A Height Deemed Appalling: Nineteenth-Century New York Newspaper Buildings

By Wallace, Aurora | Journalism History, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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A Height Deemed Appalling: Nineteenth-Century New York Newspaper Buildings


Wallace, Aurora, Journalism History


In the last quarter of the nineteenth century in New York, the largest newspapers were concentrated along a short stretch of Park Row in lower Manhattan. In this high profile location, the Tribune, the Times, and the World used architecture as a means to forge their corporate identity in the minds of city dwellers. In their efforts to distinguish themselves from one another, and as symbols of their own success, publishers commissioned the leading architects of the day to build them increasingly taller structures for their papers. Using newspapers, personal letters, and architectural plans as source materials, this article demonstrates that the new American form of the skyscraper was at least in part attributable to the efforts of the newspaper industry to convey the ascendancy of the mass media in modern society.

Addressing the Harvard Club on February 21, 1878, architect Richard Morris Hunt evoked the chapter of Victor Hugo's Noire Dame de Paris, 1482, tided, "This Will Kill That." The "this" in this case was printing and the "that" was architecture. "But this can never be," alleged Hunt, "so long as architecture embodies the ideas of the age."1

Far from replacing architecture in the second half of the nineteenth century, the printing press, with the help of architects such as Hunt, worked to elevate American architecture to a new form. In early newspaper buildings, architecture reasserted itself in monumental tributes to the power of the printing press and its most assertive masters, New York City newspaper publishers. Newspaper buildings attempted to communicate the supremacy of the press generally and their own paper specifically. As journalist Richard Harding Davis wrote in S'cribner's Magazine in 1891, newspaper buildings "rise, one above the other, in the humorous hope that the public will believe the length of their subscription-lists is in proportion to the height of their towers."2 Deliberate and precise plans were made for these buildings that gave citizens a recognizable and unambiguous sign that commercial media were thriving in America. In the concentration of press buildings along Park Row in lower Manhattan in the nineteenth century, there was a clear articulation of the ascendancy of the press, the aspiring values of their owners, and the drive to do in masonry what they also were doing in print: beat the competition.

The first notably tall newspaper building belonged to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, although he was not around to see it. The work of making a statement on the skyline fell to editor Whitelaw Reid, who understood that a symbolic gesture of this kind was necessary to reassure shareholders and readers that the Tribune was permanent, solid, and committed after Greeley. Less than a month after Greeley's death in November 1872, Tribune reporter and shareholder Bayard Taylor suggested to Reid that the life insurance payment should be used for a new building, to "assure the public of the power and stability of the paper."3 He responded with a clear vision for the kind of building that he wanted:

Wc are negotiating for the Lawrence block. If we get that we shall have a front of over 80 feet on Nassau St. and will then make a building which will surpass any newspaper building in the country, although we are aiming at a showy building. My present inclination is to brick as the exclusive material, not even stone window caps, using three kinds of brick, pressed Philadelphia red brick, the same colored black by dipping in boiling tar or petroleum and a Milwaukee yellow brick of fire brick, with brick mouldings [sic] for window caps and cornices. I believe you have such buildings in I'lorence, and I think the Henri IV style in Paris is not unlike it. This will be comparatively cheap. We will make it fireproof, 9 stories high and get a rental of $80,000 to $120,000 through what we can let of it.4

Reid's letters provide evidence that many of the major design decisions predated the competition and selection of the architect, Hunt.

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