The Tallest Buildings in History

Almost as long as humankind has retained a written history, it has attempted to reach the heavens with monumental structures. For centuries, these structures were not habitable, but they have remained imposing nonetheless…such as the Great Pyramids of Giza or the towers of Europe’s cathedrals.

But after the Industrial Revolution, several innovations in technology and design allowed mankind to experiment with a new building type: the skyscraper. Developments in iron and later steel allowed stronger load-bearing skeletal structures that could rise higher than previously traditional materials like wood, brick, and stone. Elevators made it reasonable for people to inhabit floor spaces high above the earth, and the noise from automobiles made it desirable.

A further push toward skyscraper building came with historical events like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. These cataclysmic events destroyed the urban landscape and gave residents a chance to build anew…and the cost of real estate meant that it made sense to build up. Coupled to the aforementioned technological innovations, this financial concern spurred architects and their clients to reach upwards.

But another factor played a sizable role in the history of the skyscraper, and that was the prestige of having the tallest building. As skylines in urban areas grew, every company wanted its castle of commerce to be the defining landmark of the city. A great race was born to capture the awe and admiration of the world, and that race continues down to this very day.

When architects designed the first skyscrapers, they grappled with finding a suitable precedent for this new building type. First they turned to the Palazzo’s of Italy, large urban palaces that could serve as a fitting prototype for large urban buildings that would now fill America’s cities. Later they also looked toward the towers of Europe’s cathedrals and town halls, such as La Giralda, the belltower of the Seville Cathedral, or the Campanile of Venice’s Piazza San Marco.

As the years went on, architects turned more frequently to glass and steel, moving away from replicating the styles of the Old World and embracing a futuristic look. Concurrent with this trend in design has been the shifting of world’s tallest titles from the West to the East.

Let’s look now at the history of the world’s tallest buildings, keeping in mind that by building, we mean structures meant for habitation. Though structures like the Eiffel Tower and the Great Pyramids are indeed imposing, we will focus here on skyscrapers that are intended for habitation…that is, work, play, and living accommodations.

What follows is a list of buildings that were the tallest buildings in the world during their time.

Home Insurance Building

The Home Insurance Building that stood in Chicago from 1885 until 1931 is regarded as the world’s first skyscraper, since it was the first to use fireproof structural steel and concrete. It was designed by William Le Baron Jenney, an American architect who also designed some of the structures of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Because it weighed just a third of what a similarly sized masonry structure would weigh, the city council halted construction and did not let it resume until safety investigations had been made. When completed, it’s twelve floors rose to a height of 138 feet above the streets of the Windy City. 

New York World Building

The crown of the world’s tallest building passed to The New York World Building in 1890. Standing in the Civic Center across from Town Hall and part of Newspaper Row, this Renaissance Revival structure was capped by a dome reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Vatican rotunda, which brought the twelve story structure to 350 feet.

Architect Horace Trumbauer  was well known for his work on the baronial mansions of the Gilded Age. Unfortunately, the epicenter of New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) was demolished in 1956 to make room for a ramp leading onto the Brooklyn Bridge.

Manhattan Life Insurance Building

In 1894, the Manhattan Life Insurance Building became the world’s tallest skyscraper with 18 floors soaring to 348 feet. Though this is actually two feet lower than the apex of the aforementioned dome on the New York World Building, it surpassed that building’s habitable architectural massing of 309 feet by a 13% increase.

Designed by architecture firm Kimball and Thompson, This Beaux Arts masterpiece graced the financial district until 1963, when it was demolished to make room for an expansion to 1 Wall Street, which incidentally became home to one of the Life Insurance Building’s previous owners, Irving Trust Company.

Park Row Building

From 1899 until 1908, the Park Row Building towered over Manhattan with its 31 stories reaching a record breaking 391 feet. Designed by architect R.H. Robertson and engineer Nathaniel Roberts, it’s facade was embellished by Scottish-American sculptor J. Massey Rhind, and crowned by a pair of cupolas that flanked a central bay of columns.

The building was harshly received by the critics of the time, in part due to the strange shape of a floor plan covering an oddly-shaped lot, but its appeal has lately been acknowledged by the National Register of Historic Places as of 2005.

Singer Building

The Singer Building took the title in 1908, holding it briefly for just one year It blew the previously held record of the 391 foot Park Row Building out of the water, reaching 674 feet. Architect Ernest Flagg combined the Italian Palazzo precedent with the cathedral belltower precedent, filling the land lot first with a ten story structure, which was later crowned by a 41 story tower at the northwest corner.

The soaring structure was crowned by a dome and lantern in the Beaux Arts tradition. Though it was no longer the tallest, the Singer Building remained one of the tallest buildings in the world when it was demolished in 1968 to make way for One Liberty Plaza.

MetLife Company Tower

In 1909, The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, clearly inspired by the red brick campanile of Venice, became the world’s tallest building at 700 feet and 50 floors. Napoleon LeBrun and his sons were the architects, continuing a career that included works in New York and Philadelphia, such as the Academy of Music.

Interestingly, this skyscraper is now older than the Old World building it was modeled after, since Saint Mark’s Campanile was actually reconstructed in 1902 after it collapsed. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower still stands in the Flatiron District, though it’s height was surpassed in 1913.

Woolworth Building

In 1913, The Woolworth Building became the tallest building in the world, a title it retained until 1930. Cass Gilbert, who designed the Supreme Court of the United States and several state capitals, was the architect, and the visionary was F.W. Woolworth. Woolworth pioneered the now-common practice of set prices and retail on display with his five-and-dime stores.

The 55 floors soar up to 792 feet and are serviced by 34 elevators. Its Gothic inspired profile remains a New York city landmark, crowned by a once gold, now green pyramid. The lower floors are used for office spaces, and the top 30 floors consist of residential spaces commanding great views of the Tribeca  and its historic buildings.

40 Wall Street

Now known as the Trump Building, 40 Wall Street took the title of world’s tallest building in 1930, soaring past the Woolworth Building by 17% and reaching a height of 928 feet. Like the Woolworth Building, 40 Wall street is a Gothic inspired structure with a green pyramidal apex.

Multiple architects partnered in this project for the Manhattan Company (which later merged with other entities to become Chase Bank) including Harold Craig Severance, Yasuo Matsui, and the team of Richmond Shreve and Harold Lamb, who would later go on to design the Empire State Building. 40 Wall Street was in a competition with the Chrysler Building to be the world’s tallest skyscraper, a title that would go to the next building on our list. 

Chrysler Building

This Art Deco masterpiece designed by William Van Allen still remains the tallest brick building in the world with a steel frame. The world’s tallest building from 1930-1931, the Chrysler Building has become a symbol of an age when New York surpassed London as the world’s most populated urban area, and the excitement of air travel, radio, and automobiles permeated the American consciousness.

As mentioned, the Chrysler Building was in competition with 40 Wall Street to become the world’s tallest building, along with several other skyscrapers in simultaneous construction. But architect William Van Hallen secretly had a spire constructed inside the Chrysler Building and then raised into place, bringing the height of the building to 1,046 feet and surprising the world by surpassing 40 Wall Street…even though its architects had already declared their building the world’s tallest.

Empire State Building

But the rule of the Chrysler Building was short lived. Construction on the Empire State Building was already underway, and even though the Chrysler Building surpassed the height of the original plans for the Empire State Building, its developers realized they could add five more floors and a spire, bringing the height of this latest skyscraper to an unprecedented 1,250 feet.

Architects Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon created a tower that was a symbol of optimism in the midst of the Great Depression, and became doubly world famous, not only for its height, but also because it was climbed by King Kong in the 1933 movie.

With 102 floors served by 73 elevators, the Empire State Building remains a symbol of New York and the American Society of Civil Engineers named it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Panels in the granite clad lobby reflect this mythical accolate, depicting the Ancient Wonders of the World and the Empire State Building as its proverbial Eighth Wonder.

World Trade Center

It would not be until 1971 that the height of the Empire State Building was surpassed, this time by a pair of towers in Lower Manhattan: The World Trade Center. The complex of seven buildings was famous for its Twin Towers designed by Minoru Yamasaki and Emery Roth & Sons, Tower 1 reaching a groundbreaking 1,368 feet.

On September 11th, 2001, hijackers from the Al Qaeda terrorist group flew two Boeing 767 passenger jets into the towers, and two hours later the towers collapsed, killing over 2,600 people. Today a haunting memorial marks the spot of the attack, while the nearby One World Trade Center designed by David Childs soars to 1,792 at its tip, making it the tallest building in America and the Western Hemisphere since 2013 (however, the title of world’s tallest building has since passed on to other structures).

Sears Tower

In 1973, the Sears Tower (now named the Willis Tower) in Chicago surpassed the World Trade Center, bringing back the world’s tallest building title to the Windy City, where the skyscraper originated. Its observation deck is the highest in the United States and until recently the one million annual visitors taking a look from the top made it Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction.

Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (and others including engineer Fazlur Khan) designed a quincunx plan of nine towers rising to a variety of heights, giving the building a unique profile of setbacks rising up to 108 floors.

The building was commissioned by Sears, Roebuck, & Company, which was then the largest retailer in America. Hoping to consolidate all their Chicago office staff into one location, they needed a structure that would provide 3 million square feet of office space. Today the largest tenant of the building is United Airlines and it is owned by the Blackstone Group. The structural design of the Sears Tower, coming in at 1,450 feet, would prove influential on the skyscrapers that followed it, some of which shattered its own record.

Petronas Towers

In 1998, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur became the world’s tallest building. The 88 floors on this pair of twin towers rises to 1,483 feet, culminating in a remarkable octagonal formation of overlapping squares called the Rub el HIzb and drawn from classical Islamic geometries. Architect Cesar Pelli was inspired by the sandstone tower of Qutub Minar in Delhi, India.

The towers are connected by a skybridge on the 41st and 42nd floors, and at the base of a skyscraper a luxury shopping mall of 300 stores includes an art gallery, science center, and underwater aquarium. The Petronas Towers are separated from the noisy bustle of the Malaysian metropolis surrounding it by KLCC park, which provides some pleasing spaces for visitors to marvel at the massive structure and perhaps snap some Instagram worthy photos.

Taipei 101

Taipei 101 would take the title in 2004, surpassing the Petronas Towers by 12% and rising to 1,671 feet. Architects   by C.Y. Lee and C.P. Wang were inspired by the shape of ancient pagodas, incorporating new features like internal harmonic absorbers to help the building stand against the earthquakes and typhoons that are unfortunately common along the Pacific Rim; in fact, Taipei 101 is regarded as structurally one of the most stable buildings ever constructed.

True to the Asian penchant for symbolism in the design, its 101 floors reflect the idea of building on perfection (100), renewal, and the binary number system of zeros and ones used in programming code. The interesting segmentation of the building into eight bundles of eight floors each alludes to the abundance, prosperity, and good fortune associated with the number eight, while the overall shape formed by these segments connotes bamboo, a symbol of growth and learning.

Other symbols of financial success and growth can be found throughout the building’s interior and on its facade, such as coins and curled Ruyi associated with heavenly clouds. The annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display shooting off the sides of the building have become a much anticipated event in Taiwan.

Burj Khalifa

In 2010, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai became the world’s tallest building, and it has remained as such at the time of this article, surpassing Taipei 101 by an unbelievable 62% and soaring to a seemingly unbreakable record height of 2,717 feet…which is half a mile. Designed by Architect Adrian Smith of the firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, its arrangement of tubular structures is reminiscent of Sears Tower, which should come as no surprise, since the firm is the same one that designed that skyscraper as well…however it also clearly draws from earlier Islamic precedents in the Middle East, such as the spiraling form of the Great Mosque of Samarra.

The building is symbolic of Dubai’s push to become an international destination and stands at the center of a mixed-used complex meant to house 300,000 residences and 9 hotels, along with shops and restaurants situated along an incredible man made lake with fountains. When the project ran into financial troubles, Sheikh Khalifa of the United Arab Emirates granted funding, leading to the building being named in his honor.

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