Time for some philosophizing on the meaning of “skyscraper.” I arrived at the photo above by searching the HABS/HAER site for that word, and there were fourteen buildings that came up as results, including this one. That’s the Sunset Tower Apartments, on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, constructed circa 1931 and photographed circa 1975. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but it’s twelve stories high with a concrete frame.

Los Angeles, of course, rivals New York for self-mythologizing, and an Art Deco building with palm trees in front is immediately evocative of a ton of movies from noir to comedy. How you feel about the architecture depends on your general feelings about the style and whether or not the building reminds you of an old-fashioned refrigerator. I’m personally more interested in the fact that this is one of fourteen buildings, out of the thousands in the collection, that HABS calls a skyscraper.

There’s an argument to made that everything is context and perspective. “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” A 12-story building, in 1870, would have been the tallest in the country. In 1880, among the top twenty or so. In 1900, among the top 300. And keep in mind that the construction of this building is closer in time to 1900 than to when the picture was taken; the construction was roughly the same distance to 1880 as the photo is to today. I set the cut-off for building height in The Structure of Skyscrapers at ten stories because that was enough, in the late 1800s, to distinguish notably tall buildings from ordinary ones. But by today’s standards, this is a mid-rise building in Los Angeles and any other city in the country.

I spent some time in The Structure of Skyscrapers trying to come up with a working definition of the word “skyscraper.” This was necessary because there is nothing inherent in it that leads you anywhere. In the end, it’s hard to do better than “a building that is notably tall for its era and location.” Because my interests are what they are, I also throw in that it should use modern (i.e., industrialized) construction technology. That last item rules out the pyramids, Roman insulae, and medieval cathedrals. So the question regarding Sunset Tower is whether it was notably tall for the 1930s in L.A. My general feeling is that it was not. There were plenty of taller buildings in the downtown area. It may have been notably tall for Sunset Boulevard, but that feels like it’s getting overly specific, since presumably people familiar with the boulevard were also familiar with the city as a whole.

I end up at the conclusion that this building is notable as a skyscraper not because it’s tall but because it’s not. It’s an odd prize.

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