The built environment, especially in so eclectic a place as New York City, has a way of hiding history in plain sight. With that in mind, if you have never noticed how many of the profiles of early 20th century buildings in New York retreat incrementally from the sidewalk as the building grows taller, then you may be surprised the next time you step outside.
Although there is an inherent aesthetic to this design, it is also an outgrowth of a more practical effort at preventing the streets of New York from devolving into gloomy, darkened canyons in the early days of skyscrapers. In 1915, the 40-story Equitable Building (120 Broadway) was completed. Boasting a whopping floor area of 1.2 million square feet on a single acre, the monstrosity threw a permanent, 7-acre shadow on the street below. It was both a testament to the technological advances making the skyscraper possible and a glaring signal of the harm that unregulated building could inflict on the city. Not surprisingly, people began to take notice and outcry grew steadily. In August 1915, the New York Times summarized a speech of George B. Ford of the New York Committee on City Plan to students of the American City Bureau Summer School by portraying skyscrapers as “poor business propositions, destructive of adjacent land values, unwholesome obstructions to light and ventilation, and undesirable edifices generally.”
An organization active in the fight to preserve the character and quality of life in the city as well as an integral factor in the push for zoning legislation was the Fifth Avenue Association. As its name reflects it focused its efforts on the environs of Fifth Avenue. The Times covered a May 1916 luncheon of the FAA at which the “Save New York” movement, aimed at stopping undesirable development, was the topic of the address. What’s perhaps most interesting about the luncheon, however, is who presided over the function. This honor was enjoyed by George T. Mortimer, the President of the Equitable Office Building Corporation, the very building that, to many, manifested the very worst elements of such development.
Mortimer’s role is a curious one. Having been the vice president of a company that owned buildings neighboring the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United State’s lot, he foresaw the effect such a enormous structure would have on the value of those buildings and attempted to prevent the building’s construction. Yet in a classic “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” move, he took over the management of that very building after construction finished. In a complete mind-bender, despite managing the antithesis to the ideals of the movement, he still advocated discerning legislation, which explains his role at the FAA luncheon. But his motivations were clear. Not only was he aware of the negative effects these buildings would have on the city, but like many of his counterparts, he also recognized ways regulation could actually enhance the real estate business.
Anyway, the tangible result of all this concern was the Zoning Resolution of 1916. The law made no limitations on the height of skyscrapers provided they did not occupy more than 25 percent of the total area of the lot. A model for this was Ernest Flagg’s Singer Tower, completed in 1908, in which Flagg demonstrated the practicality of the 25 percent approach for skyscrapers. Architecturally, an efficient, visually amenable way to adhere to the new resolution was through the setback which gives a step-like character to the external profile of the building. It is also sometimes colloquially referred to as the “wedding cake” style. An early example can be found in the Shelton Hotel built in 1924 (now the New York Marriott East Side).
At the time the resolution was described as “one of the most complete and comprehensive plans for the control of city building ever adopted by any American city.” Although zoning regulations have since changed, a stroll around New York City streets is all it takes to see how profound an effect this legislation had on the visual character of New York, even after close to one hundred years. Of course, it had an international impact as well, but seeing that might be slightly less convenient!