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The “world’s tallest building” title has had its—wait for it—ups and downs

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: History of the world’s tallest buildings

What it’s about: Since 2009, the Burj Khalifa has been the tallest building in the world, towering over the competition at 2,722 feet. It’s part of a long history of buildings all over the world striving to be the tallest ever built.

Chrysler Building, you sneaky devil, you. (Photo: DEA/L. Romano via Getty Images)

Strangest fact: The Bank Of Manhattan Trust Building (now the Trump Building) was the tallest building in the world for only a month. The BMT and the Chrysler Building were under construction simultaneously, designed by architecture partners turned rivals, with both aiming to be the tallest. Both buildings revised blueprints to add extra height, but BMT finally won out in April 1930, with a design that topped out at 927 feet, beating the Woolworth Building (which had held the title since 1913) by 135 feet. But Chrysler’s designers had a trick up their sleeve: The 125-foot spire atop the building’s famous chrome top was assembled in secret, inside the crown of the building, and boosted Chrysler’s height to 1,046 feet, taller than not only BMT but also the Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world at the time. But Chrysler’s victory was also short-lived. By the time the spire was raised, the Empire State Building was already under construction.

Biggest controversy: There’s actually a lot of debate on what constitutes a tall building. For starters, there’s the building-vs.-structure debate; Toronto’s CN Tower (1,500 feet tall) and the massive Warsaw radio mast (2,120) don’t have separate floors, offices, or homes, and are therefore considered structures, not buildings. The 481-foot Great Pyramid Of Giza was the largest man-made structure for thousands of years, until Britain’s 520-foot Lincoln Cathedral was built in 1300.

While Lincoln Cathedral’s spire fell in 1647, the rest of the building still stands. John Ruskin called it “the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles.” (Photo: Public domain)

But cathedrals—which collectively owned the tallest-building title 1300 to 1900—present their own problems. While churches are buildings, much of their height is an unoccupied spire, and they’re often considered a separate category. (The issue became moot in 1890, when the New York World Building became the world’s tallest, church or otherwise.) Spires are also an issue for modern skyscrapers, as some consider the highest occupied floor the true top of a building, rather than a decorative spire or antenna, which are often used to pad a building’s height (see the battle between the Empire State Building, the original World Trade Center, and the Sears Tower in the 1970s, as each added higher antennae to claim the title).

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Some buildings fell from the top spot literally. The aforementioned Lincoln Cathedral was the world’s tallest building for a remarkable 249 years, but it lost the title to a shorter building when its spire collapsed in 1549. St. Mary’s Church in Straslund, Germany, assumed the title at 495 feet, but in 1647 the church burned down and was rebuilt with a domed roof that stood at only 341 feet. The title then went to France’s still-shorter Strasbourg Cathedral, which stands at 466 feet to this day and was surpassed by the Church Of St. Nicholas in Hamburg, which was taller by just 16 feet.


Also noteworthy: Wikipedia (and those in the tallest-bulding-determining game) also make a distinction between skyscrapers and ordinary buildings. While skyscrapers were named solely for their height, a skyscraper is considered any building with steel-frame construction. Early in the skyscraper era, there were still masonry buildings (which simply used thick walls on lower floors to hold up the higher floors) taller than skyscrapers.

Chicago’s Home Insurance Building was a staggering 12 stories tall. It was torn down in 1931.

There’s naturally a debate as to which is the first skyscraper, but credit is generally given to the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, which at 138 feet was much smaller than the cathedrals, but taller than most buildings that were actually occupied top to bottom. The last church spire to hold the title—Ulm Minster, in Ulm, Germany, was the first church taller than Lincoln Cathedral, and remains the world’s tallest church 126 years after its construction—was knocked off the top spot in 1908 by New York’s 612-foot Singer Building (demolished in 1968), which itself was surpassed the following year by the Met Life Tower (still a New York landmark), and New York’s skyscraper race was in full swing.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: This page is one of several overlapping lists of tallest buildings and structures, several of which are linked at the bottom of the page. It also links to a List of Egyptian pyramids, ranging from massive structures virtually untouched by the eons to crumbling ruins, to pyramids never finished, and even pyramids planned by the pharaohs but never built.


Further down the Wormhole: While Chicago had the first and last skyscraper to hold the tallest title, the tallest building in the world was in New York City from 1899 to 1974, and the city currently has eight buildings of 1,000 feet or more, with seven more under construction. However, NYC was not always the overpriced real-estate mecca it is today. During the city’s nadir in the 1970s, cheap rents invited an influx of artists, and the combination of cheap performance spaces and lack of formal music education in schools spawned hip-hop and punk within the span of a few years (a story for another day). Punk wasn’t limited to a sound, as its visual aesthetic was clearly defined by bands’ album covers. Punk album art was more likely than other genres to court controversy. Pending FCC approval, we’ll look at some controversial album art next week.

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