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NYC's Century-Old Zoning Resolution Gave Rise to These Iconic Buildings

As an influential zoning measure turns 100, take a look at the buildings it helped create

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It was a century ago today that the New York City 1916 Zoning Resolution was adopted, forever altering the shape of Manhattan's skyline. The measure was intended to curb the effect of multiple skyscrapers sprouting up all over the city. Before the resolution was enacted, buildings could rise as high as the technology allowed—leading to tall towers that would block out sunlight and create dark caverns on city streets. The Equitable Building on Broadway, built in 1915, is perhaps the best-known example of this; thanks to its height (nearly 600 feet) and its footprint, it feels downright fortress-like.

The 1916 Zoning Resolution changed that by demanding that architects create setbacks on buildings at certain points, leading to skyscrapers that were still tall, but felt less bulky. The Chrysler Building is one stellar example—it rises more than 1,000 feet, but thanks to its slender tower (which gets progressively more narrow as it rises), it doesn't feel overwhelming.

The zoning change would go on to influence the architecture of buildings—and indeed, the look Manhattan's skyline—until the mid-20th-century, when a new measure was put into place to account for modern architectural styles. But on the centennial of the 1916 resolution, we're looking at some of the iconic NYC buildings that came about as a result. Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments.

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Trump Building

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A number of buildings on Wall Street were constructed after the 1916 zoning resolution passed, leading to the wedding cake-esque look all along the thoroughfare. The tower at 40 Wall Street, though, rises the highest—it was, in fact, the city's tallest building for approximately one month in 1930—and the best-known, thanks to its distinctive green topper. It's among Donald Trump's holdings in NYC.
Chris Ruvolo/Wikimedia Commons

101 Wall Street

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Unlike other skyscrapers on this list, the building at 101 Wall Street isn't exactly huge—it rises only 25 stories, which is positively small compared to some of the other structures on this list—and its setbacks begin closer to the top, giving it a distinctly pointed appearance. The building is currently being transformed into condos by Dutch architect Piet Boon.

70 Pine Street

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This Art Deco landmark-turned-luxury rental was erected between 1930 and 1932, and its design is similar to many of the skyscrapers built at the time: it has a wide base and a narrow tower with setbacks rising as it gets higher. Those setbacks were integrated as private terraces into the design of the apartments at 70 Pine, as the building is now known.

The Walker Tower

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Architect Ralph Walker designed nearly all of his most notable buildings—100 Barclay, the Western Union Building at 60 Hudson Street, and the like—post-rezoning, but it's the Walker Tower on West 18th Street that uses setbacks to the greatest effect. It was built in 1929 as a telecommunications structure, and though it's extremely strong—concrete encases a steel frame—its setbacks are also quite elegant. It's now home to some of the city's most expensive real estate.
Via StreetEasy

Empire State Building

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New York City's most iconic building is also one that was obviously influenced by the zoning resolution. The 1,250-foot building rises from a wide base (covering two acres total), with the tower above it becoming increasingly more narrow thanks to a series of setbacks. The whole thing culminates in the tower's two observation decks (on the 86th and 102nd floors), and its spindly antenna.
Courtesy Shutterstock.com

Chrysler Building

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Completed a year before the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building is one of the most stunning examples of how the zoning resolution influenced Art Deco architecture. The building's setbacks are accented by ornamentation on various levels (replica Chrysler hubcaps, eagles), and the tower culminates in its gorgeous, sunburst-patterned crown.
Raphe Evanoff/Curbed Flickr Pool

American Radiator Building

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Like the Chrysler Building, the setbacks of the American Radiator Building (now home to the Bryant Park Hotel) are accented with ornamentation—in this case, gold trim, which sets off the black brick that the rest of the tower is clad in. The building opened in 1924, just eight years after the zoning restriction was adopted.
Daniel M. Silva / shutterstock.com

Fred F. French Building

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The 38-story Fred F. French building was the tallest structure along Fifth Avenue when it was completed in 1927. The office building, developed by Tudor City builder Frederick Fillmore French, underwent a restoration in the 1990s and was soon after added to the National Register of Historic Places. The 429-foot skyscraper is built in the Art Deco style and includes some glorious mosaic work at its crown.
Chris Sampson/Wikimedia Commons

30 Rockefeller Plaza

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One of the tallest buildings of its time and still one of the city's skyline icons, 30 Rockefeller Plaza is a poster child for the 1916 zoning mandate. Completed in 1933, the Art Deco skyscraper was home to RCA through 1988 before GE took its place (The electronics company traded the building to Comcast just last year, marking the fall of its iconic signage.) Raymond Hood designed the building at the behest of the Rockefeller Family, whose name still clings to the Midtown plaza.

Seagram Building

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Not only was this building's design influenced by the 1916 zoning resolution, it would go on to inspire the 1961 changes to New York's zoning law, which made the current crop of modern skyscrapers possible. Mies van der Rohe got around the stepped-back look of previous towers by having the building itself occupy only 25 percent of the lot—as Andrew Dolkart notes, "in the zoning law you could build a tower of any height on 25 percent of your lot—thus the slender tower on the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, and thus the slabs with no setbacks on the Seagram Building and on Lever House."
Photo by Max Touhey

One Hanson Place / Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower

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Until recently, this distinctive tower was one of relatively few skyscrapers in Brooklyn, and because it was built in 1929, it has a similar stepped facade as other tall towers from the same period in Manhattan. Once the HQ of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, it's now home to—what else?—luxury apartments.

120 Wall Street

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One of the city's only high-rise buildings on the East River until the 1970's construction boom, 120 Wall Street was constructed in 1930 as the corporate home of the American Sugar Refining Company. The 399-foot building's setbacks begin on the sixteenth floor, giving it that distinct wedding cake shape that's so notably a effect of the 1916 zoning code.
Wikimedia Commons

The Crown Building

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According to Columbia University architecture professor Andrew S. Dolkart, the Crown Building—originally known as the Heckscher Building—was one of the earliest structures to take the 1916 zoning into account. But unlike the Chrysler or Empire State Buildings, its use of setbacks wasn't exactly subtle; Dolkart describes it as "a series of boxes piled one on top of another, with a fancy crown on the top," which isn't off base.

Trump Building

Chris Ruvolo/Wikimedia Commons
A number of buildings on Wall Street were constructed after the 1916 zoning resolution passed, leading to the wedding cake-esque look all along the thoroughfare. The tower at 40 Wall Street, though, rises the highest—it was, in fact, the city's tallest building for approximately one month in 1930—and the best-known, thanks to its distinctive green topper. It's among Donald Trump's holdings in NYC.
Chris Ruvolo/Wikimedia Commons

101 Wall Street

Unlike other skyscrapers on this list, the building at 101 Wall Street isn't exactly huge—it rises only 25 stories, which is positively small compared to some of the other structures on this list—and its setbacks begin closer to the top, giving it a distinctly pointed appearance. The building is currently being transformed into condos by Dutch architect Piet Boon.

70 Pine Street

This Art Deco landmark-turned-luxury rental was erected between 1930 and 1932, and its design is similar to many of the skyscrapers built at the time: it has a wide base and a narrow tower with setbacks rising as it gets higher. Those setbacks were integrated as private terraces into the design of the apartments at 70 Pine, as the building is now known.

The Walker Tower

Via StreetEasy
Architect Ralph Walker designed nearly all of his most notable buildings—100 Barclay, the Western Union Building at 60 Hudson Street, and the like—post-rezoning, but it's the Walker Tower on West 18th Street that uses setbacks to the greatest effect. It was built in 1929 as a telecommunications structure, and though it's extremely strong—concrete encases a steel frame—its setbacks are also quite elegant. It's now home to some of the city's most expensive real estate.
Via StreetEasy

Empire State Building

Courtesy Shutterstock.com
New York City's most iconic building is also one that was obviously influenced by the zoning resolution. The 1,250-foot building rises from a wide base (covering two acres total), with the tower above it becoming increasingly more narrow thanks to a series of setbacks. The whole thing culminates in the tower's two observation decks (on the 86th and 102nd floors), and its spindly antenna.
Courtesy Shutterstock.com

Chrysler Building

Raphe Evanoff/Curbed Flickr Pool
Completed a year before the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building is one of the most stunning examples of how the zoning resolution influenced Art Deco architecture. The building's setbacks are accented by ornamentation on various levels (replica Chrysler hubcaps, eagles), and the tower culminates in its gorgeous, sunburst-patterned crown.
Raphe Evanoff/Curbed Flickr Pool

American Radiator Building

Daniel M. Silva / shutterstock.com
Like the Chrysler Building, the setbacks of the American Radiator Building (now home to the Bryant Park Hotel) are accented with ornamentation—in this case, gold trim, which sets off the black brick that the rest of the tower is clad in. The building opened in 1924, just eight years after the zoning restriction was adopted.
Daniel M. Silva / shutterstock.com

Fred F. French Building

Chris Sampson/Wikimedia Commons
The 38-story Fred F. French building was the tallest structure along Fifth Avenue when it was completed in 1927. The office building, developed by Tudor City builder Frederick Fillmore French, underwent a restoration in the 1990s and was soon after added to the National Register of Historic Places. The 429-foot skyscraper is built in the Art Deco style and includes some glorious mosaic work at its crown.
Chris Sampson/Wikimedia Commons

30 Rockefeller Plaza

One of the tallest buildings of its time and still one of the city's skyline icons, 30 Rockefeller Plaza is a poster child for the 1916 zoning mandate. Completed in 1933, the Art Deco skyscraper was home to RCA through 1988 before GE took its place (The electronics company traded the building to Comcast just last year, marking the fall of its iconic signage.) Raymond Hood designed the building at the behest of the Rockefeller Family, whose name still clings to the Midtown plaza.

Seagram Building

Photo by Max Touhey
Not only was this building's design influenced by the 1916 zoning resolution, it would go on to inspire the 1961 changes to New York's zoning law, which made the current crop of modern skyscrapers possible. Mies van der Rohe got around the stepped-back look of previous towers by having the building itself occupy only 25 percent of the lot—as Andrew Dolkart notes, "in the zoning law you could build a tower of any height on 25 percent of your lot—thus the slender tower on the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, and thus the slabs with no setbacks on the Seagram Building and on Lever House."
Photo by Max Touhey

One Hanson Place / Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower

Until recently, this distinctive tower was one of relatively few skyscrapers in Brooklyn, and because it was built in 1929, it has a similar stepped facade as other tall towers from the same period in Manhattan. Once the HQ of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, it's now home to—what else?—luxury apartments.

120 Wall Street

Wikimedia Commons
One of the city's only high-rise buildings on the East River until the 1970's construction boom, 120 Wall Street was constructed in 1930 as the corporate home of the American Sugar Refining Company. The 399-foot building's setbacks begin on the sixteenth floor, giving it that distinct wedding cake shape that's so notably a effect of the 1916 zoning code.
Wikimedia Commons

The Crown Building

According to Columbia University architecture professor Andrew S. Dolkart, the Crown Building—originally known as the Heckscher Building—was one of the earliest structures to take the 1916 zoning into account. But unlike the Chrysler or Empire State Buildings, its use of setbacks wasn't exactly subtle; Dolkart describes it as "a series of boxes piled one on top of another, with a fancy crown on the top," which isn't off base.