When New York’s Equitable Life Building was inaugurated in 1870, the businessman behind the design, Henry Baldwin Hyde, was criticized for having delusions of glory. Costing more than $4 million (around $81 million in today’s money), his insurance company’s headquarters rose a then-astonishing seven stories over the streets of Manhattan.
One hundred forty years later, when the 163-floor Burj Khalifa topped out half a mile into Dubai’s atmosphere, it too was seen by some as extreme. Both buildings serve as a reminder that it is not only technology and economics that have made the history of skyscrapers but ego and symbolism, too.
Although the Equitable Life Building was the world’s first building remains a matter of discussion among historians, the race skywards began in America. (Today, the word usually refers to structures over 150 meters, or 492 feet, tall, but there was no approved definition in the 19th century.)
In the late 1800s, industrialization had driven land prices and urban populations up, making tall buildings more cost-effective, according to Carol Willis, manager of the Skyscraper Museum in New York.
“The very first tall buildings … were newspaper buildings and (headquarters for) news companies like the Western Union Building or the New York Tribune — office buildings that combined a workforce, piled one on top of the other to make business very effective,” she says.
Highrise construction blasted across the US after the turn of the 20th century. In New York, the record for the world’s tallest building broken six times between 1908 and 1931 — approximately doubling in height from the 612-foot Singer Building to the 1,250-foot Empire State Building.