The US: the Original Skyscraper Kingdom

The U.S. showcased its booming 20th century economy by defying gravity, creating concrete and steel giants known as skyscrapers.

Skyscrapers are a dominating presence on the skylines of many U.S. cities, having become a century-old staple of Americana. Although most cities boast at least one of these steel superstructures, New York City and Chicago are home to the country’s most representative commercial buildings, an enduring mark of their once-fiery architectural fight.

Their history goes back to 1885, with the construction of the ten-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago. Fueled by economic growth and urbanization, taller buildings neatly combined classic aesthetic and practical commercial design. Soon after, skyscrapers became romantic symbols of New York City. The first building to embody these beliefs was the Flatiron Building, designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, furthering the symbiotic relationship between the two cities and skyscraper culture.

Chicago and New York City Reign Supreme

The five tallest buildings in the U.S. are all located in New York City and Chicago:

  • One World Trade Center, New York City
  • Willis Tower, Chicago
  • Empire State Building, New York City
  • Bank of America Tower, New York City
  • Aon Center, Chicago

The list is fronted by New York City’s One World Trade Center, erected in 2013 on the site of the World Trade Center complex. Known as the Freedom Tower, it is 1,776 feet tall, a nod to the year of the signing of the The Declaration of Independence. It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the same company that designed the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa.

The tallest building in Chicago, the 1,450-foot Willis Tower, was the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1974 until 1998. Its four-foot glass observation deck is a tourist magnet, attracting more than one million visitors annually. If spread over one floor, its surface would cover 16 city blocks.

The Empire State Building in New York City was the first building in the world to have more than 100 floors. Completed in 1931, the 1,250-foot tower was named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World”. Additionally, it is considered the most photographed building on Earth and it has its own zip code. 

New York’s Bank of America Tower, built in 2009, is the fourth tallest building in the country, at 1,200 feet. The $1 billion-project is eco-friendly and energy efficient, having been constructed using recycled materials. The LEED Platinum building features its own power plant that produces 65 percent of its energy.

Formerly known as the Standard Oil Building, the Aon Center in Chicago measures 1,136 feet and it is the world’s tallest marble-clad building. Its tubular-frame structure is earthquake-resistant and is designed to weather strong winds, and it was built using the same structural principles as the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

Nowadays, Manhattan boasts the tallest skyline in the country–as there have been talks of Washington, D.C., repealing the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, it remains to be seen whether that city’s voracious appetite for development will put the nation’s capital on the list any time soon. One day, maybe San Francisco will get over its fear of earthquakes and Boston will find a way to work its way around landmark preservation.  

Images courtesy of Yardi Matrix