided by

The exhibitions and programs of The Skyscraper Museum are supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

The exhibitions and programs of The Skyscraper Museum are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.