Daring to Do Mighty Things: New York and the Ideas that Changed the World
Art deco drawing of the Empire State Building, Courtesy of the New York State Library

When settlers first came to New York none of them ever would have thought that a shortage of land would become a problem. By the mid-19th century however, land was at a premium in certain parts of the state. It was not that there was a general shortage of land, only a shortage in the large cities that were responsible for much of the economic activity New York experienced as it shifted from an agricultural economy to a more industrial and service oriented one. Additionally, as population trends outpaced the availability of transportation means, there was a need for higher urban densities. Essentially, horizontal urban spread was impractical when most people still walked or relied on slow transportation to and from work.

Architects and early urban planners felt that the “vertical city” represented a potential answer to these growing problems. Elisha Otis developed the first elevator that could safely be used by people. In 1857, Otis’s elevator was installed in a 5-story New York City Department Store and the vertical city took its first step towards becoming a reality. New techniques for making steel and the use of steel reinforced concrete (which is more durable than iron reinforced concrete) also spurred on the development of the “skyscraper.”

Photo of Lower Manhattan, 1938, Courtesy of the NYS Archives

By the turn of the 20th century New York State’s skylines were some of the most distinctive in the nation. Not only was New York City expanding vertically, but virtually all of the upstate cities whose foundations were tied to the Erie Canal and the Industrial Revolution were also rapidly growing. The taller buildings allowed these urban areas to become important centers of commercial, retail and research activity as well as manufacturing centers. With the opening of the Empire State Building New York City became home to the tallest and one of the most iconic skyscrapers in history. New York City remained home to the tallest building in North America until 1973. With the completion of One World Trade Center, New York City is once again home to the tallest building in North America.

Treatise on engineering principles and drawing of the Otis Elevator patent application, Courtesy of the New York State Library
Treatise on engineering principles and drawing of the Otis Elevator patent application, Courtesy of the New York State Library

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