Because skyscrapers are defined, more than anything else, by height, the cutting edge is a ratchet. The tallest building in the world today may not be next year; the impressive height can only get taller. Knowing that, and seeing it illustrated are two different things. Instead of using just old photos, I’m going to try using old postcards, which are low-resolution versions of the same kind of photos which were then tinted after the fact to something somewhat like real colors. First, “New York Skyline from Jersey” up above. It’s listed at the NYPL as 1898-1931, but the presence of the Singer and City Investing buildings tells us it’s 1907 or later. Two pieces of negative evidence set the high end possible for the date. First, the off-white pastry to the right of Singer is 90 West Street, and the near-twins of 111 and 115 Broadway are visible behind it. If this were 1915 or later, we’d see the huge bulk of the new Equitable Building behind them, and it’s not there. Second, if this were 1913 or later, I have to believe that the photographer would have framed the shot to include the Woolworth Building, which would be just off the left edge. (We see one and a half of the domes of the Park Row Building over there.) So definitely 1907 to 1915, and more likely 1907 to 1913.
Meanwhile, back on topic… The dark brown building to the left of Singer, near the Hudson waterfront, is the Central Railroad of New Jersey building. It was a big one for its day, which is to say 1889. The squarish off-white building on the far right is American Surety, one of the tallest in the city in 1895. The twin buildings of the Hudson Terminal on the left, 90 West Street, and 111 and 115 Broadway are all about the same height – 20 to 25 stories – with the two newcomers in the center noticeably taller. Right there in one view are three micro-generations of height. From roughly the same year, here’s a view south on Broadway:
From left to right, 15 Park Row, St. Paul, Singer, City investing, Postal Telegraph, and Dun, with the low but large post office on the left. The stretch of low-rise buildings to the right of the post office would be demolished shortly after for the Woolworth, and again, these not-tiny buildings are reduced in scale by the newer buildings around. For example, the spire in front of City Investing is the Mail & Express Building, which was big enough to be included in The Structure of Skyscrapers. Let’s jump ahead to 1936, looking west from an East River pier:
The three slender towers, left to right, are City Bank-Farmers Trust, The Bank of Manhattan, and the City Services Building. 120 Wall Street on the far right is noticeably shorter but much closer to the camera; the chimney con the far left can fool you briefly. City Services and Bank of Manhattan are both quite a bit taller than Woolworth (Bank of Manhattan was the tallest in the world for about ten minutes before Chrysler was completed uptown), so it’s not surprising that the surrounding 20 and 30 story buildings look short.
What’s it like when tall buildings aren’t near other tall buildings for comparison? Here’s the Nasby Building in Toledo, looking a bit lonely: