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New York's Skyscrapers | Insight Guides Blog

New York's Skyscrapers

New York skyscrapers as seen from Central Park                                , (photo by A Nowitz)
New York skyscrapers as seen from Central Park

New York City is one of the thrilling destinations on our Atlantic Route road trip and is synonymous with the impressive skyscraper. Learn more about the city's soaring architecture.

New York is a vertical city. The first skyscraper was Daniel Burnham’s 1902 Flatiron Building, which is 285ft (87 meters) high. Built on a knife-edge lot at Broadway and Fifth Avenue, the Flatiron gained instant élan from its height and classical styling, not to mention a romantic touch from the way it appeared to be sailing up Broadway.

Traditional styles still inspire the tallest buildings, however. Napoleon LeBrun styled the 700ft (210-meter) Metropolitan Life Insurance tower (Madison Avenue at E. 23rd Street) after St Mark’s Campanile in Venice. Architect Cass Gilbert built the Woolworth Building, which soars for 792ft (241 meters), but harks back to Gothic styles. 


The development of the skyscraper

New York’s iconic 20th-century skyline was wrought more by politics than art. As buildings rose ever higher, planners feared that city streets were becoming lightless canyons. A 1916 zoning formula capped street-level facades by the width of the street, so towers of unlimited height rose only over a quarter of a building plot. This led to the “setback” feature (step-like recessions near the top of buildings) which is now a New York icon.

The boom and confidence of the 1920s led to the classic era, of which there is no finer example than William Van Alen’s famous Chrysler Building. The gleaming spire of the 1,046ft (319-meter) 1930 Art Deco masterpiece tops a pinnacle of stainless-steel automotive motifs and gargoyles. The 1,454ft (443-meter) Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon) took the “world’s tallest” title from the Chrysler in 1931. Raymond Hood’s 1934 RCA Building in the Rockefeller Center is more muted Art Deco, softer than the monolithic skyscrapers.

The postwar International style arrived in Mies van der Rohe’s 1958 Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue), graceful glass curtain walls rising from an open plaza. Many anonymous 1950s and ’60s glass boxes showed the same style with less aplomb. Far above the crowd, the 1,368ft (417-meter) Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (1976) were a New York icon on a par with the Empire State – a status tragically confirmed by the towers’ destruction during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The site is currently being redeveloped.

Recent architectural efforts have again brought imaginative elements to the skyscraper. The triangular panels of the 2006 Hearst Tower, designed by British architect Norman Foster, are integral to the heat, light, and air management system, while Italian Renzo Piano’s new tower for The New York Times has sunscreen-walls of ceramic tubes. Frank Gehry’s Beekman Tower, whose facade suggests rippling water, has become the city’s newest avant-garde wonder. In all these awesome structures, New York is always building, always soaring.


Read more about New York City on our USA destinations pages or buy one of our New York City travel guides.


Plan your US road trip

To read more about what to see in the United States, visit our USA destination pages. See also our guide to the Northern route from east coast Boston to west coast Washington state.

Or choose from one of our fantastic USA travel guides.



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