Mine's bigger

For more than a century skyscrapers have been the visible expression of American ingenuity, energy, and prosperity. The skylines of Manhattan and Chicago were seen as uniquely American phenomena, while lesser cities of the land had their own clusters of tall buildings. No place else on earth did cities reach to the heavens with such inspiring towers in such numbers. The very sight of our forests of skyscrapers inspired pride for us, and envy, longing, and even hatred overseas.

Beginning in the 1950s, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Sydney, and Toronto were among the foreign cities taking on American—looking skylines. Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many other burgs did their best to look like Manhattan, too. Postwar glass towers dominate the masonry structures of the first skyscraper era of the early third of the 20th century. In my hometown of Minneapolis, for instance, the tallest prewar structure, the 32 story Foshay Tower, is almost invisible from a distance, surrounded by taller and wider buildings of glass.

The Islamo—fascists attacked our Twin Towers precisely because they saw them as symbols of our greatness. When they fell, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, buildings designed around Islamic symbolism, became arguably the tallest in the world, depending on whether occupied floors or total height including antennas is the criterion. Not for long, though, as Taipei 101, opened last year, now holds the title.  But it is likely to be a brief reign, as a Japanese developer plans an even taller building in Shanghai,* and that structure may be surpassed by bold builders in places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, or some other location combining money with a need to claim preeminence. Or perhaps our Freedom Tower, planned for the WTC site, will hold the title for a while.

Even in terms of total number of tall buildings, New York City no longer holds the title. According to the New York Times,  Shanghai today hosts 4000 buildings 18 floors or higher, almost double the number in New York, and has 1000 more such structures on the way. Clearly, America will never again dominate the architectural form of the skyscraper as it has in the past. Our preferences seem to have changed, anyway, with most development taking place in suburbs, where tall building may be found in 'edge cities,' but where sprawl, not height seems to be the characteristic preference.

So why did the skyscraper emerge in America, and why did our cities pioneer their proliferation? Three separate 19th century figures, singular American inventors all, gave us the means and impetus upward.

Historically, few buildings in the great cities were much higher than six floors, since few people were willing to trudge up more than that distance on a regular basis. The elevator was a thought occurring to many, but safety was always the constraining factor. Ropes tend to break, especially prior to the invention of the steel cable. Not until a Canadian—born American, Elisha Graves Otis, perfected  the automatic elevator brake, immediately halting the descent of an elevator with a broken cable, were people enabled to live and work higher than their legs comfortably could carry them.

But even with an elevator, few buildings could go taller than 10 floors or so. In order to support the cumulative weight of the upper floors, walls of the lower floors had to be extremely thick, six feet or more, if masonry alone bore the burden of holding up the building. Not only was all the masonry heavy and expensive, requiring difficult foundation work, entering a tall structure with six feet—thick walls was disturbingly like entering a cave.

Architect William Jenney of Chicago invented an entirely different way of supporting a tall structure. Perhaps apocryphally, he is supposed to have noticed that he could rest a heavy book on top of a lightweight birdcage, and had an epiphany: if a framework of steel were erected to hold the weight of a building, then thin walls with lots of windows could be hung on them, making tall buildings cheap and pleasant to inhabit.

The result of his inspiration was the Home Insurance Company Building of Chicago, the world's first true skyscraper. This historic monument was demolished in 1931, robbing future generations of the opportunity to view the fountainhead of what is now the world's most dominant characteristic structure.

Chicago is unquestionably the birthplace of the skyscraper. Not only Jenney, but many other pioneering masters of the form did their best work there. Visitors to The Windy City should not miss the magnificent Rookery Building,   with its inspiring lobby redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright, or the Monadnock Block, a two stage structure built in part with load—bearing masonry walls, and part with steel frame construction.

The third great American inventor who deserves credit for the emergence of the skyscraper is Frank Sprague, who applied the electric motor to two separate important uses: powering streetcars ('electric traction') and elevators. Without the ability to bring large numbers of people to one place, skyscrapers would not have proliferated. Steam powered railways could do part of the job, but their tracks, smoke, and expense limited their impact. Quiet, cheap, and clean electric streetcars, gliding down the middle of existing streets, enabled masses to 'go downtown' where they would work in tall buildings. Subways and elevated trains began before electric traction was invented, but without electric motors, they never would have been built as extensively as they have been. And once within those buildings, quiet, clean and cheap electric motors powered the elevators taking them to their lofty perches.

Unquestionably, the skyscraper is America's gift to the world. Let a million towers bloom, from Sydney to Shanghai to Sao Paulo to Seattle. They only do so because of American inventors, applying their genius in the characteristically American way. As Rome gave the world the concept of the oval stadium, so America has given the world the skyscraper. They are all monuments to our civilization, no matter where they may be built.

* The Japanese developer has now changed the shape of the hole at the top of the structure from circular (suggesting the Japanese flag) to square. Art and politics are always related. 

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.

For more than a century skyscrapers have been the visible expression of American ingenuity, energy, and prosperity. The skylines of Manhattan and Chicago were seen as uniquely American phenomena, while lesser cities of the land had their own clusters of tall buildings. No place else on earth did cities reach to the heavens with such inspiring towers in such numbers. The very sight of our forests of skyscrapers inspired pride for us, and envy, longing, and even hatred overseas.

Beginning in the 1950s, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Sydney, and Toronto were among the foreign cities taking on American—looking skylines. Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many other burgs did their best to look like Manhattan, too. Postwar glass towers dominate the masonry structures of the first skyscraper era of the early third of the 20th century. In my hometown of Minneapolis, for instance, the tallest prewar structure, the 32 story Foshay Tower, is almost invisible from a distance, surrounded by taller and wider buildings of glass.

The Islamo—fascists attacked our Twin Towers precisely because they saw them as symbols of our greatness. When they fell, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, buildings designed around Islamic symbolism, became arguably the tallest in the world, depending on whether occupied floors or total height including antennas is the criterion. Not for long, though, as Taipei 101, opened last year, now holds the title.  But it is likely to be a brief reign, as a Japanese developer plans an even taller building in Shanghai,* and that structure may be surpassed by bold builders in places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, or some other location combining money with a need to claim preeminence. Or perhaps our Freedom Tower, planned for the WTC site, will hold the title for a while.

Even in terms of total number of tall buildings, New York City no longer holds the title. According to the New York Times,  Shanghai today hosts 4000 buildings 18 floors or higher, almost double the number in New York, and has 1000 more such structures on the way. Clearly, America will never again dominate the architectural form of the skyscraper as it has in the past. Our preferences seem to have changed, anyway, with most development taking place in suburbs, where tall building may be found in 'edge cities,' but where sprawl, not height seems to be the characteristic preference.

So why did the skyscraper emerge in America, and why did our cities pioneer their proliferation? Three separate 19th century figures, singular American inventors all, gave us the means and impetus upward.

Historically, few buildings in the great cities were much higher than six floors, since few people were willing to trudge up more than that distance on a regular basis. The elevator was a thought occurring to many, but safety was always the constraining factor. Ropes tend to break, especially prior to the invention of the steel cable. Not until a Canadian—born American, Elisha Graves Otis, perfected  the automatic elevator brake, immediately halting the descent of an elevator with a broken cable, were people enabled to live and work higher than their legs comfortably could carry them.

But even with an elevator, few buildings could go taller than 10 floors or so. In order to support the cumulative weight of the upper floors, walls of the lower floors had to be extremely thick, six feet or more, if masonry alone bore the burden of holding up the building. Not only was all the masonry heavy and expensive, requiring difficult foundation work, entering a tall structure with six feet—thick walls was disturbingly like entering a cave.

Architect William Jenney of Chicago invented an entirely different way of supporting a tall structure. Perhaps apocryphally, he is supposed to have noticed that he could rest a heavy book on top of a lightweight birdcage, and had an epiphany: if a framework of steel were erected to hold the weight of a building, then thin walls with lots of windows could be hung on them, making tall buildings cheap and pleasant to inhabit.

The result of his inspiration was the Home Insurance Company Building of Chicago, the world's first true skyscraper. This historic monument was demolished in 1931, robbing future generations of the opportunity to view the fountainhead of what is now the world's most dominant characteristic structure.

Chicago is unquestionably the birthplace of the skyscraper. Not only Jenney, but many other pioneering masters of the form did their best work there. Visitors to The Windy City should not miss the magnificent Rookery Building,   with its inspiring lobby redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright, or the Monadnock Block, a two stage structure built in part with load—bearing masonry walls, and part with steel frame construction.

The third great American inventor who deserves credit for the emergence of the skyscraper is Frank Sprague, who applied the electric motor to two separate important uses: powering streetcars ('electric traction') and elevators. Without the ability to bring large numbers of people to one place, skyscrapers would not have proliferated. Steam powered railways could do part of the job, but their tracks, smoke, and expense limited their impact. Quiet, cheap, and clean electric streetcars, gliding down the middle of existing streets, enabled masses to 'go downtown' where they would work in tall buildings. Subways and elevated trains began before electric traction was invented, but without electric motors, they never would have been built as extensively as they have been. And once within those buildings, quiet, clean and cheap electric motors powered the elevators taking them to their lofty perches.

Unquestionably, the skyscraper is America's gift to the world. Let a million towers bloom, from Sydney to Shanghai to Sao Paulo to Seattle. They only do so because of American inventors, applying their genius in the characteristically American way. As Rome gave the world the concept of the oval stadium, so America has given the world the skyscraper. They are all monuments to our civilization, no matter where they may be built.

* The Japanese developer has now changed the shape of the hole at the top of the structure from circular (suggesting the Japanese flag) to square. Art and politics are always related. 

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.