The meaning of “sky mark,” a phrase invented for this show, seems self-explanatory, sounding a lot like “skyline.” But what is a “landmark?” Conventionally, it’s a notable or historic building, but in New York City since 1965, Landmark refers to buildings or districts that have been officially designated for protection and regulation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
Who decides Landmark status? Ultimately, it’s the eleven LPC commissioners. But their vote concludes a long process that can begin with scholarship, community advocacy, or political negotiations. Landmarking can be a high-stakes game. Many building owners oppose designation as costly interference with their rights of property. Legal challenges were an important part of the creation and strengthening of Landmark protections.
SKY MARKS | LANDMARKS looks at all the structures in New York designated as individual Landmarks that are “skyscrapers.” We count about 84. Just as the LPC definition of characteristics that qualify a building to be a Landmark is fairly vague – architectural, historical, or cultural significance – our definition of skyscraper is somewhat subjective. “Significantly taller than a cube” is a baseline, but a minimum number of stories is not. The earliest high-rises of the 1880s to 1900s that were ten to twenty stories were clearly skyscrapers in their day and so are included. Today the 102-story Empire State Building is the city’s tallest individual Landmark.
Context matters. The poetic name for tall buildings – skyscrapers – resides in their relationship to the space around them. Skyscrapers and New York are synonymous. The evolving skyline is evidence that neither the energy of the city nor its image can be frozen. But our Landmarks should be protected and treasured.
What is a New York City Landmark? A building, interior, or scenic area, or a contributing building within a historic district, that has been determined by the city agency – the Landmarks Preservation Commission – to be worthy of protection and regulation into the future. This exhibition highlights the skyscrapers in New York City that have been designated as Individual Landmarks.
Established by legislation passed in 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was slow to designate skyscrapers. The first was the city-owned Municipal Building, then the Flatiron Building in 1966. Not until 1974 did Raymond Hood’s American Radiator Building become the third office tower to be protected, even though citywide, landmarks of other building types topped five hundred. After the city’s victory in the 1978 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Landmarks law, a wave of skyscraper designations began, focused on the iconic Art Deco towers of Midtown: the Chrysler, Chanin, and McGraw-Hill buildings in 1978-1979 and, finally in 1981, New York's most famous skyscraper, the Empire State Building.
From 1991 to 2001, the focus tilted to lower Manhattan where preservation played a key role in the transformation of the Financial District into a mixed-use neighborhood while maintaining the historic urban fabric even as older office buildings were converted into apartments. Today, New York City has about 1,450 individual Landmarks, of which about 80 by our appraisal are “skyscrapers.”
A separate page with an interactive timeline presents the buildings chronologically by designation date and identifies the name, completion date and architect.
Mapping Manhattan's Designated Landmarks
The three maps in our installation show enlargements of an online map created by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). They distinguish four types of landmarks – individual, interior, scenic, and historic districts – by different colors. Individual Landmarks are pink; Historic Districts are yellow. Today there are more than 37,800 designated landmark properties across the city, with the vast majority in Historic Districts. Of these thousands, 1,449 are individual landmarks, of which 84 by our definition count as "skyscrapers." The Museum has colored the Skyscraper Landmarks blue.
Our crops zoom in on the districts where skyscrapers have clustered: Lower Manhattan, Midtown, and Midtown South, from 14th to 34th streets. These areas have changed across the century. In 1900, by far the greatest number of tall buildings concentrated in the financial district around Wall Street and the corridor of Broadway. While a few spread as far north as Madison Square, most high-rises above 34th St. were hotels or apartments. Not until Grand Central Terminal with its below-grade, covered tracks was completed in 1913 did an office district expand along Madison, Fifth, and eventually Park Avenue.
The LPC maps show the expansive areas of Historic Districts, where all "contributing buildings," like Individual Landmarks, are protected against demolition and inappropriate alterations. In general, landmark designation stops the historical trajectory of Manhattan development, which tends to combine smaller lots and buildings into larger sites that will accommodate taller structures. Landmarking can, in effect, take a property off the Monopoly board. Along with zoning, landmark designation is a powerful tool of city government to regulate private property in the public interest – and therefore often incites controversy, litigation, and politics.