Exhibit examines before and after the rise of The Street


By Kristin Shiller

Wall St. may be the symbolic capital of American finance, but it is also a very real place with important ties to the growth of New York and has a rich architectural history.  The physical development of the famed street is the focus of a new exhibit at the Skyscraper Museum, “The Rise of Wall Street,” which opened this month.  Using artists’ renderings, construction photos, and architectural models, the exhibition explores the high-rise history of Wall St. from 1850 to the present.

“The show was meant to explore Wall St. as a physical place, not just as a metaphor for finance and business, and to look at it through time at every address,” explained Carol Willis, the and museum’s founder and curator.  While the exhibit focuses mainly on Wall St. after 1850, it does provide some insight into its earlier history during which time Wall St. was “unformed yet as an identity,” said Willis.  “There was a church, a tavern, a city hall, a factory.  It was a very weird, eclectic mix of buildings during the first half of the 18th century.”  Some of the first “skyscrapers” on Wall St. were sugar refineries dating back to the colonial era, which at seven stories towered above the three and four story buildings of the day. 

During the second half of the 19th century, Wall St. became the business capital and land was in high demand.  Simultaneously, new technologies made it possible for engineers and architects to build bigger buildings than ever before.  “Wall St. was a kind of test tube for skyscrapers, a sort of crucible,” Willis noted. “It’s a very concentrated space that has extraordinarily high land value and prized addresses.  [It had] all of the conditions that create skyscrapers, which are really demand and location, even more so than the technology.”

The show depicts the upward growth of Wall St. through a collection of stacked panoramas spanning the entire length of the street’s north side at various points throughout history.  This representation of “vertical Wall Street” shows its evolution from mostly four- and five-story buildings to the towers that exist today.

Despite its vertical growth, Wall St. was never home to the city’s tallest building. Forty Wall St. (now known as the Trump Building) came close in 1929, but lost to the Chrysler Building. Willis explained, however, that the real records on Wall St. were set “in the realm of land prices.” One Wall St., a long prized address, sold in 1905 for a record $615 per square foot. The new owners promptly constructed an 18-story skyscraper on the site, increasing the available rental space by nearly five times.

Another striking feature of Wall St.’s development, in addition to how high both the buildings and the real estate prices rose, is how far the buildings expanded out.  “In addition to the evolution from small to tall…you also see on Wall St. site assembly in order to create larger and larger buildings,” Willis said.

The exhibit includes rarely seen construction photos from 40 Wall St., as workers demolished smaller buildings in order to create the foundation for the new skyscraper. The show also features floor-to-ceiling images of various Wall St. buildings, elongated by the mirrored ceilings of the gallery, as well as a model of the never-to-be-built 1998 proposal for a new home for the New York Stock Exchange, on loan from the designer, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

“The Rise of Wall Street” will run at the Skyscraper Museum, located at 39 Battery Place, through the fall of 2010. Visit www.skyscraper.org or call 212-968-1961 for more details.