If you have an extra twenty-three million dollars rattling around, you can buy the recently listed five-bedroom apartment on the twenty-ninth floor of the historic Woolworth Building in New York. From this well-appointed aerie, you can peer through the architect Cass Gilbert’s Gothic tracery or take the elevator down to Frank W. Woolworth’s basement pool. Or you can save the money and visit the Fralin Museum’s compact exhibition on the skyscraper as an idea, one that began, arguably, with the corporate home of that humble five-and-dime store1.

Joseph Pennell, The Woolworth through the Arch, ca. 1921 Etching on antique paper, Gallery purchase, Collection of Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery.

“Skyscraper Gothic” tells the story of the skyscraper not as a technological marvel made possible by Otis elevators and Bessemer steel, but as a uniquely American cultural artifact that came to stand alongside the Liberty Bell and the Founders as a symbol of national identity. The evolution of skyscraper symbolism is shown through paintings, prints, and photographs, as well as through decorative objects, commemorative items, furniture, and ephemera such as games, postcards, sheet music, and magazine covers. The result is a nuanced understanding of a form of architecture that expressed élan vital, the romance of the city, and economic and technological supremacy—the very idea of American modernity.

The architect Harvey Wiley Corbett (1873–1954) believed that the skyscraper was an expression of an epoch. It was, he said, a symbol of “advertising, exploitation, and publicity [as] animating agents in a commercial age.” Unlike the factory with its ground-hugging sprawl, smokestacks, and blue-collar workforce, the skyscraper aimed for the skies, keeping thousands of white-collar workers busy in clean, air-conditioned offices far above the dirty street. Though the two enterprises were often intertwined—the plant carried out the orders of its corporate headquarters—the skyscraper maintained a moral authority underpinned by its imposing presence and its concentration of economic energy. As “Skyscraper Gothic” points out, this authority also came from the buildings’ aesthetic debts to the medieval Gothic cathedrals, stately buildings demonstrating a strength and unity of construction and a dedication to a higher purpose. The skyscraper also shaped the very cities in which it flourished. In New York, a zoning law in 1916 targeted tall buildings that were blocking light and interrupting air flow. In response, architects developed the “setback” style, which produced buildings with a step-like recession as the floors of the building ascended. What began as a municipal imperative evolved into an aesthetic immediately recognizable as “skyscraper style.”

Childe Hassam, Skyscraper Window, 1934, Oil on canvas, The Peabody College Collection, Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery.

“Skyscrapers are undoubtedly popular with the man of the street,” observed the journalist R. L. Duffus in 1929. “He watches them with tender, if somewhat fearsome, interest from the moment the hole is dug until the last Gothic waterspout is put in place.” This “man of the street” appeal is one of the exhibition’s strongest themes. In Paul Herzel’s woodcut Dats De Guy Whats Building Dis Skyscraper (ca. 1936), for instance, we see Mr. Big passing by in his limo while one of the construction workers tells his buddies about their employer. Equal parts caricature and social satire, the woodcut depicts pride and collegiality among the workers rather than alienation. Other prints by Louis Lozowick, Samuel L. Margolies, Zama Vanessa Helder, and Thomas Hart Benton reinforce the idea of the skyscraper as a workplace, a source of social contrast, and a modernist motif. Clare Leighton’s Breadline (1932), with its ominous, compressed vista, shows the kind of dark, airless street that the 1916 zoning law sought to prevent. Nearby, a 1930 film from the Prelinger Archives of the construction of the Empire State Building offers a tantalizing, ten-minute glimpse of some workers setting a vertical beam in place. No hard hats, no power tools, no OSHA regulations. In a little over a year, the Empire State became the world’s tallest building at 102 stories, and a year later, movie audiences thrilled as King Kong climbed its tower.

Parker Brothers Inc., Skyscraper Game (Boardgame: box lid), 1937, Printed paper on cardboard, Private Collection.

The muscular skyscraper aesthetic quickly made its way into American homes. Erector sets allowed children to build model skyscrapers with brass and cardboard pieces, domino sets featured the Woolworth Building, and real-estate board games such as Broadway paved the way for Monopoly. Hostesses set their tables with coffee sets influenced by skyscrapers’ Art Deco ornamentation, while bars glittered with silver cocktail shakers and glass liquor bottles molded in the stepped style. One of the wittiest pieces in the show is a massive metal, chrome, and glass height and weight meter (1927) designed by Joseph Sinel to look like a setback-style skyscraper, with fine Art Deco style lettering on the weight platform that says “Step on It.” Surprisingly simple and effective is a wall installation depicting the continental United States with colorful postcards locating skyscrapers in various cities. It is hard to imagine a more concise summation of the complex symbolism of the skyscraper as architectural wonder, commercial center, token of civic pride, and palm-sized souvenir.

Given the small scale of the show, the Fralin can only touch on a few high points of skyscraper history. The Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, was not the world’s first skyscraper—Chicago’s ten-story Home Insurance Building (1885), designed by William LeBaron Jenney, holds that distinction—but it was arguably the first structure to embody in the public mind all that the skyscraper came to signify. Detroit also had its share of tall buildings. As a series of etchings by Charles Barker shows, the New Union Trust Building was constructed inside and out as a cathedral of commerce. Russ Marshall’s 2003 photograph Penobscot Noir  captures the Native American–inspired architectural sculpture on Detroit’s Greater Penobscot Building built in 1928.

While starchitects’ effusions in glass and titanium may dazzle, these new buildings are more burdened by invention, to use the phrase of the architect Witold Rybczynski, than liberated by creativity. We can probably never disentangle an architect’s ego from his design, but “Skyscraper Gothic” offers a refreshing reminder that there was a time when buildings could also embody other ideals or, in the words of Corbett, that “there is satisfaction in the thought that the skyscraper is our very own, the expression of American life in stone and steel.” 

  1.   “Skyscraper Gothic” opened at the Fralin Museum of Art, Virginia, on August 28 and remains on view through December 31, 2021.

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