Never Mind Midtown, We’ve Been Arguing About Skyscrapers for As Long As We’ve Been Building Them

Might Midtown, 1935. (Ephemeral New York)

What perfect timing our good friend Christopher Gray has. No sooner has the city begun debating in earnest the merits of whether or not Midtown East should be upzoned to allow for ever bigger skyscrapers than The Times’ Streetscapist reminds us that such debates, always fervent, are as old as the skyscrapers themselves, stretching back a century and a half.

These were buildings no taller than the Dakota, but in 1885 The New York Times urged restrictive legislation and darkly predicted that “if the streets were lined with eight-story buildings, half of the occupants would be deprived of sunlight, and their children would be etiolated like plants grown in a cellar.” You can tell it’s serious when The Times brings the kids into it.

As tall buildings grew in numbers, architects found themselves in a difficult position. In 1894 the prominent architect George B. Post denounced the skyscraper, as it was now freely called, as an “outrage.” On the other hand the commission he received from his $2 million, 10-story New York World Building, on Park Row — well, that put outrage in a certain perspective.

In 1897 The Record and Guide, alarmed by a proposal for a building 2,000 feet high, protested that New York was open “to attack from the audacious real estate owner” who cared nothing about robbing light from the neighbors, adding, “All that is needed is a barbarian with sufficient money and lunacy.” The Chamber of Commerce, equally alarmed, supported legislation to severely restrict skyscrapers.

The barbarians were by this time usually corporations, often syndicates from St. Louis, Chicago and other cities, where civic conditions in New York did not appear on the balance sheet. What some longhair architectural critic thought was of little moment to them.

No doubt The Times’ editorial board, along with its “longhair architectural critic,” will be weighing in on the latest proposal at some point, with a mix of economic understanding and preservationist alarm. But as Mr. Gray points out “no children had grown into mushrooms” as a result of these 10- and 20-story towers. The same has been the case with those three times as large, so it stands to reason rising to five times the height, 1,200 feet tall or more, should not be The End of Man.

But nor should such benefits be given over to developers for free, or so argues skeptics of the project. It will be the Bloomberg administration’s job to ensure this is a city that will be better off for all, not just some.

Those ants wandering around and through these mighty towers must be considered just as the needs of the hawks perched atop them are.

Never Mind Midtown, We’ve Been Arguing About Skyscrapers for As Long As We’ve Been Building Them