Three Tall Buildings

by Don Friedman on December 4, 2016

In chronological order:

The Woolworth Building, New York, 1913:

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The Shard, London, 2012:

The Shard London Bridge

Picture by Mariordo.


30 Park Place, New York, 2016:

Picture by Fletcher. Note the Woolworth building (with scaffolding for facade repair) immediately to the right.


Three tall buildings; one separated from the other two by 100 years and one separated from the other two by 3000 miles. The third is separated by something more interesting: fame.

The Woolworth Building was, at 792 feet above grade, the tallest in the world from 1913 until the completion of 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building in 1930. That fact, coupled with its prominent and visible location (in New York’s downtown financial district, facing a park), and its distinctive gothic architecture helped make it famous.

The Shard has a rooftop observation deck at 802 feet above grade and a spire that continues up to 1016 feet above grade. It is, by far, the tallest building in London and the fourth tallest in Europe. On the other hand, 30 Park Place is 937 feet tall. In other words, it’s not now exceptionally tall for New York.

Fame for buildings is in some ways as inexplicable as fame for people. Year after year, I meet people who insist that the Home Insurance Building in Chicago was the first skyscraper even though they can’t say why. It wasn’t the tallest building at the time of its construction, it wasn’t the first with a skeleton frame (more accurately: it didn’t have a skeleton frame), and it wasn’t particularly influential at the time it was built. It did become a symbol of Chicago skyscrapers some fifteen years after completion, in the midst of a circa 1900 propaganda war between New York and Chicago about which city had built the first skyscraper. New York’s Tower Building became famous at the same time for the same reason and with the same caveats.

If the Shard and 30 Park Place were swapped, would Londoners be talking up their building the same way that they are now? Probably, although my experience of the London architectural scene is that a historicist tower would be seen there as more of an oddity than it is here. The Woolworth Building is historicist architecture while Chrysler was not (when it was new) but both are seen as equally legitimate in New York. Londoners, and Europeans in general, seem to prefer their modern towers to look modern. But the buildings are where they are, and 30 Park Place has barely made a ripple. It’s not that tall here – even though it’s taller than Woolworth – and it doesn’t have that much else to make it famous.

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