The Birth of the Skyscraper The First Elevator

The history of skyscrapers goes back to the late 1860s, with the construction of the Equitable Life Assurance Company's building on the corner of Broadway and Cedar Street. Life insurance was a relatively new business in America, and like the banks and the hotels, life-insurance companies understood the value of architecture as a way of marketing their new idea of trying to get people to take out life-insurance policies. The Equitable Life Assurance Company decided that they were going to build a very prominent headquarters on Broadway, right across from Trinity Church cemetery. This was a really prime location in the commercial core of New York, and the president of Equitable Life, a man named Henry Hyde, decided that he was going to get the maximum publicity out of the idea of constructing a new building. So he held a competition in 1868 for the design of the building, and many prominent architects entered it. There was one requirement for the competition, and that was that the building include a passenger elevator.

This was a radical new idea. This is the first office building to include an elevator. And by including an elevator in the building, it actually turned the idea of the office building on its head. It had been, when you had an office building before 1868, the higher up you went, the lower the rents were because you had to climb up flights of stairs and people were not really going to climb up more than one or two flights of stairs. But once the elevator was implemented, suddenly the top stories were more valuable than the lower stories. And now you can get higher rents on the top stories because they are quieter, there is better light, and they are away from the noise and dirt of the street. So suddenly you can rent all the space in the building for a very high amount of money. So Equitable decided that this would be a good idea. Equitable actually only occupied a portion of the completed building, the lower floors, understanding that they could maximize their rental income by renting the more prominent upper floors of the building.

The competition was won by the firm of Gilman and Kendall. This was a very conservative firm and they designed a very conservative looking building. It is basically a French Second Empire-style building, with a mansard roof and a nice three-dimensional façade. It does not look like it is more than about four or five stories. It was actually about seven-and-a-half stories. The upper floors would really not have been available for rental space because nobody was going to climb up above the fourth or fifth floor. The building expanded and it eventually took up the entire block, but the original part of the building was finished in 1870, and it got a lot of publicity for the Equitable Life Assurance Company, especially the elevator.