Skip links

A New-York-Only Class

I’ve had the tab with this picture open for months, and I forget why. That’s the National Shoe and Leather Bank Buliding, at the southwest corner of Chambers Street and Broadway, shortly after completion in 1895. The trees on the left are City Hall Park.

The building was as bizarre as this photo makes it look: 25 feet wide, 91 feet deep, and 170 feet high. The width of the building, 25 feet, is the width of a standard New York lot, and that’s the pretty much the whole explanation. As the first generation of steel-framed skyscrapers got going in the 1890s, it became clear that anyone who had the money to develop their land could roll the dice at making money by building more floors into their air-space. If you owned (or could buy) several lots, you’d build a big skyscraper; if you only owned one lot, you’d build a sliver like this. Eventually, it became clear that these very narrow buildings did not make money: after the minimum walls, stair, and elevators were subtracted from the footprint, there was too little rentable space left to justify the exercise. But before that lesson was learned, a unique class of some two dozen buildings was built: with footprints barely larger than a rowhouse (in some cases, smaller than some rowhouses) and ten to thirteen stories high.

They may have been unsuccessful, but they are fun to look at.