The Manhattan Skyline during the Roaring Twenties (2024)

Jason M. Barr July 10, 2018

Author’s note: The paperback of Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers was recently released. This blog post has been adapted from Chapter 9 of the book.

The Roaring Twenties remains a mythical time in American culture—an age of danger, of heroes, of unrestraint. Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Clandestine speakeasies served bathtub gin to flappers, swinging to the new jazz music. Babe Ruth became the Sultan of Swat. And supertall skyscrapers sprouted upwards like Jack’s beanstalk.

Though the skyscraper was born in the last two decades of the 19th century, it was a generation later when it reached its true potential. From May 1930 to May 1931, three super-giants—each the world’s tallest for a spell—lorded over New York. First was the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building (71 floors). Next came the Chrysler Building (77 floors). Finally, was the granddaddy of them all, the Empire State Building (102 floors).

They were completed at the peak of a skyscraper construction spree that ran from 1925 to 1931. From these three giants, the natural conclusion is that the boom of the Roaring Twenties emerged from the irrational euphoria of the time. With financing flowing like wine, the newly-rich business tycoons got caught up in the craziness and felt compelled to memorialize their egos in steel and stone.

The “Office-ification” of America

The rise of the Manhattan skyline in the Roaring Twenties—a bit heady to be sure—was due, however, to more mundane reasons. The post-World War I era was the culmination of the Industrial Revolution. It was the “office-ification” of the American economy. Between 1870 and 1920, the population of the United States had doubled; during the same period, office space requirements had risen from about one square foot per capita to five square feet. The combined forces of increased population and office space needs meant that by 1920 the country needed ten times as much office space as in 1870.

In the early years of the twentieth century, corporate America began introducing a series of goods and services that radically transformed the nature of household life. The 1920s was the decade when America began to embrace consumer-oriented culture, which was made possible by the dramatic improvements in industrial productivity. New York City, the center of finance, transportation, communication, marketing, and legal services, was the metropolis—the mother city—that helped enable it.

The Manhattan Skyline during the Roaring Twenties (1)

Manhattan and the Automobile

A good example of this is the automobile. The “horseless carriage” was invented as early as 1769. Over the 19th century, tinkerers, “steamhackers,” and small-time entrepreneurs built hand-crafted models for their rich clientele. But it was, of course, Henry Ford’s idea to mass produce cars and trucks that changed everything. By taking advantage of interchangeable parts and the assembly line, Ford was able to exploit economies of scale—go big to go cheap.[1] For the first time in World History, the common folk had access to their very own personal rapid-mobility units.

The growth of the automobile was tied up with the growth of the Manhattan skyline—each feeding the other. Out of Manhattan office buildings, firms were selling financial, marketing, technical, and legal services to the car industry. This, in turn, increased car sales, which increased the demand for New York services, and so on. Many a Detroit company set up offices in Manhattan’s Automobile Row to be close to the action. To be clear, I don’t want to overstate the case that it was the automobile, per se, that lead to the Manhattan skyline. It did not, but rather the auto industry’s growth was exemplary of the type of relationships between New York City and the American economy more broadly.

Walter Chrysler

When we look at the Chrysler Building, we see its chrome spire ascending upwards, as if to announce the power of capitalism and greed to reach the heavens. This view is given currency by focusing on Walter Chrysler’s desire to erect the world’s tallest building, and which simultaneously required head-to-head “combat” against the Bank of Manhattan Trust for that right. We are fed the legend that William Van Alen, Chrysler’s architect, patiently waited until the Bank of Manhattan Building was topped out, and then gloriously lifted the—craftily hidden—steel spire up over the top floor to claim the prize of “World’s Tallest.”

Burying the Lead

The buried part of story about the Chrysler Building is not about this dramatic height competition, but rather about Walter Chrysler himself. What was an automobile magnate doing in New York City?[2] Chrysler began his ascent in Flint, Michigan, were he successfully copied Ford’s production line innovations for General Motors in 1911. After disagreements with his boss, William Durant, Chrysler moved to New York to take control of the Willys-Overland Company, which had its facilities in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After that he took the helm of Maxwell Motor Company, which he then turned into Chrysler Corporation.

He found that to grow his business, he needed to be in New York, close to the financing, expertise, and marketing. In 1935, Fortune Magazine recalled a story about Chrysler’s start as a budding mogul. In 1924, rejected by both New York bankers, who refused to finance him, and the New York City Automobile Show, which refused to display his car,

It was at this juncture that Walter Chryslershowed his courage-or more precisely,perhaps, his nerve. He hired the lobby ofthe Commodore Hotel [next to Grand Central Station] a few blocks fromthe show and wheeled his cars in. And hethen took personal charge of the situation,standing guard to see that no one guessedout loud at the new car’s wheel base andrefusing for a week to name his price. Whenhe did name it-when it had become evidentthat the miniature dreadnought hadstolen the show and the time had come fororders-he wrote his figures on a card,handed them to Joe Fields, his sales manager,and walked away.

The Developers

Though Chrysler felt the need to be in New York, and this eventually lead him to build the Chrysler Building (which was his own building, and not that of the car company), he was not the typical developer who built the skyline.

The vast majority of builders were either born in New York City or emigrated as small children with their families from Eastern Europe. Many of them had begun their early careers in the Garment District as tailors or small-time clothing manufacturers. The experience they earned was then used in real estate—building lofts and showrooms, and eventually office towers.

The Manhattan Skyline during the Roaring Twenties (2)

A typical example is that Abraham E. Lefcourt, who was born in 1877 and came to America in 1882. He started out hawking newspapers on the streets of the Lower East Side, and later worked in the garment industry. In 1910, he built his first structure, a 12-story loft building for garment businesses on West 25th Street. The first two floors housed Lefcourt’s own women’s apparel manufacturing company. The success of the endeavor prompted him to move into the real estate business full time. Between 1910 and 1930, Lefcourt constructed 31 commercial buildings in the city.

The Railroad Stations

The reason that men like Lefcourt built was that during the second half of 1920s, office rents (adjusted for inflation) were at an all-time high. Businesses were willing to pay the cost because being in New York increased their profits. The high rents motivated developers to provide more offices in the sky. This is the real reason for building boom of the Roaring Twenties.

Before World War I, two magnificent railroad depots were completed in the city—Penn Station (1910) on the west side at 33rd Street and Grand Central Station (1913) on the east side at 42nd Street. Together they created a kind of flower pot for modern midtown Manhattan to grow. These two transportation hubs, combined with the expansion of the subway system, drew millions of people to midtown each week to work, play, and shop.

The Manhattan Skyline during the Roaring Twenties (3)

Around Penn Station were the Garment District offices and factories. Moving east, near Herald Square, was the retail zone, including the giant Macy’s Department Story, which sold the wares made just a few blocks away. Going north was Times Square, the city’s entertainment center. Then going east were the gleaming new office towers that housed the corporations that produced America’s goods and services.

Who Built the Skyline?

So, when you look at the Deco Giants remember this: they were not built by the raging egos of self-absorbed tycoons. Rather they were built mostly by local real estate men, supplying the demand for office space in America’s largest and most important metropolis. The skyline was created because your grandparents and great grandparents wanted to buy fashionable clothes and modern conveniences. New York was the headquarters headquarters that made this possible.

[1] As an important side note, his plant was made possible by the mass production of electricity, the success of which was first demonstrated in New York City by Thomas Edison in 1882. The cost of electricity steadily plummeted in the early 1900s allowing for large-scale manufacturing. Also, Henry Ford knew a thing or two about electricity. In 1890, Ford was hired as an engineer for the Detroit Edison Company. In 1893, his abilities earned him a promotion to chief engineer.

[2] For those interested in the internment locations of America’s social, economic, political, and artistic elite, Walter Chrysler, along with Washington Irving and Andrew Carnegie, is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester County, near the Hudson River, 30 miles north of the Chrysler Building.

The Manhattan Skyline during the Roaring Twenties (2024)

FAQs

What was Manhattan like in the 1920s? ›

The 1920s weren't just about skyscrapers and jazz; Manhattan also became a crucible for modernist art and literature. The literary circles of the city buzzed with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who penned “The Great Gatsby,” capturing the era's opulence and underlying disillusionment.

What were the skyscrapers in the Roaring 20s? ›

First was the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building (71 floors). Next came the Chrysler Building (77 floors). Finally, was the granddaddy of them all, the Empire State Building (102 floors). They were completed at the peak of a skyscraper construction spree that ran from 1925 to 1931.

What did skyscrapers symbolize in the 1920s? ›

In the American self-image of the 1920s, the icon of modern was the modern city, the icon of the modern city was New York City, and the icon of New York City was the skyscraper. Love it or hate it, the skyscraper symbolized the go-go and up-up drive that “America” meant to itself and much of the world.

What famous buildings were built in the 1920s in New York? ›

The 1920s was the era of the skyscraper, and New York City was at the forefront of this trend. During this time, many of the city's most recognizable and tallest buildings were constructed, including the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building.

What did Manhattan look like before it was a city? ›

Manhattan had "had vast forests of timber. There were otter, beavers, mink, oysters, brook trout, bears", says Sanderson. Although his research might make his audience feel bad about how much has been lost since the city was founded, he stresses that that is not his point.

What was the tallest structure in 1920? ›

Manhattan's tallest building in 1920, the Woolworth Building, at 792 feet, is nearly a thousand feet shorter than the highest skyscraper in 2020, One World Trade Center, at 1,776 feet. One World Trade Center remains the tallest building in the United States.

What did the skyscraper symbolize? ›

Expedience, transcendence, ambition, and dominance: these are the principal reasons why tall buildings emerged and why they continue to be built, says Johnson.

How did skyscrapers help city life? ›

Skyscrapers offer vertical expansion, saving ground space in urban areas. They also provide a high density of usage per square foot of land. Skyscrapers represent the pinnacle of modern construction and architectural design, rising up as symbols of innovation and progress.

How did skyscrapers impact society? ›

Offering a great deal of opportunity, skyscrapers offered a new realm to citizens, one in which connected businesses with both average New Yorkers and tourists. Skyscrapers also gave New York an architectural identity, as proven through the dynamic change in its skyline.

Why New York is called the city of skyscrapers? ›

The building form most closely associated with New York City is the skyscraper, which has shifted many commercial and residential districts from low-rise to high-rise. Surrounded mostly by water, the city has amassed one of the largest and most varied collection of skyscrapers in the world.

What was the main reason for building skyscrapers? ›

The simple answer: more room for more workers, or in the residential frame, more residents. In line with rising population density, and advancements in engineering, height limits around the world are being revisited and revised to maximise space for commercial and residential growth.

What was NYC in the 1920s? ›

New York City was at the center of it all, serving as a hub for art, music, fashion, and finance. With a population of around 6 million, the city was bustling with energy, as people flocked to enjoy the newfound freedom and prosperity.

Was New York the first city with skyscrapers? ›

The earliest stage of skyscraper design encompasses buildings built between 1884 and 1945, predominantly in the American cities of New York and Chicago.

What is the most important skyscraper in New York? ›

New York's Must-See Skyscrapers
  • The Empire State Building – once known as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” it was the world's tallest building for over forty years and still dominates the center of Manhattan's skyline. ...
  • G.E. Building – the splendid 70-story tower that is the focal point of Rockefeller Center.
May 20, 2024

What was it like to live in New York in the 1920? ›

The Living City | New York City >> 1920s. The period of the 1920s was widely regarded as an era of prosperity. Unemployment amongst urban workers remained, on average, under 7 percent. Per capita income grew by a third during a decade of economic expansion that remained relatively unmarred by inflation and recession.

What was the city like in the 1920s? ›

Urban culture in the 1920s was indulgent and modern. Young people in cities thrived and shared ideas about feminism while partying, consuming alcohol, and going to the movies. The Roaring Twenties is also associated with glamor and parties.

What was entertainment like in the 1920s in New York City? ›

Live theater flourished during the 1920s, with a steady flow of finely written, introspective dramas and fast-paced, cynical comedies from contemporary writers. Theatergoers in New York City could choose from an array of plays staged at various Broadway venues or in the outer neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village.

What was the population of Manhattan in 1920? ›

6 Tables
POPULATION (In Thousands)
YearTotalManhattan
19205,6212,284
19306,9301,867
19407,4551,890
77 more rows

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