The Evolution of the New York Skyline

The Evolution of the New York Skyline

  • Image: chadh

    Probably nothing tells the story of a city as vividly as its skyline. Seen over the course of the decades, it is often more the absences or the gaps that tell of significant and often traumatic events than new and daring constructions that seem to fight for viewers’ attention. This is surely true for Lower Manhattan, as the following stunning pictures from 1911 to 2008 show.

  • Image: army.arch

    The New York City skyline in 1911, already quite tall and impressive.

    Here is an image of Lower Manhattan in 1911. The pointy tower in the middle is the Singer Building, built in 1906 and more than 40 stories tall. It was demolished in 1968 to make way for the U.S. Steel Building located at One Liberty Plaza. Right below, the long building is the Municipal Ferry Terminal, also called Battery Maritime Building. It was built in 1909 and used until 1939 for the Brooklyn ferry. Today, it’s where people can catch a ferry to Governor’s Island, long closed to the public.

    The similar long structure on the left is the Whitehall or Staten Island Ferry Terminal. It was built in 1907 and used until 1991 when it burned down. It was only replaced by a new terminal in 2005.

    The two buildings on the very left are the Whitehall Building, 20 stories high and built in 1904, and the Whitehall Building Annex, 31 stories high and built in 1911.

    It’s no wonder there was a building boom even then in New York, considering the city already had a population of almost 4.8 million in 1910 due to a steady stream of immigrants from Europe.

  • Image: U.S. Naval Historical Center

    The USS Arizona in front of the Manhattan skyline in 1916.

    Despite World War I, the building boom in the city continued. Here is a view of Lower Manhattan as seen from the East River with the Brooklyn Bridge and the new Municipal Building on the right – constructed in 1914 and 41 stories high. The tall building to the left is the new Woolworth Building, constructed in 1913 and at 57 stories, the tallest building in Lower Manhattan at the time – and therefore visible from any angle. Left of it, close to the Brooklyn Bridge, is the Singer Building.

  • Image: U.S. National Archives

    A stunning aerial shot of Lower Manhattan, circa 1931, that shows how much taller and built up it is than just 15 years previous.

    By 1930, the city’s population had shot up to more than 6.9 million, helped by the Great Migration of African Americans from the South in the 1920s. Even the Great Depression could not dampen builders’ spirits, who erected some of the city’s grandest Art Deco buildings in the ‘30s.

    Two world-famous ones are the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, both located in midtown Manhattan and therefore not pictured in any of the photographs below that focus on New York’s “original” skyline. The Chrysler Building, 77 stories high and completed in 1930, was the world’s tallest building for 11 months. Just to be surpassed by the Empire State Building, 102-stories tall and completed in 1931.

  • Image: U.S. Navy

    The USS Colorado in front of the New York skyline, circa 1932.

    Here’s the skyline in detail, in 1932: On the left is the Woolworth Building and on its right, the darkish tower is the Singer Building. Further on the left, the flat-topped skyscraper is the Bank of New York Building at One Wall Street, then known as the Irving Trust Company Building. The 50-story building was completed in 1931.

    The tallest tower in the middle with what looks like a black roof – but which is actually copper – is the 40 Wall Street building, then known as the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building and today the Trump Building. The 70-story skyscraper was completed in just 11 months in 1930.

    The tallest building with a flat roof on the right is the City Bank-Farmers Trust Company Building, a 59-story Art Deco building at 20 Exchange Place, completed in 1931. Adjacent on the left stands the American International Building, 66-stories tall and completed in 1932.

  • Image: Jack Delano

    Not too many changes – the skyline of Lower Manhattan in December 1941.

    After the 1930s, as space in Lower Manhatten kept filling up, the city and with it the new skyscrapers moved north, and midtown – then nearly the edge of Manhattan – became the new architectural center as one project tried to surpass the other in height.

    In 1940, New York’s population was at almost 7.5 million and the period after World War II saw an influx of returning war veterans and immigrants from Europe. This led to the development of the eastern suburbs (then considered the absolute boondocks), especially Queens, where huge housing tracts were built. In 1939, the first World’s Fair was held here.

  • Image: U.S. Navy

    The USS Saratoga in front of the New York skyline, dated between 1956 and 1959.

    From the ‘50s onwards, the city’s growth rate started slowing down a bit. In 1950, New York’s population was at almost 7.9 million. When looking at Lower Manhattan’s skyline on the left, there are again not too many changes. Notice how the Singer Building, formerly the tallest, is dwarfed and almost gets lost next to all the other buildings. On the very right, don’t miss the first skyscraper in Queens.

    The ‘60s and ‘70s saw an increase in activism and the common man taking matters into his own hands. In 1964, New York hosted the second World’s Fair, this time grander and bigger than the first one, which had been overshadowed by the war.

  • Image: Jack Duval

    Lower Manhattan in 1978.

    By the ‘70s, New York had also gained a reputation as a crime-ridden city. 1977 will be remembered by New Yorkers for two catastrophes: the blackout and the Son of Sam serial murder slayings. In 1970, New York’s population was at almost 7.9 million, the same as 20 years back. Over the next decade, the population actually decreased; it was a little more than 7 million in 1980.

    Here’s a great shot of the New York skyline in 1978. Now we can see a change, namely the World Trade Center towers, constructed in 1972 and 1973, soaring over all the other buildings. They stayed New York’s tallest buildings until 2001. The Municipal Building is the tall white tower on the right; on the left, the American International Building.

  • Image: chadh

    Skyline taken in 2000 from the Staten Island ferry.

    In the 1980s, Wall Street saw a rebirth; in the 1990s, the dot com boom hyped up the situation in New York as well, so that a migration of Americans to the city could be observed as well as a wave of new immigrants from Asia and Latin America. In 2000, the city’s population had just crossed the 8 million mark.

  • Image: Derek Jensen

    The Twin Tower memorial on September 11, 2004.

    Just as New Yorkers were gearing up for the last quarter of 2001, three catastrophes struck: the attacks of September 11, 2001; the anthrax attacks that started exactly one week later; and the crash of an American Airlines flight in a Queens suburb on November 12, 2001. The stroke of bad luck continued when on August 14, 2003, a blackout hit the whole North East region and affected New York City majorly. The early years of the new millennium were surely not easy for the citizens of New York.

  • Image: con4tini

    Old and new – Manhattan skyline now, photographed on September 6, 2008.

    For those truly inspired by the article and the New York skyline who live in or around the City, here’s an insider tip: Go to Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens (Subway No. 7 goes there) and visit a huge, walk-around scale model of the whole city with all five boroughs at the Queens Museum of Art. The model is a remnant from the World’s Fair in 1964 but has been updated frequently since. It is the best depiction of the city’s grid and portrays its vastness like no other image could.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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Simone Preuss
Simone Preuss
Scribol Staff