November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
New York rebuilt itself in the twenties. The most anarchic, self-regarding, self-proclaiming city of them all achieved its new self by an agteupding vertical leap that thrilled, dis, delighted, and terrified the critics who tried to take its measure. Since then Manhattan has suffered at least three ofgjlsof demolition, but many of the classics of that barely believable era remain — almost a miracle in a city where the concrete never sets.
This twenties boom wasn’t merely a matter of tall buildings. As far as true skyscrapers were concerned, Chicago clearly outdid New York in rigor and clarity. But abundant cash and credit, ambition and vanity, skilled labor and immigrant brawn, cheap steel, and trained architects nourished the wild overnight sprouting of a forest of forty- and fiftystory buildings: masonry exclamation points in a city outdoing itself in speed and flash and dazzle — or, in a word, jazz.
Energy for the enterprise flowed uptown from Wall Street and was harnessed by the country’s first code of zoning and building regulation, passed by the city in 1916. These regulations attempted to preserve a vestige of light and air by requiring a structure to have setbacks at heights graded to the width of its adjoining streets. The last quarter of the plot on which the building stood could bear a final spire rising as high as the builder pleased. Thus was born the vision of steps rising from a solid base at street level — and thus also a profusion of wildly distinctive caps or pinnacles. Like Mayor Jimmy Walker, who streamlined his derby to make it more dashing than the traditional squat hat of the Tammany heeler, architects searched for devices not merely to finish buildings but to proclaim their presence against any and all comers on the skyline.
A new midtown emerged as the product of filling out the plan of the 1913 Grand Central Terminal, whose air rights along Park Avenue were leased to builders of hotels and offices, apartment houses, and even the Yale Club. On the west side of midtown, “the Roaring Forties,” the theater district expanded, and big houses opened to accommodate splashy new musicals.
Great buildings were going up all around the island: Ralph Walker’s Barclay-Vesey Building for the Telephone Company, whose Art Deco lobby is still overwhelming; One Fifth Avenue, an icon of the setback style, whose facade hints of the Gothic and, surprisingly, of the Georgian; Joseph Urban’s Hearst Magazine Building, the stubby base of an incomplete skyscraper with some of the jollity Urban brought to his stage designs for the Ziegfeld Follies.
These still stand, along with a host of other classic reminders of that time and place. Some of the most beguiling appear on the following pages.