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A Slight Question Mark

The Detroit Publishing Company’s title for this photo, as relayed by the Library of Congress, was “Cluster of skyscrapers, New York, New York.” The date is given as circa 1900, which sounds right. (At the far left, there’s a building under constriction – small materials derricks on its roof, and one floor where the curtain wall hasn’t been built yet. That’s the Bishop Building at William and Liberty Street and it was completed in 1900.) One of the issues in doing research about old skyscrapers is that you have to define (at least, for yourself) how tall a building has to be before it’s called a skyscraper. I personally insist that definition has to be time-dependent: if we say, based on current designs, that a building has to be 30 stories (or 100 m, or anything similar) to be considered tall, then we’re erasing near all of the first generation of skyscrapers from history. So most of the buildings in this photo might be considered mid-rise buildings by modern standards but they were certainly skyscrapers when they were built, in the 1890s.

Same as yesterday, I simply like this photo and wanted to use it. I feel like it gives a sense of the insane rush to build big in the 1890s and the resulting experiment in urban density. One of my favorite first-gen New York skyscrapers is there, too. The 1895 John Wolfe Building is in the foreground, left of center. We’re looking at its very narrow north facade and (at a sharp angle) its blank east wall, just to the right and in front of of the Bishop Building. Wolfe was an office building, 12 stories plus a high basement, around 150 feet tall, with a slenderness of 7.5. In other words, something that would never have been built before the 1890s. I have a bunch of circumstantial evidence that it had a skeleton frame that supported everything but the front (west) facade, but not hard proof. Another issue in research is deciding how much evidence is proof enough. Wolfe made the cut – I did not call it a building with unknown structure – but it was closer than most. Its location explains why it is past tense:

That’s it on the left, labelled as the Armenia Building. I have no idea where that name comes from, but it may be a tenant. The rest of the tiny triangular block was still little mid-1800s buildings when this photo was taken, but would shortly be demolished for another small skyscraper, the German-American Insurance Company. Both Wolfe and German-American were demolished in the 1970s when the city decided that the most important priority was widening Liberty Street; the block has been kept empty as a small plaza.