A Student of Skyscrapers
Measures Their Significance

By Lawrence Biemiller

New York -- Sarah Bradford Landau sounds almost possessive when she talks about Manhattan's older skyscrapers. She'll walk past the Gothic base of a slim tower or point out classical caryatids decorating a third-story porch, and in the course of naming building, date, and architect she'll let slip a phrase like "one of my buildings." If this seems to betray an unscholarly attachment to her subject, perhaps even a tendency to prefer "her" skyscrapers to those that came later -- well, anyone who loves buildings will forgive her after paging through Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913.

Published this year by the Yale University Press, Rise of the New York Skyscraper is the happy result of a 12-year collaboration between Carl W. Condit, an emeritus professor of art history and history at Northwestern University, and Dr. Landau, a professor of art history at New York University and a former member of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Their book examines not only the architecture of the city's early skyscrapers, but also the profusion of technological advances that made ever-taller buildings possible: elevators, electric lighting, steel framing, fireproof materials, and new kinds of foundations that could be sunk far below street level to reach bedrock. Between the Civil War and World War I, New York grew from a city whose tallest structures were church spires to a city that had begun to look like the one we know today -- the city of Daniel Burnham's 1903 Flatiron Building, H.J. Hardenbergh's 1907 Plaza Hotel, and Cass Gilbert's 1913 Woolworth Building, whose 55-story tower was the world's tallest structure until 1930.

Dr. Landau begins an impromptu tour at Bowling Green, where Broadway begins its run up the length of the island. Behind her is Gilbert's Customs House; on the left is a sober, classical-revival building that looks too late to be one of "hers." She knows otherwise. "No. 1 Broadway," she says. "It dates from 1885. It was built by Cyrus Field, the man who laid the Atlantic cable. In 1920 it was totally reclad -- originally it was red brick with Queen Anne ornament." A photo in the book shows a riotous roofline and a gaudy clock tower. Across Broadway looms a late-1950s building that replaced George B. Post's 1884 New York Produce Exchange -- "probably the most heretical piece of destruction I could point out to you," she says. Aside from its architectural merit, the Produce Exchange had incorporated an important innovation: It was among the first buildings to use metal framing in its walls.

A few doors up is the Bowling Green Building, designed in the mid-1890s by William and George Audsley, brthers from Scotland. Dr. Landau pops inside to show off the interior, which is mostly unchanged, and spots an open freight elevator that looks appealingly original. She recalls that an elevator with a 7,000-pound capacity was advertised in the building's prospectus. She asks a lobby attendant about it, but he says he's only just started working there. "It's hard doing research on some of these buildings," says Dr. Landau. "You don't get very far with the managing agents." Gracious as she is, with a soft accent left over from her childhood in Raleigh, N.C., she is not above pleading with guards and building engineers for access to dusty attics and filthy basements, where a building's original features might not have been painted or plastered over.

It was on one such mission, in fact, that she discovered a restaurant under the Mausoleum-like top of the 1912 Bankers Trust Company Building, on Wall Street at Nassau. Over lunch there, Dr. Landau says she had expected that Dr. Condit would handle the engineering material in the book and that she would concentrate on the buildings' architectural histories. Instead, she too got hooked on engineering journals and old copies of Scientific American. "It's catching," she says. "I'll never write the same way again." The technological and the architectural blend as seamlessly in her text -- she did most of the writing -- as the old and new parts of the handsome American Surety Building, which she includes on the Broadway tour. The building dates from 1896, but she notes that five stories, four horizontal bays, and two porch caryatids were added in 1921.

Dr. Landau's conversation and her book are full of such details. The 476-page volume is handsomely illustrated -- with drawings, plans, and early photographs -- but many of its delights lie waiting in the text. One learns, for instance, that some early elevators offered cushioned seating for passengers, and that Post's 1875 Western Union Building had "an iron time ball mounted on a flagstaff at the top of the tower: each day at noon a signal telegraphed from Washington would cause the ball to slide down its staff." People set their watches by it.

That Western Union Building is long gone, however, like Richard Morris Hunt's striking Tribune Building and Ernest Flagg's once-famous Singer Tower. Indeed, the tour passes the sites of several important skyscrapers demolished so long ago that Dr. Landau can count their replacements among "her" buildings. At 50 Broadway she points out the site of the 1889 Tower Building, which rose to 11 stories and demonstrated a metal frame's economic advantages. The building was only 21 1/2 feet wide, she says -- if it had employed load-bearing masonry walls, they would have been three feet thick on the lower floors, costing the owners thousands of dollars of rental income annually. Farther on is the site of the 1870 Equitable Life Assurance Society Building, which she singles out as the first to incorporate all the elements of a skyscraper: a height predicated on the use of elevators, "fireproof" construction, extensive metal framing, large windows, and enough rental space to cover the mortgage. The eight-story building burned in 1912 and was replaced by a 40-story colossus that cast "a noonday shadow four blocks long and six times its own size." The newer Equitable Building helped bring about passage, in 1916, of a zoning law that regulated building heights for the first time.

Eventually Dr. Landau's tour reaches the Woolworth Building, towering over City Hall and what used to be Newspaper Row. Magnificent inside and out, it expresses several of the major themes in Dr. Landau's book. Like most of the older skyscrapers, its design was dictated in part by the desire to provide as much natural light as possible to the interior. The building is U-shaped up to the 30th story, with a light court running down the middle. Above the 30th floor rises the tower, where the highest rents could be charged and where the size of the lower portion of the building assured that neighboring structures could never block daylight, breezes, or views.

Like many of Dr. Landau's skyscrapers, the Woolworth Building was designed as a monument to one company -- in this case, the dime-store chain founded 35 years earlier by Frank W. Woolworth. And it was intended, like other skyscrapers before and since, to be the city's tallest: The role of the ego, after all, can never be underestimated in the skyscraper business. The Woolworth Building soared 792 feet and 1 inch above the sidewalk, almost 100 feet higher than its nearest competitor, the 1909 Metropolitan Life Tower. Its palatial lobby is one of a series of impressive public spaces that Dr. Landau traces back to the first Equitable Building, and she is eager to point out the grotesques of owner and architect high among the Gothic ornaments.

Woolworth clutches an oversized nickel. Gilbert cradles -- as lovingly as Dr. Landau would herself -- a model of the Woolworth Building.

Copyright (c) 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. Title: A Student of Skyscrapers Measures Their Significance Published: 96/11/01