A skyline is a horizon interrupted by verticals. Seen from a distance, a city’s tall buildings make a collective, coherent image – a silhouette against the sky that creates an identity. Throughout history, cities have been distinguished by their prominent structures: Florence by the Duomo, Paris by the Eiffel Tower. New York is defined by its multiplicity of skyscrapers.

Manhattan grew a skyline before writers found a word for it. The earliest skyscrapers, office buildings of ten stories, rose near City Hall Park in 1874, but it was not until two decades later that a burst of towers of twenty stories, 300 feet or taller, truly transformed the city’s image. Located especially along the spine of Broadway from the Battery to Chambers Street, they composed a profile visible from both rivers. One critic mused in 1897: "it is in aggregation that the immense impressiveness lies. It is not an architectural vision, but it does, most tremendously, look like business!"

Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn, 1896. Library of Congress

There are millions of Manhattan skylines – viewed across time, from myriad vantages, by countless observers. This exhibition attempts, for the first time, to simplify and organize New York’s nearly 150 years of skyline development into five significant periods in which buildings take characteristic forms shaped by economic, technological, and regulatory factors. Today’s city is a collage of multiple eras, built and rebuilt over decades. Under- standing the constituent factors of the five formative periods allow us to read urban history in the glorious jumble.

The overarching story of Manhattan’s high-rise growth is an evolution from small to tall, then taller. Cycles of boom and bust created the crowded clusters of Downtown and Midtown and today energize new geographies such as Hudson Yards and a new typology of supertall, slender towers. Ever-rising, New York’s skyline continues delineating its verticality.

Lower Manhattan, 1999. Richard Berenholtz 

Use the interactive sliders to view the skyline across time (above).