Looking up from the Battery, c. 1923.

Before the skyscraper, the New York skyline had been punctuated by the spires of churches reaching for the heavens. As the 1873 lithograph above shows, Trinity Church’s 284-foot spire soared over all other buildings. Fifty years later in the photo to the right, the church towers have been obscured by a secular skyline, and the Woolworth Building, dubbed the Cathedral of Commerce, reigned supreme.

Bird’s-eye view of lower Manhattan, 1873, looking north.
Skyscrapers are an American invention, made possible by a series of mid and late-19th century technological and structural advancements. Tall office buildings and high-rise hotels represented both the economic vigor and symbolic power of America’s dynamic cities. Unlike the European capitals, such as Paris or London, which imposed height limits of only 70 or 80 feet, American cities sprouted tall buildings: by 1929, the U.S. had more than 5,000 buildings of more than 10 stories. New York had half the total; Chicago had 400, and cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston each had more than 100 buildings of that height.

Woolworth Tower – Cathedral of
Commerce in New York City, 1939.

In 1870, New York’s first Equitable Life Assurance Building on lower Broadway was the first office building to utilize passenger elevators, which broke the barrier of five stories, the limits of how many flights most people would want to walk. The practice of steel-frame construction, introduced in Chicago in the mid-1880s, and accepted by the New York building code after 1889, freed architects from any height limitations and buildings began soaring skyward, creating the massive skyscrapers that dominate the skylines of America’s great cities today.