The complicated racial history of the American skyscraper

Assoc. Prof. Adrienne Brown explores the radical shift skyscrapers represented

When the first skyscrapers soared into existence in the 1880s, Americans were fascinated by the new buildings on the block. Not everyone liked them, or believed the trend would last, but the towering structures—popularized in Chicago and New York, and exported worldwide—demanded attention. They changed the everyday lives of metropolitans, interrupting familiar skylines and packing bodies into the city more densely than ever before.

Even people living outside urban centers couldn’t escape the “mortared Himalayas,” as one writer dubbed them. Skyscrapers were ubiquitous in newspaper articles, cartoons and photographs. Poets, including Carl Sandburg, wrote odes to them, and filmmakers cast them in starring roles. The silent-era classic “Safety Last!” (1923) features a set of death-defying skyscraper stunts. In one famous shot, actor and filmmaker Harold Lloyd dangles from a building’s edge clutching only the hands of a clock. 

But despite their omnipresence in late 19th and early 20th century American life, there was one place where skyscrapers were hard to find: the novel. 

Adrienne Brown was a graduate student at Princeton University when she first noticed the skyscraper’s curious absence from canonical novels about American cities. Skyscrapers got an occasional line or two—in “The Great Gatsby” (1925), for instance, they are likened to “white heaps and sugar lumps”—but were otherwise peripheral and unimportant to the story.

This indifference surprised Brown, now the director of undergraduate studies and an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at UChicago. The skyscraper got fanfare “in almost every other cultural sphere. … There are plays written about it, there’s poetry about it, but the novel as a form is not that drawn to it.” Was it really not there, she wondered, or was she just looking in the wrong places?

Answering that question led Brown to the pulpy edges of American literature. In dime novels, science fiction, romances, and so-called weird fiction, skyscrapers abounded. The more time she spent with these fantastical tales, as well as architectural writing and reportage from the era, Brown began to see how enmeshed their representations of the buildings were with post-Reconstruction racial anxiety in America. Those entanglements are the subject of her book “The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Skyscrapers didn’t just change city skylines. Brown argues that they also demanded people develop new ways of seeing and relating to others. And those new ways of seeing emerged at a historical moment when race was in flux as Americans debated how, precisely, to conceptualize race and make racial identifications. In “The Black Skyscraper” Brown writes that “the early skyscraper threatened to reveal the ‘nothingness’ of race … precisely when the nation most desired to assert and extend the meaningfulness of race.”

A new architectural reality

Brown grew up in suburban Maryland. Because of legal restrictions on the height of buildings, there are few skyscrapers in the nearest big city, Washington, DC. She doesn’t remember the first real skyscraper she saw. “No one was more surprised than me when the skyscraper ended up being at the center of [my] book,” she said

But she was always fascinated by architecture and how we relate to it. (Any aspirations of being an architect herself were scuttled by a lack of depth perception and being overall “very bad spatially.”) As a University of Maryland undergraduate, she wrote her senior thesis on literature about the suburbs. 

The idea of getting a PhD wasn’t on her radar. But a professor encouraged her to apply to graduate school, and she settled on Princeton, home to several scholars working on the intersection of architecture and literature, and strong programs in pure architecture and American studies. That’s when she began reading and writing about the skyscraper, which became the subject of her dissertation. 

When she joined the UChicago faculty in 2011, Brown began the work of expanding her dissertation—which focused more narrowly on the skyscraper’s absence in early 20th century novels—into “The Black Skyscraper.” The buildings’ relationship to race grew from one chapter into the book’s primary focus as she noticed that “this question about the life of race, whether race could remain a viable category that you could read from the outside, was constantly shadowing the skyscraper.” 

One challenge of writing the book was helping modern-day readers understand how radical a shift skyscrapers represented. The ability to perceive the world from above is something we take for granted today. We fly in airplanes; we own drones; we’ve seen the earth from space. But life in the 19th century was smaller in scale. Suddenly urban citizens had to adapt their bodies to a new architectural reality. 

“You do find these stories in the ’10s and ’20s of people from Iowa arriving to New York and Chicago for the first time and having to crane their necks,” says Brown. “Their muscles hurt from having to look up all the time.” 

That wasn’t the only adjustment skyscrapers necessitated. “People looked drastically different depending on where one stood in and around these tall structures,” Brown wrote in a 2017 blog post. From the top of a skyscraper, everyone became “an ant-like speck.” On the jam-packed streets below, faces were abstract and hard to see. In the new world created by the skyscraper, bodies took many forms: they looked one way from up close, another from on high, another from within a crowd.

This was a threatening shift in an era when lawmakers were trying to decide what made a person black or white, Brown contends. The one-drop rule, which stated that any amount of black ancestry made someone black, became law in many Southern states but had obvious limitations. In urban areas, you might not know your neighbor’s name, let alone their genealogical background.

In the North and the West, where migrants were plentiful but family history was scarce, appearance became the standard by default. You were black or white or Asian because you looked that way. In the 1920s the Supreme Court upheld this practice, arguing that race was “a matter of familiar observation and knowledge” that “the common man” could interpret.

But it was clear from Brown’s research for The Black Skyscraper that writers in the early 20th century were beginning to see how fragile a criterion appearance offered. White Americans wrote fearfully about the dangers of black Americans “passing” and intermarrying. Black writers grappled with the practice too, in novels such as Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), about a black woman who has concealed her racial identity to marry a white man.

Much of Larsen’s novel takes place in and around skyscrapers—a choice that, Brown argues, serves to highlight the various ways city life complicated the act of racial perception. Through the tragic death of Passing’s protagonist, Larsen ultimately shows that the growing difficulty in pinning down a person’s race didn’t make the question go away. If anything, the desire to make racial determinations got stronger.

—Read the rest of the story on the UChicago Magazine site