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NYC skyscrapers: 17 things you may not know

More than any other style of architecture, the skyscraper defines New York City's skyline.

Over the decades, these tall buildings, which teem with industry and ingenuity, have reached new heights to mirror the ambitions of their developers. And those ambitions continue to this day with the opening of One World Trade Center and the construction of new supertall, thin residential towers in midtown Manhattan.

But what is a skyscraper? That would seem obvious to define. But, in fact, it's not. Carol Willis, the curator of the Skyscraper Museum in lower Manhattan, said they use the "very simple" criteria that a building must be "taller than a cube." That would seem to make a lot of buildings eligible as skyscrapers.

Other experts say the elevator makes the difference between a plain old building and a skyscraper. "Vertical architecture would be impossible, first of all, without the elevator, the great equalizer of civilization," wrote Barr Ferree, a leading 19th century architectural critic. If so, that would probably make the 180-foot-tall Equitable Life Assurance Building, the first office building with an elevator, the world's first skyscraper when it was completed in 1870 at 120 Broadway.

Meanwhile, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an international organization that tracks and certifies skyscrapers, takes into account a range of criteria in determining the definition of tall buildings, from "height relative to context" and "proportion" to "tall building technologies" such as wind bracing and elevators. "Supertall" buildings are defined as being over 984 feet in height.

However you define skyscrapers, there is a trove of trivia about New York City's tall buildings just waiting to be unearthed.

1. Until 1890, the tallest building in NYC was Trinity Church on Broadway.

Trinity Church on Broadway in lower Manhattan, which
Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_blank">Tristan Reville via Flickr (CC BY-SA)</a>

Trinity Church on Broadway in lower Manhattan, which rose heavenward at its Gothic spire to 284 feet, was the tallest building in the city until the completion of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World building in 1890. The World's steel-framed structured reached 309 feet to its gilded dome.

2. Newspaper companies wrote the first draft of the city's ambitions for tall buildings.

In the late 1800s, the city's powerful newspapers
Photo Credit: Unknown

In the late 1800s, the city's powerful newspapers were building the tallest buildings on what came to be known as "Newspaper Row" on the east side of City Hall. These buildings not only included the World, but also the Tribune's 260-foot so-called "printing palace." The New York Times, the Sun, and other papers also built along the row could be considered "vertical factories," because the entire production process could be done on the premises: editors were housed along with huge steam-engine presses printing thousands of copies per hour.

3. The Flatiron narrows to just 6 feet at Fifth Avenue.

Never the tallest, but among the most iconic
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Maria Tomo

Never the tallest, but among the most iconic of New York City skyscrapers, the Flatiron Building rises 21 stories to 285 feet and narrows to 6 feet at its corner. It was originally built on a triangular patch of Manhattan to house the headquarters of the Fuller Construction Co. Its name came from the press, which described the building as a three-sided flatiron, and the moniker stuck.

4. Longacre Square was renamed Times Square in honor of the first New York Times built there.

The 1904 building, with 25 floors, measured from
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The 1904 building, with 25 floors, measured from curb to top at 363 feet. But the company included its basement and flagpole to measure it at 476 feet and proclaimed it the tallest in the city. Its architecture was hailed as regal and majestic. The Board of Aldermen, in changing the name of Longacre Square, said the Times "was doing so much to develop the neighborhood and contributing an architectural monument to the city." The building's completion was celebrated on Dec. 31, 1904, with a fireworks show, making it the first Times Square New Year's Eve party. The building would also feature the first "moving" sign, the motogram, a 5-foot-tall, 360-foot band of 14,800 lights that would transmit news and messages.

5. President Woodrow Wilson turned on the lights to the Woolworth Building to mark opening day.

At 7:30 p.m. on April 24, 1913, Wilson
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

At 7:30 p.m. on April 24, 1913, Wilson pressed a button at the White House to turn on 80,000 light bulbs at the Woolworth Building, a publicity stunt befitting the opening of the world’s tallest skyscraper. The Woolworth required 87 miles of electrical wiring and its own power plant.

6. In 1916, the city passed the first zoning law in America to regulate skyscrapers.

This meant buildings now had to
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

This meant buildings now had to "retreat incrementally from the sidewalks as the buildings grow taller," wrote Edward O'Reilly for the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, on its blog. The goal of the 1916 zoning law was to prevent the city's streets from "devolving into gloomy, darkened canyons in the early days of skyscrapers." The effort to regulate skyscrapers was galvanized by the construction of the 40-story Equitable Building in 1915, which, according to O'Reilly, cast a seven-acre shadow on the street below. The first building to adhere to the 1916 zoning laws was the Barclay-Vesey Building in lower Manhattan, now owned by Verizon.

7. The Chrysler Building dedicated three floors to an elite luncheon club.

The Cloud Club, which counted among its membership
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Cloud Club, which counted among its membership many of the city's power brokers, served as a speakeasy during Prohibition, according to "Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America," by Donald L. Miller. "Members were allocated wooden lockers to store their bottles; each locker had carved hydrographic symbols on its doors to prevent federal agents from identifying its millionaire lawbreaker," Miller wrote. The club had access to an office, lounge, reception room, grill, oyster bar, barbershop, baths, restrooms, dressing rooms and even a cigar humidor.

8. The Empire State Building was designed to handle transatlantic flights. Or not.

In a race to build the tallest skyscraper
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Michel Porro

In a race to build the tallest skyscraper in the world, the ambitious planners of the Empire State Building decided to top the structure with a 200-foot tower that would supposedly serve as a mooring mast for future passenger airships (dirigibles like the ill-fated Zeppelin). Or that's what some claimed. As the tall tale goes, once arrived, airships on transatlantic flights would throw out a line that would be warped to the mast and hauled in by an electrical winch. Passengers would then disembark 1,250 feet above the ground via a gangplank to the 102nd floor. It would only take passengers minutes to arrive at Fifth Avenue shops. Although there had been plans to dock the Navy's U.S.S. Los Angeles to the mooring mast to prove its usefulness, the scheme proved unworkable. No dirigible has ever been docked. In fact, the entire idea of the mooring mast for dirigibles was not true, according to CEO Anthony Malkin. In fact, it was there to make it taller than the Chrysler Building. But it's still called a "mooring mast."

9. Rockefeller Center incorporated ingenious engineering to segregate sound.

One of the tenants of the 850-foot tall

One of the tenants of the 850-foot tall building, NBC, was determined to avoid unwanted sounds coming into their studios. To accomplish this, the studios were “structurally isolated from the rest of the building to prevent the transmission of noise and vibration,” according to the “The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America.” Each studio was “further isolated to ensure a totally soundproof environment” in the “windowless complex.”

10. The United Nations Secretariat building introduced the all-glass exterior to skyscrapers.

Incorporating ideas proposed by an international panel of
Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_blank">Jeffrey Zeldman via Flickr (CC BY-SA)</a>

Incorporating ideas proposed by an international panel of architects including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, the U.N. headquarters introduced several architectural innovations when it was completed in 1952. But it was the sheathing of this slab of a building in what appear to be two curtains of glass that proved most controversial and had a long-lasting effect on skyscraper design in the years to follow. The windows are tinted a blue-green and help to absorb radiant heat and reduce the building's air-conditioning costs.

11. A landmark 1961 zoning law encouraged developers to incorporate public plazas in their plans.

In 1961, a new zoning law sought to
Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_blank">FaceMePLS via Flickr (CC BY-SA)</a>

In 1961, a new zoning law sought to address those plans by creating incentives allowing developers to add extra floor space so long as plazas were incorporated into their plans. By 2000, there were 503 privately owned, publicly accessible spaces at 320 buildings throughout the city that accounted for 3.5 million square feet of public space, according to a count conducted at the time. One example is the Marine Midland Building's plaza with its iconic red cube.

12. The original World Trade Center was the first skyscraper to undergo special wind tunnel tests.

In 1963, in a first for any skyscraper,
Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Carol Highsmith

In 1963, in a first for any skyscraper, the World Trade Center design was tested so that modifications could be made to help it withstand gale-force winds. How was this done? Through a novel boundary layer wind tunnel developed by engineer Jack E. Cernmak, who also consulted on the Sears Tower. Such testing allowed the designers of the Twin Towers to predict turbulence and eddies that could cause the buildings to sway. According to the Skyscraper Museum, the tests also allowed the engineers to develop a theory of the "breakage rate of glass" subjected to the winds of the atmosphere.

13. The Twin Towers were so tall that express elevators were introduced for the first time.

These elevators shuttled passengers non-stop at a speed
Photo Credit: NIST

These elevators shuttled passengers non-stop at a speed of 1,600 feet per minute to "sky lobbies" on levels 44 and 78. Once at those levels, passengers could take local elevators much as if they were back at ground floor. There were also express elevators that could be taken straight to the top of each tower.

14. The Citicorp Center was the first skyscraper to incorporate a tuned mass damper

The massive device -- a 400-ton concrete block
Photo Credit: Getty Images / AFP / Stan Honda

The massive device -- a 400-ton concrete block that sways on an oiled surface with the building -- acts like a pendulum to counteract the force of high winds. Though now widely used in tall buildings, the decision to include a tuned mass damper to counteract high winds was novel at the time that the 915-foot Citicorp Center was constructed.

15. The Bank of America Tower is an environmental first.

The 55-story tower at One Bryant Park was
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Robin Marchant

The 55-story tower at One Bryant Park was the first skyscraper in the U.S. to achieve LEED Platinum Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council when it was completed in 2010. The building features water conservation technology, green roofs with compost from waste generated by tenants and an urban garden. Rain and snow that falls on the building is captured and reused to flush toilets. According to the architects, the design of the building draws on "concepts of biophilia," which they describe as "people's innate need for connection to the natural environment." To this day, the building is considered one of the most environmentally friendly in the world.

16. 8 Spruce Street has windows that make it feel like you are suspended over Manhattan.

Striking because of its undulating façade, the Frank
Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_blank">Maciek Lulko via Flickr (CC BY-SA)</a>

Striking because of its undulating façade, the Frank Gehry-designed tower at 8 Spruce St., known as the Beekman Tower, was designed with bay windows that give tenants the feeling of "stepping into space" past the plane of the exterior wall. Each floor has its own configuration; the tower's unique design was enabled by cutting-edge software developed by Gehry Technologies.

17. One World Trade Center has a 20-story-high bomb resistant base.

Everything about the 1,792-foot One World Trade Center
Photo Credit: Getty Images / AFP / Don Emmert

Everything about the 1,792-foot One World Trade Center has been built to address the obvious security concerns that the tower faces -- a legacy of the history of Sept. 11, 2001. The building has dense fireproofing, "areas of refuge" on each floor, "optimal firefighting access" and "structural redundancies," according to "Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings" by Judith Dupr. The tower's base has been described as "bunkerlike" in strength.


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