Newspaper Row. Photo via Library of Congress

From 1890 to 1974, the world’s tallest building was located in New York City. However, as with most records, there have been controversies and  disagreements  surrounding which buildings are eligible and how they are measured. The organization which currently oversees this tall task is the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Founded in 1969, the Council  “is the world’s leading body in the field of tall buildings.”  Here is a timeline of New York’s world’s tallest buildings:

1890: George Post’s New York World Building

Photo via Library of Congress

1890: George Post’s New York World Building was the first building in New York to surpass the spire of Trinity Church. It was commissioned by Joseph Pulitzer as the headquarters for his New York World Newspaper. Pulitzer’s office was located in the dome of the 309 foot building. The World Building was demolished in 1955 to  accommodate the expanded Brooklyn Bridge entrance ramp.

1894: Manhattan Life Insurance Building

Image from New York Public Library

1894: The Kimball & Thompson Manhattan Life Insurance Building claimed the world’s tallest building title only four years after the World Building was completed. Located at 64-66 Broadway, the building was 348 feet tall and was demolished in the early 1960s.

1899: The Park Row Building

Source: New York Public Library

1899: The Park Row Building was designed by Robert Henderson Robertson and became the world’s tallest building in 1899. It was a pioneer in steel skyscraper design and engineered by the firm of Nathaniel Roberts. It took under three years to build this  391 foot  behemoth. The Park Row Building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1999.

1908: The Singer Building

Source: New York Public Library

1908: Ernest Flagg’s Singer Building is a 612 foot building located at Liberty Street and Broadway was an  architectural  masterpiece. Nevertheless, in 1964, (before the creation of the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission) United States Steel acquired the building and demolished it four years later to make room for its new headquarters at 1 Liberty Plaza.  Efforts were made to save, at the very least, the Singer Building’s lobby, but no significant part of the building survived.

1909: Metropolitan Life Building

1909: Napoleon LeBrun & Sons’ Metropolitan Life Building is located next to Madison Square Park. The building’s tower was inspired by the Campanile in Venice and its clock was the largest in the world. This 700 foot Gothic skyscraper was designated a New York City Landmark in 1989.

1913: Woolworth Building

1913: The  Reverend  S. Parkes Cadman aptly referred to the Woolworth Building as “the Cathedral of Commerce.” Cass Gilbert’s 1913 masterpiece was constructed for F. W. Woolworth to headquarter his five and dime store empire. At 792 feet it towered over New York City. The Gothic detailing on the building’s exterior and lobby are superb. Both the exterior and interior of the building are landmarked. Despite this designation, the building’s lobby is not regularly open to the public as the landmarks law mandates.

Take our upcoming tour of the Woolworth Building lobby on May 16th, normally off-limits to the public:

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1930: 40 Wall Street

1930: 40 Wall Street, or the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building, designed by H. Craig Severance,  became the world’s tallest building in 1930 at 927 feet tall. It remained the world’s tallest building for barely two months before it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building.

1930: Chrysler Building

1930: 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building were in a competition to become the world’s tallest building. By the end of 1929 the buildings were neck and neck with each other, when 40 Wall Street announced that it was going to be taller than originally planed to ensure its record title. William Van Allen, the architect of the Chrysler Building responded by constructing a 125 foot tall spire within the building’s shell. On October 23, 1929, the spire was hoisted into place securing the Chrysler Building’s title of world’s tallest building. In 1978, the exterior and interior of this Art Deco masterpiece were designated New York City Landmarks.

Replica 1929 Chrysler radiator caps adorn the building

1931: The Empire State Building

1931: The Empire State Building became the world’s tallest building in 1931. While it took only 410 days to construct this Art Deco skyscraper, the building did not become profitable until 1950. It was famously referred to as the “empty state building” due to its original dearth of  renters. The building’s spire was originally designed to as a mooring site for dirigibles (blimps and the like) but this did not pan out due to the strong winds at the top of the building.

The ornate lobby of the Empire State Building

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1972:  One World Trade Center

Photo via Wikimedia Commons by jeffmock

1972:  One World Trade Center was the last New York City building to hold the title of World’s Tallest Building. The City lost the title after 84 years in 1974 to Chicago.

The new One World Trade Center (previously called the Freedom Tower) has the symbolic height of 1776 feet, making it the tallest building in the United States.

These days though, the bigger issue may be whether the quest for the world’s tallest building can be justified in terms of real estate speculation. Can all of these new buildings be filled? In the case of the Burj Khalifa, its name change from the Burj Dubai embodies the role of money (or lack thereof) in skyscraper construction–Khalifa is the ruler of Abu Dhabi who loaned $10 billion to help Dubai pay off debts. What drives humanity on this quest for taller? Pride, political competition, or something still rooted in the age old quest to reach the heavens? Regardless, it does not appear that New York City will continue to be a major player in this game. The crown has been passed to Asia, where this type of grand construction can be afforded, at least for now.

Next, read about the top 10 tallest skyscrapers in the world today with over 100 floors. Additional reporting by Michelle Young (@UntappedMich)

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