On November 8, 1906, cameraman Fred A. Dobson began filming The Skyscrapers of New York atop an uncompleted skyscraper at Broadway and 12th Street. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company melodrama tells the story of a construction foreman who fires a crew member for fighting—leading the disgruntled employee to steal. The storyline weaves in and around the actual construction of a New York skyscraper. A fascinating depiction of early twentieth-century building techniques, Skyscrapers captures brickmasons in action, workers maneuvering a steel girder into place, and a group of men descending a crane line.
A combination of engineering and architectural innovations in the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries transformed the skylines of American cities. Advances in steel manufacturing, engineering, and the advent of the elevator, enabled buildings to grow taller and taller. Chicago architects such as Daniel Burnham (1846-1912) and Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) were charged with reconstructing their city after the great Chicago Fire of 1871 and were early innovators of skyscraper design. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the pace of construction picked up in New York City, where one year’s “tallest” building was superseded by an even taller building the next year.
New York’s iconic Flatiron Building, completed in 1903 and designed by Daniel Burnham’s firm, was at twenty stories, the tallest building north of the financial district. The 793-foot Woolworth Building, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, was the world’s tallest building when it opened in New York City in 1913 and was considered a leading example of tall building design.
New York’s Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Alen and built between 1926 and 1930, was for a short time the tallest building in the world at 1,046 feet. It was topped one year later (1931) by the opening of William Lamb’s Empire State Building, originally 1,250 feet tall. The Empire State Building remained the tallest building in the world until 1954.
- Find images of skyscrapers by searching on the keyword skyscraper in the Library’s pictorial collections.
- Read Today in History features on skyscraper architects Cyrus Eidlitz, and Louis Sullivan, as well as elevator pioneer Elisha Graves Otis, whose work helped to make skyscrapers possible.
- Explore newspaper coverage of the construction of early skyscrapers in New York in Topics in Chronicling America – Early New York Skyscrapers.
- Browse the films included in the online collection The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898 to 1906 to find additional movies of turn-of-the-century New York, such as Skyscrapers of New York City, from the North River and a Panorama of Flatiron Building.