As platted a building lot has two dimensions, length and breadth, but until there is good prospect of its acquiring the third dimension, height, it will not profit its owner. Height of building measures roughly the value of a Manhattan site; adults see that the pot of gold, which children are told lies at the rainbow’s end, is really under the tallest buildings in the sky line. What the narrow island lacked in surface, its builders have offset by going up in the air.
The skyscrapers, clustered at focal transportation points, dominate the city’s architecture. Each is in a sense a pirate stealing light and air from its neighbors; but this piracy is now under the restraint of a setback law limiting verticity. So many feet up the wall must be moved back. Originating to prevent undue appropriation of upper space the setback principle has given rise to an architecture of far more variety and beauty than would have been possible under former conditions. The elongated cigar-box of stone, with maximum rental space on minimum land, is still the landlord’s ideal and the architect’s despair; but it is prohibited in its purest form and some neat adjustments to legal necessity adorn the sky line of New York. A greater Babylon, with almost infinite possibilities in the way of hanging gardens, is in the making, when the pre-setback buildings have been demolished and future buildings have been erected under even more enlightened and enlightening rules than those in force at present.
The great landed fortunes of New York owe almost as much to the skyscraper and the elevator as they do to population pressure. The two are linked inseparably. The skyscraper would be impossible without the swift elevator; and the latter would have no road for its extraordinary progress without the skyscraper. Inventors in these two fields have contributed more than landowners to the present value of Manhattan’s golden earth.
Through the three centuries of settlement the structural development of Manhattan has run roughly as follows: bark huts, frame houses, brick stores and buildings, stone stores, marble palaces, steel-and-stone structures. The building game waited a long time for steel and was slow in recognizing its structural possibilities; landlords are conservative by nature. Although New York had the better reason for seeking the air route to higher ground rents, Chicago, with a wholly man-made concentration of values in its Loop district and with boundless prairies to spread over, originated the metal frame for buildings which is the origin of the present skyscraper. There William LeBaron Jenney designed and engineered a ten-story steel-skeleton building for the Home Insurance Company in 1884-85. After four years’ expectation of disaster to this brain child of the energetic West, the nine-story Tower Building was reared in New York on similar lines in 1888. It went the way of most buildings to destruction, in 1914.
Before the daring Mr. Jenney showed what could be done in defying the strains and stresses of vertical building by the use of steel, six stories had been about the limit for commercial buildings of masonry construction, as costs increased greatly with each additional story. John G. Wendel sternly believed that was enough. But even six-story buildings in public use had to have some way of getting the public quickly from floor to floor. When the Fifth Avenue Hotel was opened in 1859, it contained the first passenger elevator ever built. Its inventor, Otis Tufts of Boston, called it a “vertical screw railway,” and that perhaps is enough to indicate its mechanism. The hotels monopolized elevator traffic for many years; one reason people came to New York hotels was to ride up and down in the elevators. The St. James gets credit for installing, in 1866, the first suspended elevator, which was operated by steam power. Not until 1870 was an elevator placed in a New York office building, the Equitable Life Assurance Society in its seven-story building on lower Broadway making that great adventure, defying the fears of the public.
From the late seventies hydraulic and hydraulic piston-type elevators succeeded the suspended steam type and were supreme until the early nineties; and the first steel buildings were equipped with them. Then electricity became the motive power for vertical trans-port, and a little later the famous Flatiron Building was erected to the startling height of 290 feet, or twenty stories, at the corner of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street. This building aroused more concern and curiosity than any structure built in New York since. Would it stand against the winds to which its triangular form seemed to offer dangerous leverage? Would its elevators hold through such dangerously long trips? Time settled all these questions, but left one which teased the robust and fleshy humor of the period. The Flatiron Building, now old and a little off the busier tracks of trade, is still remembered as a place where women, on windy days, had more than usual difficulty in hiding, behind full-length skirts, the fact that they were bipeds. Jokes about ankles and the Flatiron Building penetrated the consciousness of interior America by way of the vaudeville stage, the humorous weeklies, and the newspaper wits. Perhaps the Flatiron Building’s greatest contribution to America was that of rendering ridiculous the street-sweeping skirts of the period, which presently crept upward a few inches without imperiling the nation.
This progress to twenty stories, with the safety of steel and the serviceability of electric elevators demonstrated beyond all doubt, tossed uncounted millions into the laps of landlords. All things come to those who own land in the right quarters. Just as street openings, omnibus traffic, street cars, elevateds, and subways had made available for residence purposes successive new areas of Astor land, let us say, so now elevators and steel skeletons gave new income opportunities to large tracts. When the turn came, these areas held acre after acre of four- and five-story buildings, many of them the traditional brownstone fronts, others the walk-up tenements of the poor. These old structures could now be razed, when, as, and if desired, to make way for lofty office buildings and hotels, re-turning two or three or four times the rent of the older structures. An analyst of the Astor fortune ascribes to this cause the rapid rise of the old Astor House site from $2,000,000 to $5,000,000.
The upward leap came soon after the completion of the Flatiron Building and was in process until the depression of 1929. In 1905 ground was cleared for the Singer Building, oldest of New York’s skyscrapers to deserve the title under modern standards. In 1909 it was topped by the Metropolitan Tower of forty-six stories and 657 feet, now assessed at $12,750,000. Old John Gottlieb Wendel, the old fogy who was worth $50,000,000 and thought six stories enough for any decent purpose, concluded once more that a revolution was in the offing when the Woolworth Building was announcedfifty-five stories, height 787 feet, a clean jump of 130 feet and nine stories into the blue.
The Woolworth did something more than pierce the sky; it also pierced crania, which after all is quite the best thing an architect or any other master crafts-man does. Not only was the Woolworth Building tall; it also had a soul-lifting beauty which caused it to be hailed as a cathedral of business.” To this day it remains the most aesthetically satisfying of Manhattan’s towers, and sells better on postcards than any other skyscraper. From the street it is easily the most impressive, because the frontage on City Hall Park gives the onlooker a chance for a long, full view. And in the skyline, as seen from a distance, it stands out be-cause of the lack of near-by competitors for altitude.
In the towered Woolworth Building is the first faint hint of the “setback” principle which has latterly been written into law and now dominates the great city’s more ambitious architecture. For seventeen years the Woolworth held the height record, until the Chrysler, by virtue of its rapierlike steeple, rose to 1,046 feet, and seventy-seven stories, assessed in 1933 at $17,000,000. The Chrysler reign was short, however, for soon the Empire State, on the old Waldorf-Astoria site, shouldered its way to 1,250 feet, with eighty-six stories and capped by a mooring mast for dirigibles never yet used for that purpose but unco prolific of publicity and marring an otherwise magnificent creation. The Empire State was assessed for $34,000,000 in 1933, $30,000,000 in 1934, the difference representing the city administration’s view of falling values in the depression.
In 1934, there were ninety-five skyscrapers on Manhattan Island of thirty stories or more, many of which had working populations greater than those of small cities. Consider, for example, the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, a massive structure built on 49,999 square feet of land with 1,220,688 square feet of net rentable area, although the height is a mere forty-two stories. Equitable, assessed at $29,500,000, has avail-able for renting space equivalent to twenty-eight acres, exclusive of roads which service it: in Equitable’s case hallways, elevator shafts, and service basements. Twelve thousand persons spend their working days in the building; an average of 96,000 persons ride up and down on its forty-eight elevators every working day between eight A.M. and six P.M., and 125,000 persons pass daily through its doors. More people visit the Equitable every day than live in the state of Nevada. Experts claim that less than sixty stories will not pay on land costing $300 a square foot, and that south of Canal Street all buildings more than thirty years old show operating losses.
Without the skyscraper and the elevator, Manhattan could never have become the great workshop that it is. While fewer than 2,000,000 persons live on the island, its daylight working population exceeds 1,500,-000, workers flowing in daily from a fifty-mile radius.
A majority of the island’s daylight gainfully employed population work in two areas: 439,000 of them in the downtown district south of Canal Street, 408,000 in an elongated midtown section running from Third to Eight Avenue between Twenty-eighth and Forty-ninth streets, with a northward extension to Fifty-ninth Street between Sixth and Eighth avenues. Other sections high in working population are the factory and loft district stretching south and west from Times Square to Fourteenth Street and Tenth Avenue with an eastward extension to Third Avenue below Twenty-eighth, with 279,000 workers; the Greenwich Village section from Fourteenth Street to Canal, Bowery to Hudson River, with 138,000. Two narrow belts on either side of the island along the rivers are important industrially. Between Fourteenth and Ninety-fourth, East River to Third Avenue, 67,000 workers are employed; on the West side between the Hudson and Tenth Avenue, Fourteenth to Seventieth, 32,000.
The million and a half workers perform their labors in 28,331 buildings classed as non-residential. Among these are 8,333 rooming and lodging houses, 6,429 loft buildings, 2,647 public and semipublic buildings, 2,202 stores, 2,062 warehouses, 1,738 office buildings, 1,201 commercial garages, 979 factories, 487 institutions, and 413 hotels.
As between the two outstanding business sectionsdowntown and midtownthere are marked differences in functions and structures. The downtown area has only one hotel and forty-three garages, while the midtown area has 158 hotels and 172 garages. Midtown also accommodates more factories and stores. In office buildings, the most significant classification because of the numbers employed in them, midtown leads with 845 to downtown’s 581. These figures demonstrate how the newer midtown business section has taken the leadership from the older section. Midtown almost monopolizes the hotel, tourist, and theatre trades, and leads in retail trade and office activities. Downtown still has the ascendancy in banking and brokerage, ship-ping and warehousing; but the class steamship lines, the ones seeking first-class passengers, are showing decided preference for midtown docks on the Hudson River side of the island, so that the probability is that downtown’s older leadership eventually will vanish except in finance as rooted deep in the compact financial district centering at Broad and Wall streets.
Has the skyscraper business, to use reverse English, reached bottom? There are indications that it has. The newer skyscrapers lack tenants to fill their vast and soaring floors. Whether this condition will pass with the return of better times remains to be seen; that these giants are really pyramid memorials raised to departed grandeur, as has been said, is hard to believe. And yet it is noteworthy that architects of the latest great ad-venture in mass building, Rockefeller Center, were willing to let Empire State retain the crown of height while they went in for greater breadth, planning an ensemble rather than a claimant for top altitude. One of the Rockefeller Center buildings is, of course, enormousthe R.C.A. Radio City building, of seventy stories, 853 feet, and $25,000,000 assessment; but it impresses through bulk rather than height. Not graceful in outline, it strikes a new note in interior and near-ground embellishments. Presumably no building of vast proportions will be undertaken in New York for some years; when and if giantism is renewed, it will not be surprising to find the trend following the breadth rather than the unit-and-height plan of Chrysler and Empire State. Cloud-reaching is halted for the moment and may be a long time getting under way again unless aviation developments present additional reasons.
In a city dominated by height the sure way to achieve notability for any structure is to keep it low and surrounded by plenty of open spaces. You catch the utter truth of this in the United States Subtreasury, New York Public Library, the City Hall, the J. P. Morgan offices, the Fifth Avenue side of the Rockefeller project. But the first three are untaxed; the Morgans can afford a bit of conservative swank, and no doubt Mr. Rockefeller hopes that the revenues from his tall buildings will make good the tax losses on his low ones. Faced with the dilemma of profits or aesthetics, the architects must follow their patrons in pursuit of profits and salve their consciences as best they can by making the best of narrow sites and long lines. On the whole they have done rather well. There are a variety and a lift in New York’s more impressive vistas which are matched by no other city in the world.