Reviewed June 2019
Jillian Kehoe, Access Services Librarian
The College of New Rochelle
When one thinks about New York skyscrapers, those that immediately come to mind are the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, or the Freedom Tower. When one thinks of a New York museum, one might think first of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, or the Guggenheim. During the period between 1874 and 1900, a skyscraper was defined as a building of ten stories or taller. In those 26 years, 253 buildings over ten stories were constructed; in the 119 subsequent years, 120 have been demolished. The Skyscraper Museum’s free online interactive, "Ten & Taller: 1870-1900," built to accompany an exhibition of the same name that has since closed, intends to shed light on the early architectural history of the skyscraper.
Though ostensibly an online exhibition, Ten & Taller has much in common with map-based digital humanities projects, such as Taking Pride and Digital Harlem. Its basis is the content gathered during an exhaustive and complete survey of early New York Skyscrapers conducted by engineer David Friedman. Although it began with the purpose of examining early structural systems and technological advances, like the use of steel and advent of the elevator, the project morphed into an encyclopedic tool to learn about early architectural history and urban development.
Information is presented to the user through several exploratory features: a photographic grid, a map, and a timeline. On the map visualization, buildings are color-coded by use. The interactive features of the map allow one to see Manhattan “being built,” showing which areas and industries (hotel, manufacturer, professional building) were growing the fastest and presenting historical observations based on these trends. The map’s accompanying “About” text offers an excellent explanation of how the map feature was created. Its combination of city fire maps with modern mapping techniques offers an interactive view of early skyscraper development, and allows one to make one’s own historical observations. The Grid allows the user to filter results by building status (existing or demolished), use, and neighborhood. Though interesting, this feature lacks a search function, a browse by architect field, and the ability to save buildings of interest. Architecture students may also miss the availability of additional drawings, cross-sections and plans, which are not included with the building synopses as they are in other resources, such as RibaPix and on a limited basis in ArchInForm. The Timeline feature initially displays a static graph of buildings by height. To make the timeline interactive, one must click on the somewhat cryptic text “Explore Individual Buildings” at the bottom of the page. By doing so, one is able to see which building types were more pervasive in a given year. This has a direct correlation with innovation in building techniques, but the timeline does not make this connection clear. It is only when one clicks on a bar in the chart that information is provided about the history of the building and its structure, as well as if it is extant. Each building is accompanied by a photo, which the museum sourced from early atlases, the New York Public Library’s digital collections, and others.
The website itself leaves something to be desired in terms of design and functionality. However, what the site lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in content. Included, but not highly visible on the site, is a video of a two-day symposium that was held in March of 2017, which offers interesting insights into the project as well as the advancing technological developments pertaining to building construction, and serves as an excellent foundation for anyone viewing this virtual exhibition. Additionally, one can also browse the website by categories such as models of structural systems, buildings by use, tall vs. all, and history by examples. Within each category, thematic essays offer perspectives on early building construction. In the historical observations essay, one learns about the early laws that limited the height of residential structures, which explains why they are noticeably few in this project. It is here in the thematic essays that the authors present interesting insights about the urban development that took place in lower Manhattan at this time.
Ten & Taller would be of interest to researchers and practitioners in the field of architectural history, historic preservation, and urban planning and development. Though the look and feel of this online exhibition may scare users away at first glance, it is worth exploring for the depth of its content. It could also serve as a resource for those who are interested in the history of the city of New York and its ever-changing skyline.