Learn about Life in the 1920s

Engineers in 1926 debate the length of life of a Skyscraper

SKY-SCRAPERS REACH SENILITY EARLY, according to an estimate said to have been made by various experts at a recent convention of the American Institute of Steel Construction, which places their expectation of useful life at only twenty-seyen years from birth. This, says the New York Evening Post, cuts down by three years an estimate, made earlier this year by Harvey W. Corbett, former president of the American Institute of Architects. This paper goes on:

If the estimate of twenty-seven years holds good, the Woolworth and Equitable buildings, completed in 1915, would be outmoded and ready to be torn down by 1942, and the Flatiron Building in 1929. Prophets of destruction, however, so plentiful this year, have emphasized that their estimates are based on economic life and not structural life.

"'The physical life of a New York modem skyscraper,' said Frank W. Skinner, construction engineer, 'is practically limitless; they could last for hundreds of years.' He also made it clear that he believed the economic life of the towering structures of the city will last considerably longer than some of the estimates recently made. In his estimation the life-line of the buildings indicates a long and happy career for most of the sky-scrapers.

"'I believe that only an unlooked-for geographical change would outdate the present larger structures,' he said.

"Altho the twenty-seven-year life of the sky-scrapers was attributed to a speech made by Mr. Skinner at the steel men's convention, he declared that the estimate was not his own, as has been reported.

"'I have never made any prediction of the economic life of the New York structures,' he asserted, adding that the estimate was probably gleaned from quotations, in his speech, from other sources.

"But in addition to Mr. Corbett, who laid down a law of thirty years for the famous high buildings last June, numerous other individuals and organizations have snapt their fingers at the 'eternal' quality of such edifices as the Woolworth building.

"The 'dream of a greater New York in the future,' when eight-story buildings with causeways at various floors—a city in layers—means no distant future, according to the dreamers, among them two new companies formed last March by Robert M. Catts, millionaire real-estate operator.

"Planners of the city of the not-distant future, to which such buildings as the Woolworth structure will be mere stepping-stones, are inclined to believe that the thirty-year prophets are right.

"If so, the work of tearing down the minor edifices to make way for the eight-story structures may come within the lifetime of most inhabitants of Greater New York.

"Much fun seems to be promised in the sheer spectacle of taking apart such a building as the Woolworth. Nobody, could be found to predict just how this would be done. And meanwhile occupants were sitting tight.

"Anyway, none of the buildings are going to fall or crumble,' said Mr. Skinner. 'Since our convention—and the printing of the twenty-seven-year story—I have heard numerous rumors that people have the idea that the structural life of the skyscraper is short. My purpose at the convention was to prove why it is long. I think I established that corrosion, from rusting steel, is not to be feared.'"

Source: "The Literary Digest" December 18, 1926