Comparing New And Old Skyscrapers

by Don Friedman on May 31, 2016

“Skyscraper” is one of the most subjective words I know. The problem isn’t that there’s no definition; the problem is that there are multiple conflicting definitions and no objective way to decide between them. People, including me of course, inevitably choose the definition that agrees with the way they see the issues, or that makes their favorite building the tallest in the world, or in some other way feels right to them. Given that, this entire post is either nothing more than fodder for arguments or it’s just my opinion. Or both.

How subjective is the word “skyscraper”? When it first entered use with reference to buildings, in the 1890s, it meant buildings that were maybe 12 or 14 stories high. In current use, those buildings are probably not even counted as short skyscrapers. (Musical interlude: Oklahoma is set in 1906. As I mentioned before, there’s no way that people in Kansas City thought that a 7-story building was a skyscraper in 1906 because they’d had a 12-story building there since 1888.)

There has been a resurgence in recent years of new buildings breaking records for height. If you like skyscrapers, that’s great. Most of the new very, very tall buildings are not in the U.S., and if you’re a fan that’s great, too, since it means more tall buildings wherever you travel.

Closer to home, we’ve been having a resurgence of merely-very-tall building construction here in New York. Four, or maybe five apartment houses over 1000 feet tall are up or in progress on 57th Street, and more scattered around town. These buildings are not as tall as the current record-holder, the Burj Khalifa, but one of them – The “Nordstrom Tower” – will be taller than the Willis [nee Sears] Tower in Chicago and thus will be the tallest building in the U.S. (I, personally, think that the claim that the uninhabited spire on top of One WTC makes it the tallest is ridiculous.) More interestingly, the new buildings in town are amazingly slender.

Fortunately, I don’t have to dive into the details of this topic, as an exhibit at the Skyscraper Museum has done it for me. In short, unlike the slendernesses of 6 to 8 of most of the previous generations of skyscrapers, the new crop here has slendernesses as high as 23. Since I’m interested in old buildings, how does the current crop compare to the past?

There are pre-1900 champs like the Gillender Building (at the corner of Wall Street and Nassau Street, torn down 13 years after completion for the larger Bankers Trust tower), with a slenderness of 10.5:

The shaft of the Singer Building tower was 65 feet on each side, and the building was 612 feet high.

But the best example of an old building that rivals the current towers as a straight up-and-down and slender building  is the old One Wall Street, AKA the Chimney Building, which was 18 stories high and slightly less than 30 x 40 feet in plan area:

There are other very slender buildings from before 1910, but this one simply does away with everything nonessential. It may not have been very tall by our standards, but it seems to me to be pointing at the future.

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