“Tower” Versus “Skyscraper”

One of the stranger aspects of researching and writing about old skyscrapers is that the word “skyscraper” doesn’t really have a meaning. Or rather it has dozens of meanings and a lot of people assume that the one they have in mind must be the correct one. You can usually say what is not a skyscraper more easily than you can say what is.

For example, the 1902 Electric Tower at the Luna Park amusement park in Coney Island, seen above, was not a skyscraper. It was around 200 feet tall, which makes it taller than quite a few early skyscrapers (Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, for example, was 138 feet tall when but and 180 feet after two more stories were added), but it wasn’t really a building. It was constructed, like all of Luna Park, of fluff – wood framing, lath, and stucco – and was unoccupied except for a maintenance stair. It was a decorative tower constructed for its symbolism, much like a church spire.

Having a physically-useful purpose and solid stone construction still isn’t enough to make a tower into a skyscraper. Here’s the 1863 High Bridge Water Tower, also 200 feet tall, as seen from High Bridge Park:

High Bridge carries the Croton aqueduct across the Harlem River from the Bronx mainland to Manhattan; the tower was added to add fluid pressure to the system at this location. It’s empty on the inside except for stairs and the water pipes up and down; the top is a big tank. So, useful but unoccupied.

Back to decorative towers, here’s the 1875 Union Station in Worcester, Massachusetts, as seen in 1906, five years before it was replaced with a bigger and grander station:

There’s some interesting engineering in the truss roofs of the head house (left) and train shed (right), but that tower is purely symbolic, carrying a clock and weathervane and nothing else. This tower made it all the way up to 212 feet.

Finally, two more towers, one of which is definitely a skyscraper and the other is borderline. This picture is looking down Madison Avenue from about 28th Street; the ornate 1890 tower of Madison Square Garden is on the left and the 1909 Met Life Tower is on the right:

Met Life, at 700 feet tall, is a skyscraper if anything is: it was the tallest building in the world until the Woolworth Building was completed four years later. (Note that, again, definitions matter. The Eiffel Tower is taller, but is not really a building in the usual sense of that phrase.) MSG…not really. It had some minor office occupancy for the company running the entertainment facility below, but that 300-foot tower had at most a couple of dozen people in it while the main theater could seat 10,000, so the tower occupancy seems like an afterthought. If you really want to call the MSG tower a skyscraper, you can, but then you’ll have to deal with what an odd skyscraper it is.

More thoughts on old skyscrapers here: The Structure of Skyscrapers.

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