Limitations to the Production of Skyscrapers

THE development of the American city, it may safely be assumed, will be governed by economic rather than by artistic considerations. The few attempts to regulate or to encourage its growth by municipal ordinance have simmered down to an occasional and unusually ineffectual law regulating the height of office buildings, and to the appointment of “art commissions ” and “ supervising architects ” whose powers are chiefly advisory and limited to the artistic inspection of municipal public works. Any such rigid supervision of urban growth, with an eye to the maintenance of a general architectural coherence, as is the rule in several European cities, is apparently a phase of municipal authority entirely foreign to the genius of the American system. American utilitarianism, indeed, has perhaps reached its profoundest expression in the wild and unkempt luxuriance with which our great metropolitan city, New York, has been permitted to evolve itself uninterfered with by the culturing hand of the mere artist. The real estate operator and the speculative builder have been its architectural mentors; the necessity of deriving the maximum rental income at the minimum expense has been the only inspiration or responsibility they have known. This is especially the case in the production of the modern American office building, as instanced in the recent large undertakings of the kind in New York. In the skyscraper’s early days, there were slight attempts made to introduce “art ” into its construction. This usually took the shape of more or less patent attempts to conceal the height by elongating the windows, by the introduction of balconies and other ornamental designs at various intervals, and by highly elaborate bases and capitals, the latter frequently terminating in towers, Mansard roofs, and the like. The general recognition of the fact that the artistic shortcomings of the skyscraper centred in the general design rather than in its execution, as well as the additional expense, have resulted in the almost total abandonment of these ineffectual struggles for architectural effect. It was found, among other things, that highly carved balconies at the eighteenth and twentieth stories were not additional attractions to tenants; and that Mansard roofs paid no rent. The skyscraper, in its latest manifestation, therefore, consists of a succession of prosaic stories, one upon another, the whole rising sheer from earth heavenward, its monotony unrelieved by the slightest ornamentation. The largest office building in the world, the Broad Exchange, at the southeast corner of Broad Street and Exchange Place, New York, rising to a height of twenty stories, and occupying 27,000 square feet of ground space, is the final word in what may be called the modern economic system of office construction. The building was erected by a syndicate of operators as a speculative enterprise, and represents invested capital of not far from $7,500,000. Of that $7,500,000 hardly a dollar has been spent in non-productive ornamentation; the whole operation has been conducted with an eye single to rental income.

All these, of course, are lamentable facts. The situation is especially unfortunate in that the largest of our American cities are still, to a great extent, virgin soil; that is to say, they are undergoing a process of rebuilding, are shaking off the old wornout crust and taking upon themselves a new garb. The invention of the modern elevator and the development of the modern system of steel construction have worked such a revolution in land values that the re-improvement of the property becomes an economic necessity. New York city, for example, even in its most thickly settled parts, is practically vacant land; its old office buildings are demolished to make room for large structures upon which a living income can he figured out, its old private houses are removed and replaced with six story flats, its flats in their turn are razed to furnish building sites for modern apartment houses and hotels. It thus happens that the building and architectural future of New York is all before it; and the question therefore rises concerning the use which this and other American cities with similar conditions are to make of their opportunities; whether, especially in their business sections, they are to become architectural blots, or whether there is any chance of their development along more pleasing lines. The public is so frequently entertained with forecasts of our great American cities twenty-five and fifty years hence, reconstructed with rows of twenty-five and thirty story buildings, with yawning apertures between that do service as streets, that it now almost regards some such outcome as inevitable, and, indeed, has become quite reconciled to the fact. The critical mind, disposed to make the best of a bad situation, has even detected in the skyscraper virtues unseen before; if it did not suggest beauty, it at least suggested strength and massiveness; it was something new, American, a physical expression of the modern spirit. That the tall office building is a permanent feature of modern urban development is evident enough; but the point absolutely overlooked is that this development has its great limitations, that these limitations, at least in New York city, have been nearly reached already, and that the number of new enterprises of the kind, instead of constantly increasing, is almost certain to decrease. It is a mistake to assume hastily that the whole of New York city is to be built up in this way; that the length of Broadway, for example, is to be lined with twenty-five story buildings; that smaller structures of more ornate design are forever barred. As a matter of fact, our huge modern buildings have made absolutely essential the construction of smaller structures; it is the gaunt skyscraper itself which makes inevitable the dedication of a considerable part of the city to a radically different growth.

The revolution in land values caused by the introduction of modern methods of construction has already been referred to. As a matter of fact, this change has introduced elements into the determination of values to which the economists have hardly given a thought. One of these might appropriately be called the capitalization of the air. It was not until the advent of the skyscraper that light and air had a distinct market value; that land unbuilt upon, and that in the nature of the case could not be built upon, became as valuable as land available for improvement. In a word, the production of tall mercantile and residential buildings has brought forward the great problem of light and air; and it is this consideration which is chiefly to work notable modifications in the development of our modern cities. When office and commercial buildings reached a height of four and five stories the question of supplying them with adequate light and ventilation was not a pressing one; there was, indeed, plenty of both of these foremost gifts of nature. When the height of the same buildings is doubled and quadrupled, however, the situation is materially changed. The public is fairly familiar with the deplorable tenement conditions of our leading American cities, especially of New York, — conditions produced by the rapid increase of the foreign population, combined with its gregarious instincts, which has caused a remarkable rise in land values, and thus necessitated the maximum use of building space and the maximum height of buildings. It is for this reason that we have thousands of tenement houses in New York built upon ninety per cent of the lot and reaching a height of six and frequently seven stories. The tenement problem is thus largely a matter of inadequate light and ventilation ; a difficulty equally present in the construction of tall buildings, though in a much greater degree. Twenty-five and thirty years ago office buildings were usually constructed four and five stories high upon about seventyfive per cent of the lot, which meant that, practically throughout the whole day, the rays of the sun would strike all the windows at a sufficient angle to assure an uninterrupted flow of light. But imagine, for a moment, a row of such buildings replaced by an aggregation after the modern manner, rising twelve, fifteen, and twenty stories high, in their utilization of the available ground space, reaching the full legal limit. It is evident that the period of day during which the offices would be supplied with anything like direct light would be materially reduced. And, in general, it needs no elaborate demonstration to prove the general rule that, the higher such a row of buildings is built, the shorter the period of day during which a fair supply of light will be available. With the exception of an hour perhaps at noon, when the sun is directly overhead, the offices in such an imaginary row of buildings would be almost totally dark. Such a row, naturally, has never been built; but the closely packed conditions in the upper part of Nassau Street, New York, give a faint idea of what it would be like. Here the majority of the offices are artificially lighted the larger part of the day ; and here, as a consequence, rents are low, and office buildings have achieved a minimum of success. Legislative attempts to improve the conditions of the tenement houses have chiefly been in the way of increasing the width of air courts, which, at the best, are only a makeshift for securing light and air; but, in a twenty story office building, a shaft simply supplies insufficient light and air for the top floors. The one demand of the business world, however, such as furnishes the tenants for the great office buildings, is a plentiful amount of light and air; it will not do without it and it is willing to pay liberally for it. The building that does not adequately provide for these two essentials is quickly depopulated; the one that is the greatest financial success is the one that takes the greatest pains to satisfy its patrons in these important points.

It is thus seen at a glance that the rebuilding of the office districts of our great cities exclusively with immense skyscrapers is practically unfeasible. We shall also find that the development of the business sections has been largely influenced by this consideration ; and that the many constructional errors now apparent have been made largely because this principle has been ignored. It should be remembered, moreover, that the principles underlying these great enterprises are only beginning to be understood; that the builders and the engineers have been working more or less in the dark; that there have consequently resulted many failures, both from an engineering and a financial standpoint. The writer’s personal observations have been chiefly confined to New York, and his illustrations must necessarily be drawn from that city; but the same conditions evidently prevail elsewhere. In New York, the importance of the light and air question is now pretty well understood, though it has been strangely overlooked in several instances; and the result is that large office buildings are attempted only on especially favorable sites, the majority of which have already been taken up. The influence of the Trinity churchyard, in affecting realty valuations, is an interesting case in point. Here is an open green square in the heart of the financial centre, which sentiment and tradition have made consecrated ground; which the very wealthy proprietary corporation refuses to sell at any price; and which, as far as can now be seen, will always remain in its present state. Consequently the office buildings erected on abutting property are assured of a splendid supply of light and air for an indefinite period. It is for this reason that the Empire Building, on the south side of Rector Street, is one of the most successful enterprises in the metropolis; and it is for this reason that the old Trinity Building, at 111 Broadway, is regarded as probably the most available building site in the lower business district. The building activity now centring in the neighborhood of Pine and Nassau streets is another interesting evidence of the commercial value of sunlight. At the southeast corner of Pine and Nassau streets is the sub-Treasury; immediately next to this the Assay office; low structures, each some three stories high, which are evidently there to stay, and which, as long as they remain, assure a plentiful supply of light to surrounding buildings. The influence of these government properties in affecting valuations in the neighborhood would form an interesting study in itself. Many office buildings, however, have been erected upon sites that are not protected in this way, and the efforts made in numerous cases to forestall their ruination have been picturesque and instructive. Many, in a word, have been rushed up with the calm disregard of that fundamental principle of American law which provides that a man’s light and air are his own, and that his adjoining neighbor has no right to appropriate them. That is to say, the theory of American law is that the fee to a given plot of soil extends indefinitely into the bowels of the earth, and, likewise, indefinitely into the upper ether. Thus New York city, whenever it builds a bridge, is obliged to spend millions of dollars for the approach, simply because it has no right to build its span above property that it does not own. Likewise no man building upon the lot line is entitled to obtain light and air by cutting windows overlooking property that he does not own; and likewise no owner of an office building can legally make similar provision for his offices by encroaching upon neighboring property. This is well known and thoroughly adjudicated law, but it is law that has been curiously neglected in recent rebuilding operations in New York. Thus many buildings, occupying the whole of the lot, have been calmly constructed to a height of eighteen and twenty stories, the majority of the offices securing their light from windows cut over adjoining property. As long as the adjoining owner does not object this is well enough, but what the consequences would be should he erect a tall building upon his own lot can be easily imagined. Such a building, of course, would leave most of the offices next door in darkness, and spell little less than ruin to property interests. The inevitable result has been that the owners of large office buildings, unless the location is an exceptional one, are obliged to control a considerable area of adjoining property, in order to forestall improvements that would prove ruinous to their own. The American Surety Company, for example, had erected a twenty story building at the southeast corner of Pine Street and Broadway, splendidly lighted on all four sides, before it occurred to the directors that their light on the south and east might be cut off at any time by the erection of another large skyscraper. The result is that they have been obliged to lease this property themselves for a long period in order to control its development. When the Atlantic Insurance Company built its twenty story structure at the southwest corner of Wall and William streets, it was suggested that the Bank of the State of New York property, at the northeast corner of William and Exchange Place, be included in the site. The latter property indeed was offered for $600,000, but the offer was rejected. The Atlantic Building was hardly up, however, when the Bank of the State of New York filed plans for an immense structure of its own, the site of which included the plot rejected by the insurance company. The erection of this skyscraper would have cut off the southerly light of the Atlantic Building, and the company was therefore only too glad to purchase the property, paying, however, $1,000,000 for it, or $400,000 more than the offer of a year before. This $400,000 represented the penalty paid for its failure to exercise ordinary foresight in protecting its building. There have been plenty of similar instances in the last twelve months, details of which need not be given here. The important point is that now one of the ordinary precautions of skyscraper construction is the acquisition of property adjoining the site whose immediate improvement is aimed at, merely for the purpose of possessing the precious sunlight which the courts have decided is unalienably its own.

The bearing of all this upon development of the modern city is plain. It means, in the first place, that the sites available for large office buildings are limited in number; and, in the second, that their erection necessarily implies that a considerable amount of adjoining property cannot be extensively built upon. Whenever one sees a skyscraper, that is to say, he may usually be satisfied that the surrounding property is forever barred from development in a similar way. This property, in the main, consists of three and four story old buildings, the rents of which are low, and, at the prices paid, barely meet the ordinary carrying expenses. In other words, they are, unless some means can be found to improve them not antagonistic to the purpose for which they were acquired, unproductive property. In their present condition they yield no income ; the problem is to discover some means of developing them that will pay at least some small return upon the capital thus tied up. There are several indications that the inevitable improvement will be the erection of modern three and four story buildings, for lease to important business concerns, such as banks, insurance companies, and the like. There have been several recent instances of this in the last year. A few months ago, for example, a valuable plot on the north side of Pine Street was purchased by a speculative realty company and resold in two parcels. It was practically impossible to sell them for improvement with tall buildings, owing to the inevitable light problem. A large banking house purchased half the block for a twelve story office building, on the condition that the adjoining plot should not be utilized in the same way. The outcome was that one of the best known banking houses in America purchased the second parcel, and is now erecting a four story marble building, the whole of which it will occupy itself. The effect of this low building upon the value of adjoining property, it may be remarked in passing, is shown by the fact that the first parcel brought $75,000 more than the second, although in size and ordinary advantages, except this important one of light, the two were identical. Similarly the Washington Life Insurance Company was obliged to purchase, as a protective measure, an old-fashioned building adjoining its own at the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street. This building, in its present shape, is barely a “tax payer,” and the Insurance Company has decided to demolish it and erect a three story structure, which, when rented to a well-known banking house, will yield at least three per cent upon the investment. In the same way the Park National Bank has decided to erect, for similar reasons, a four or five story building, in arcade style, chiefly for its own occupancy, in the form of an addition to its present structure on Broadway. The reason for this is that the bank has been unable to purchase, except at an exorbitant price, the property at the northeast corner of Fulton Street and Broadway, without which light protection for a large office building would not be assured. This case is particularly interesting in that the bank had plans drawn for an eighteen story building, and was obliged to make this radical change simply because it could not come to terms with the owner to this indispensable corner property. An evidence of the same thing upon a greater scale is furnished by the probable development of the large properties acquired by the Mutual Life Insurance Company for the protection of its building on the block bounded by Nassau, Cedar, William, and Liberty streets. In the last two years the company has made extensive purchases on the south side of Cedar, the north side of Liberty, and even upon Maiden Lane, simply for the purpose of forestalling any improvements that would be injurious to its own property. Only the other day it entered into an agreement with another insurance company to erect for it and lease to it a six story building upon one of these plots. That all of them will ultimately be improved in the same way seems certain.

We thus see that the skyscraper, as the exclusive form of urban development, far from being an economic necessity, is quite the reverse. Economic considerations may still require the development of unusually advantageous sites in this way, but such sites are very few, and, at least in New York city, the best of them are taken up already. There is thus the opportunity for development in a very different direction; and there are already indications that it will be availed of. Coincidently with the realization of the limitations of the popular style of construction there is a growing conviction that, after all, the skyscraper is not the embodiment of all that is fine and modern in the American spirit; that it is, indeed, an architectural development that is to be avoided whenever possible, instead of persistently sought for. As a matter of fact the recent production of office buildings has not been strictly upon an economic basis; they have been largely a craze, the outcome of the prevailing passion for what is new and strange. The majority of them, after all, have not been erected strictly as investments, but as advertisements. This is the case with the great insurance companies, the banks, and similar corporations, which have appreciated the value, purely from an advertising standpoint, of having their headquarters in the largest buildings on earth. That the buildings erected by corporate institutions are not valuable as investments is shown by the fact that several of them have been ignominious failures, and that the average returns are probably not much more than two per cent. Indications of a change in public taste are shown in such semi-public undertakings as the new Clearing House, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Stock Exchange. Had the Chamber of Commerce been erected three or four years ago it is likely that this venerable institution would have built a large office building, reserving a few offices for its own use, instead, as is now the case, of building a beautiful low Renaissance structure of marble, the whole of which it will occupy itself. Had the new Stock Exchange been projected in the final decade of the last century, the association, following the example of the Produce, the Coffee, and the Cotton exchanges, in all likelihood would have planned a commodious office building, confining its own quarters to a floor or two. Instead the financial district is now being embellished with a massive marble structure, which, among other things, will furnish a background of art to the somewhat unimaginative occupations of Wall Street. An evidence of a reaction from the skyscraper in a purely business enterprise is the Singer building, at the northwest corner of Liberty Street and Broadway. In this structure, which is much admired by architects, the system of steel construction is ignored. It was built in 1898, about ten years after the introduction of the new method, but the Singer corporation and the architect, Mr. Ernest Flagg, were by no means convinced that the skeleton system was the final word in building construction. This structure, therefore, is only eleven stories high, and so cleverly designed that even this height is not offensively apparent. The entire burden is borne by thick masonry walls, as of old. Only one wing has yet been finished; it is the purpose of the corporation ultimately to extend its building over the whole block front, between Liberty and Cortlandt streets. One conspicuous Broadway front, therefore, is reduced from perpetual disfigurement.

The conclusion of all of which is, that while the exigencies of our practical American life will still demand the erection of large office buildings, the rate of production is likely to decrease rather than increase; that the mania for mere bigness is subsiding, and is bound to give place to a better conception of corporate eminence; and that the production of the skyscraper itself inevitably necessitates the development of a large amount of urban property along more modest lines. That is to say, the mere architect, in distinction from the construction engineer, will yet find in our great cities an opportunity to exercise his trade.

Burton J. Hendrick.