The twin towers of the World Trade Center, among the best known buildings in the world, represent only one step in the century-long evolution of skyscrapers in New York City. Here are some pioneering tall structures that changed the shape of Manhattan.
The Tower Building (1889)
Bradford Lee Gilbert, architect
This eleven-story structure in lower Manhattan was the city's first true skyscraper, supported not by its exterior masonry walls but by a steel frame of columns and beams within. When high winds blew during construction, crowds of onlookers gathered (at a safe distance) waiting for the radical new structure to fall over. It was only when the architect himself climbed to the peak of the building and declared it perfectly safe that they were convinced otherwise.
Flatiron Building (1901)
Daniel Burnham, architect
Never the tallest building in the city, the 21-story Flatiron was nonetheless one of the most commanding, taking architectural advantage of its unusual wedge-shaped site to become one of the first "artistic" skyscrapers. Observers such as the photographer Alfred Stieglitz compared it to the "bow of a monster ocean-liner," sailing up Broadway. Officially named the Fuller Building (for the company that had commissioned it), the structure was instantly renamed by the public for its striking resemblance to a traditional flat iron.
Woolworth Building (1913)
Cass Gilbert, architect
The 54-story, 692-foot Woolworth tower was the tallest building of its time, and remained so until the completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930. It was not only the culmination of the first era of skyscraper construction, but was regarded as the one of the most beautiful structures in New York. The Gothic-influenced design of the "Cathedral of Commerce" (as it was originally called) provided a powerful sense of verticality, carrying the eye from the blocky base of the building below to the slender, freestanding tower and ornate copper peak above.
Empire State Building (1931)
Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architects
The greatest decade of construction in the city's history climaxed with the completion of the 102-story, 1,250-foot Empire State Building, arguably the most beloved skyscraper ever built in Manhattan. It held its distinction as the tallest building in the world for nearly forty years, until 1970 when the north tower of the World Trade Center topped it out. Its gracefully stepped shape, a product of the city's 1916 zoning law (the first of its kind in the nation), allowed the building to rise in a series of setbacks from a five-story base to a soaring 86-story shaft. This in turn was surmounted by a 200-foot-tall Art Deco-style tower, originally intended as a mooring mast for dirigibles, but soon converted to accommodate radio (and later TV) antennas and an observatory on the 102nd floor.
United Nations Secretariat (1950)
Le Corbusier, Wallace Harrison, and the International Committee of Architects
Unlike prewar skyscrapers -- masonry-clad towers which sat directly on the city's streets and stepped back as they rose into the sky -- the 39-story Secretariat was a simple rectilinear slab, detached from the city street grid, and faced on its long sides with the world's first glass-and-steel curtain wall. (Two years later, the glass-and-steel curtain wall would first be used for commercial office-building construction with the 1952 opening of Lever House, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.)
Seagram Building (1958)
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, architects
The headquarters for the Seagram liquor company was distinguished by the richness of its materials (bronze, onyx and travertine, and bronze-tinted glass), by the elegance of its detailing and proportions, and by its fountain-filled plaza, which created a spacious forecourt for the structure. In 1961 Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's sleek Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters brought the same formula to lower Manhattan, carving a two-and-a-half-acre plaza out of the dense canyons of the financial district. That same year, the "tower-on-a-plaza" design became the basis for the city's new zoning law, and in the decades to come would be endlessly duplicated throughout Manhattan -- though rarely as well as in its initial two incarnations.
World Trade Center (1973-76)
Minoru Yamasaki & Associates and Emery Roth & Sons, architects
Architect Minoru Yamasaki combined aspects of Rockefeller Center, the Chase Manhattan Plaza, and several Chicago apartment projects by Mies van der Rohe, when he fashioned the World Trade Center as a pair of identical 110-story twin towers, with four smaller structures at their feet, surrounding a central plaza. By their very size, the towers were destined to become iconic structures on the city's skyline, but from the start, most critics attacked their design as banal and inhuman, lacking both the sense of uplift and exuberance of prewar skyscrapers and the lightness and elegance of the best postwar buildings. The street-level areas came in for special criticism. The project turned its back on the surrounding neighborhoods and interrupted the existing street grid. By burying all of its activities -- restaurants, shops, lobbies and transit links -- in a sprawling underground concourse, the structure robbed the central plaza of any trace of life.
AT&T Headquarters (1984)
Philip Johnson/John Burgee, architects
A conscious reaction to the anti-urban tendencies of the 1960s and 70s, and a harking back to the stylistic traditions of prewar skyscrapers, the telephone company's Madison Avenue headquarters rose directly from the sidewalk, was covered with facades of thickly ornamented granite, and featured a classically influenced peak: a "broken pediment" that some critics compared to a Chippendale clock.
World Financial Center (1988)
Cesar Pelli with Adamson Associates, architects
This complex of four towers (ranging 33 to 51 stories in height) and lower connecting buildings sought to provide a series of "foothills" (in the architect's words) to the twin peaks of the adjacent World Trade Center. The complex stepped down toward the edge of the Hudson River and linked the pedestrian spaces of the older project with its own series of concourses. An immense, glass-enclosed "Winter Garden" sat at the center of the concourse. To strike a balance between modernism and a concern for tradition, the towers were capped with four differently shaped peaks -- domes, pyramids, and so on. Its facades transformed as they rose from masonry on the lower floors to glass and steel above.