The Skyscraper Museum is devoted to the study of high-rise building, past, present, and future. The Museum explores tall buildings as objects of design, products of technology, sites of construction, investments in real estate, and places of work and residence. This site will look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.
TALL versus ALL
While the category of office buildings (red bars on the timeline) dominates the 252 structures in our survey with 121 in total, as well as being taller in general than the other use types, it is notable that only 13 office buildings in the period exceeded 250 feet. This “Tall versus All” disparity needs more academic attention. A look at the full timeline shows that the great majority of commercial buildings in the last quarter of the nineteenth century clung close to 150 feet. But perhaps more interesting, especially for future research, is that this typical height includes a high proportion of lofts, especially in the last five years for the century.
Clearly, it was the rapid physical and economic growth of the city itself that drove the enormous volume of new construction, which expanded despite the severe recession that followed Panic of 1893. The large percentage of lofts, which are by definition entirely speculative, as well as the many office buildings which were erected principally to provide space for rent, that accounted for the boom in commercial architecture.
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This timeline represents, by year, all buildings of ten or more stories erected in Manhattan from 1874 to 1900. The bars, which are color-coded by building use, also indicate height. The chart documents a pure capitalist market for commercial construction operating during a period of unregulated growth. Until the first zoning law was passed in 1916, New York City imposed no height or bulk restrictions on high-rise development, with the exception, after 1885, of apartments, which were broadly classified and regulated as “tenements.”
The data for the timeline was developed from the exhaustive research of Donald Friedman, who for more than a decade poured through old engineering and real estate publications and city docket books to gather information on all new high-rise construction during the last quarter of the 19th century. Friedman’s particular interest lay in the structural systems employed in early high-rises, and the information he gathered formed the basis for his 2014 study Structure in Skyscrapers. Setting a baseline minimum of ten stories allowed Friedman to create a manageable list of buildings, which for Manhattan still numbered 252. Information on height was taken from original permits filed with the NYC Department of Buildings. In most cases, unless our research suggested a more accurate number, the exhibition uses his research. Not shown in the timeline - though included on the map and grid - are 16 buildings classified as “other,” which comprise stores, warehouses, and institutional buildings.