Race for the Skies: Chicago vs. New York | The B1M

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Skyscrapers have come to define our cities. But the vertical urban landscapes we are familiar with today were in fact enabled by an engineering
and construction rivalry between two of America’s largest cities, that stretches back almost
130 years. Up until the 19th century, tall buildings
were largely limited to military fortifications, bell towers and religious structures – that
used their height for strategic, ornamental or spiritual purposes. With land more freely available and stairs
as the only means of vertical access, there was little to drive the construction of high
rise structures. Additionally, the practice of building with
external load-bearing walls caused structures to thicken at their bases as they grew taller, reducing floor area on the more desirable lower levels. The industrial revolution drove significant
growth in urban areas and introduced new innovations into the construction industry. In the midst of a booming recovery from the
Great Fire of 1871, availability of land in the city of Chicago forced developers and
engineers to embrace these new innovations and to begin building upwards. The result was the Home Insurance Building
– a 10 storey structure completed in the late 1880s that became the world’s first skyscraper. The building was the first tall structure
to be supported both internally and externally by a fireproof metal frame. Engineer architect William Le Baron Jenney,
hung lightweight masonry walls from the steel structure, reducing its weight by two thirds
as compared to an equivalent stone building. He also incorporated a hydraulic elevator,
greatly improving vertical access. Seen as a modern wonder, the principle employed
at the Home Insurance Building quickly became a favoured design technique in Chicago. By 1893, the city was home to 12 buildings
that stood between 16 and 20 storeys tall – including the 302 foot (92 metre) Masonic
Temple, which, upon the removal of the Board of Trades clock tower, was the tallest building
in the city between 1895 and 1899. Fighting for dominance with European markets
and experiencing a tripling of its population between 1840 and 1870, New York City saw Chicago’s
vertical progress as a solution to the challenges it faced. New York City’s planning authorities approved
the use of metal frames in 1889 and allowed the 11 storey Tower Building to be built – paving
the way for numerous other high rise structures across city, though notably more modest in
height than those found in Chicago. As America’s cities continued to boom at
the end of the 19th century, it seemed that Chicago was destined to lead the nation in
skyscraper construction. However, public opinion around these large,
dense buildings was steadily turning, fuelled primarily by the significant shadows they
cast across urban areas for long stretches of the day. The Panic of 1893 was a key turning point. Regulations were introduced that limited the height of new buildings in Chicago to just
150 feet (or 43 metres) in an effort to allow completed vacant buildings to become occupied
following the downturn. In 1895 New York City finally out built Chicago
by just one foot with the 303 foot (92 metre) American Surety Building. Standing 20 storeys
tall on completion, a further five levels were added during renovation works in the
early 1920s. While steel framed structures were now being
built across the United States – in cities such as Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco construction in New York City went into overdrive. With Chicago’s height restrictions in place New York began to pull ahead in the race for the skies. 1902 saw the completion of the iconic Flatiron
Building. Rising from a unique triangular site, the tower could not have been built
without the use of a steel frame. In 1908 the 186 metre Singer Building joined
the skyline and became the world’s tallest building – a title that would go on to reside
in Manhattan for well over half a century. Within a year, the Metropolitan Life Insurance
Company completed their 700 foot (213 metre) tower and took the title from the Singer Building. The MetLife Tower then remained the world’s tallest until 1913 when the 791 foot Woolworth Building completed. As in Chicago, concerns around shadowing and
building mass began to be raised by the public, particularly following construction of the
vast Equitable Life building in 1915. Rather than limiting the height of buildings
as Chicago did, New York City’s planning authorities instead passed the 1916 Zoning
Resolution requiring setbacks on structures to preserve light at street level and improve
air circulation. This resolution gave rise to the famous tapered
skyscrapers we see in Manhattan today, and became the blueprint for the regulation of
skyscraper construction around the world. After the First World War, construction once
again boomed across the United States. With height limits imposed and limited development
undertaken during the war, Chicago faced a shortage of office space which saw rents double. In response, the city’s height limits were raised to 260 feet (or 79 metres), whilst
ornamental features were permitted to stand up to 400 feet (or 120 metres) high. This period saw construction of the 468 foot,
134 metre Wrigley Building and the 568 foot, 173 metre Chicago Temple. However, despite Chicago’s progress and
relaxation in restrictions, New York City’s dominance began to prove unstoppable. Back on the east coast – and despite the Great
Depression beginning to bite – the 928 foot (283 metre) Bank of Manhattan Trust Building
(now known as 40 Wall Street or the Trump Building) was completed in 1930. This structure held the title of world’s tallest
building for just a few months before being overtaken by the 1,050 foot, 320 metre Chrysler
Building which completed in the same year. In 1931, the 1,250 foot (381 metre) Empire
State Building was completed but remained largely vacant in its early years as a result
of the economic downturn. The depression, followed by the Second World
War marked the start of global dry spell in skyscraper construction, and the Empire State remained the world’s tallest building for the next 40 years. While the race between the two cities stagnated
during the 1950s and early 60s, new building techniques began to emerge that allowed for
the construction of even taller skyscrapers. While elevators had transformed vertical access
and made countless tall buildings viable, their use had also become a limiting factor. As skyscrapers grew taller, more space was required for elevator shafts, reducing lettable floor areas and rendering very tall structures uneconomical. New York City’s World Trade Center overcame
this barrier, using a system of stacked elevator shafts and sky lobbies to significantly increase
lettable area. This new method of elevator configuration,
combined with revolutionary “tube frame” structural design – that moved much of the
building’s structural elements to the perimeter walls – allowed the One World Trade Centre
tower to rise to a height of 1,368 feet, dethroning the Empire State and becoming the world’s
tallest building. A new wave of skyscrapers also began to emerge
in Chicago. The 1,127 foot (344 metre) John Hancock Center became the city’s tallest building
in 1969, and was followed by the Aon Center in 1973 standing 1,136 feet tall. The Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower)
went a step further with tube frame design. By treating the building as a series of interconnected
tubes, the “bundled tube” system created an even stronger structure. Completion of the 1,451 foot, 442 metre tower
in 1974, moved Chicago back ahead of New York and saw the title of world’s tallest building
return to the city for the first time in almost 90 years. New York and Chicago’s race for the skies
cooled significantly around the turn of the millenium as Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers
became the world’s tallest building in 1998 and as the nation bounced back from the terror attacks of 2001. Much of the first 15 years of 21st century
saw Lower Manhattan’s ground zero site redeveloped and the new One World Trade Center reach a
height of 1,776 feet. nodding to the year of American Independence and becoming the tallest building in the United States. Today, a new wave of skyscraper construction
is erupting in these cities, and the race for the skies has taken on a truly modern
dynamic. For all the taller structures that now define
our urban centers around the world almost everything is owed to the engineering and
innovative breakthroughs that came out of the passionate competition between Chicago
and New York. If you enjoyed this video and would like to
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