Times & Places

The Skyscraper as Symbol

The skyscraper building type was invented in America during the late 19th century in Chicago and New York. By the 1910s, so many high-rise buildings were being erected that authorities in Manhattan feared sunlight would eventually be unable to reach the streets below. In 1916, New York’s zoning board took action and ruled that the upper floors of skyscrapers be stair-stepped back in proportion to the building’s height. The buildings that resulted, including landmarks like the Chrysler (1928–1931) and Empire State buildings (1930–1931), proved to be some of the most potent symbols of American modernism and power during the 1920s and early 1930s.

Capturing the spirit of a brave new world increasingly dependent on machines, skyscraper imagery was applied to many types of objects. This imagery, appearing as weight scales in the shape of tall buildings and as ornament on plates and textiles, flourished until the pall of the Great Depression settled over the country following the stock market crash of 1929.

Adapted from

Charles Venable, “Art Deco and Streamlined Modern Design, 1920-1950” Gallery text, 2001.