With the start of the 20th century, America became one of the most powerful economies in the world. With an abundance of steel, iron, money and modern construction techniques, it seemed natural that the course of action was to build massive structures that would show the newly accumulated wealth.
Starting in Chicago in 1885, a new trend seemed to take over urban development, the skyscraper. With a name to match the height, the new type of building bought admiration from both the general public and investors. Could having an office in this new invention help your firm in the long-run? Is having an office in the tallest building in the world signalling confidence to future investors? Well, there is not really much data on the causation between the two. But, nevertheless, the history behind the skylines is much more dramatic and filled with egos than one might think.
At the turn of the century in the 1900s, New York was, much like now, the place to be, if you were rich. Our history today starts with an analysis of what was to become the highest structure in the world form 1913 until 1930, The Woolworth Building. The 241m meter structure was first projected to be a standard commercial building of 12-16 story building. However, the man behind the structure had no plans to stop there. Albert Woolsworth, an American salesman that developed a 5-cents store empire, had no intentions of bending in the New York skyline. After a series of back and forth with the lead architect, plans for the 58 floor-building were finalized and construction started in 1910. The structure was now the new home of the Woolworth Company and the total construction costs accumulated to a total of $350m 2018 dollars. So how did the Woolworth Company perform? Well, despite a couple of names changes, the corporation lasted until 1997. At the moment, the top 30 floors of the building were converted into mostly empty luxury apartments. However, the over-supply of luxury apartments in New York is a different story. Well, the Woolworth building kept its crowning title for a mere 27 years, after that the real “Race for the Sky”, as the press called it at the time, started.
The Chrysler building, a stable in many cinematic shots of New York City. In the context of the 1920s boom, the positive investing environment encouraged ambitious projects such as this one promoted by the man who gave the name of the building, Walter Chrysler. The structure was planned to be higher than the Woolworth Tower, with an initial standing at 282m tall. Chrysler, the 3rd larger car manufacturer in the US at the time saw the construction of the building as a way to reach further build trust in the company. However, Walter was not the only one that had the cash to spare and ambitions of standing at the top of the highest building in the world. Shortly after the announcement of the project for the Chrysler Building, the Manhattan Company announced their plans to build a skyscraper, that would have 71 stories and break down the record for the highest standing structure. In just 11 months, the construction workers managed to finalize construction of 40th Wall Street, and the official opening was scheduled in April 1930. It seemed that the Chrysler project was unredeemable and that their goal failed.
During the dark morning of 23rd of October 1929, while despair was about to start all thought out America, Van Alen, the head architect for the Chrysler Building, alongside Walter himself, were raising a secret steel spire on top of their project. The threat from 40th Wallstreet was averted, and now standing at 319m the skyscraper became the highest structure in the world in May 1930. The boom of the 20s faded, and the beginning of the Great Depression was grim. However, this setback was not going to stop the Empire State Building.
At an unthinkable 381m tall, the queen of gothic style skyscraper in New York is still the 6th tallest standing building in America. It is significantly featured in pop-culture, and it is hard to picture Manhattan without it. When the construction of the building was announced in March 1930, the image of the building was not so golden. The economic state in America was far from being recovered and, after all, why would anybody need so much office during a recession? Well, upon its competition in 1931, the Empire State building was more empty than used. The revenue from the observatory deck exceeded the leasing revenue during its first years. However, the building did eventually become profitable in the 1950s, when more major broadcasting corporations moved into space. A small fun fact about the Spire of the Empire State building is that it was first constructed as a docking place for airships. Yes, airships. And for funsies, please take a second to picture a 254m airship docking on top of the Empire State Building. Needless to say, the idea did not work. However, the antenna and spire were perfect for broadcasting. The queen of them all remained the highest building in the world for almost 40 years and clearly ended the “Race to the Sky”. Some more theoretical people might tell me that there was an oversupply of office space in New York at the time, to which I would kindly like to point out that I choose to believe that people just got bored of high buildings.
So, to come back to my initial question, does having your office in a famous building help the reputation of your company? I couldn’t tell, I did not run any 95% hypothesis test on the matter, but I might choose to do it later, so please do not steal my thesis ideas. What I can tell you, however, is that building the “tallest structure” might actually show a very confident and determined character. Also, people tend to enjoy high structures a lot. The “being on top of the world feeling” is indeed sought after. Just look at the multi-million dollar apartments on 432th Park Avenue, it is a feeling that they are selling. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to tell you why it is so enjoyable, I’ve never lived or worked in such a building, although I am open to it if you have any offers.