Raised high on a suspended platform, Elisha Otis summoned an axe and, to the horror of the crowd at the 1854 New York World's Fair, ordered that it was brought down on the rope holding the platform up.
The platform shuddered, dropped a few inches and stopped. The Otis elevator safety brake suddenly made it possible to carry people hundreds of metres in a lift without the fear of plummeting to their doom.
No longer having to puff up flights of stairs also ushered in an age of structures many stories tall. And nowhere embraced the idea of the skyscraper more than New York City and the US.
By 1890, the 94-metre New York World Building was declared the tallest in the city, with some people claiming it was the tallest in the world. As the decades went by, skyscrapers rose ever higher and the records tumbled.
Manhattan's Woolworth Building topped 242 metres and opened in 1913. The 319-metre Chrysler Building held the title of world's tallest building until 1931, when it was upstaged by the Empire State Building at 381 metres tall.
The Empire State Building was unchallenged until 1971, with the completion of the first 417-metre World Trade Centre tower.
Two years later, the title moved to Chicago and the 442-metre Sears Tower. The completion of Kuala Lumpur's 451.9-metre Petronas Towers in 1998 meant the world's tallest building was outside the US for the first time in 110 years. It may never return.
Still, North America remains indelibly associated with skyscrapers, with the US home to the 10 tallest buildings on the continent.
About a dozen of the world's 100 tallest buildings are also in North America.
That includes One World Trade Centre, built on the site of the destroyed World Trade Centre. It stands at 541.3 metres or, more significant to Americans, 1,776 feet, a reference to the year the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Here are the top 10 tallest buildings in North America:
- One World Trade Centre, New York, 541 metres
- Willis Tower, Chicago, 442 metres
- One Vanderbuilt, New York, 427 metres
- 432 Park Avenue, New York, 425 metres
- Trump International Hotel and Tower, Chicago, 423 metres
- Hudson Yards, New York, 387 metres
- Empire State Building, New York, 381m
- Bank of America Tower, New York, 365 metres
- Aon Centre, Chicago, 346 metres
- 875 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, 343 metres
1. One World Trade Centre, New York
Height: 541 metres
Rising literally from the ashes of the World Trade Centre, this is North America’s tallest building and the only one to make it into the global top ten. A fierce debate raged over what would replace the twin towers destroyed on September 11, 2001, and this patriotic structure at 1776 feet was the eventual winner.
2. Willis Tower, Chicago
Height: 442 metres
Until 2009, this was the Sears Tower, and the last building in America to hold the title of world’s tallest. Completed in 1973 it is now the 23rd tallest in the world. The main tenant is American Airlines.
3. One Vanderbuilt, New York
Height: 427 metres
Opened for business only last month, this stands next to the famous Grand Central Station in Manhattan. Completion was delayed for a month by Covid-19, with New York’s latest landmark including an observation deck and restaurant by top chef Daniel Boulud.
4. 432 Park Avenue, New York
Height: 425 metres
A residential building on what is sometimes called “billionaires’ row”, and with prices of its 125 condominiums to match its height. The floor space is actually taller than One World Trade Centre. Complete with a private restaurant for residents, it was completed in December 2015.
5. Trump International Hotel and Tower, Chicago
Height: 423 metres
It was inevitable that any top ten list would eventually see the president of the United States muscle his way in. Construction was overseen by Bill Rancic, his prize for winning the first series of The Apprentice in 2004.
6. Hudson Yards, New York
Height: 387 metres
Opened in 2019 on the site of a subway train storage facility, New York’s fourth tallest building also includes the second highest observation deck in the western hemisphere after Toronto’s 553m CN Tower, which is classified as a tower rather than a building.
7. Empire State Building, New York
It may no longer be the tallest building in the world, or even in New York, but the old lady is still a class act. Completed at breathtaking speed in barely a year by 1931, this American icon is instantly recognisable everywhere. It has featured in dozens of films, including Sleepless in Seattle, Independence Day, and of course, that incident with the giant gorilla.
8. Bank of America Tower, New York
Height: 365 metres
So environmentally friendly that it includes bee hives on its rooftop and rainwater collection, this is also one of New York’s most valuable office buildings and was completed in 2009.
9. Aon Centre, Chicago
Height: 346 metres
Back in 1973 this was once the world’s tallest marble clad building until a rethink caused by a huge slab falling off. Eventually re-clad in the 1990s at a cost of around US$80, it was originally named after Standard Oil until it was bought by the Aon Corporation in 1999.
10. 875 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago
Height: 343 metres
Formally the John Hancock Building, back in 1968 this was the second tallest building in the world. A major tourist attraction with an open air sky deck and a 95th floor restaurant, it will soon lose its American top ten place with the opening of Chicago’s 365m Vista Tower, incidentally the world's tallest building designed by a woman, Jeanne Gang.
A version of this article was first published on October 13, 2020