• Select images from Chris Hytha and Mark Houser's Highrises Collection are published in the book Highrises Art Deco: 100 Spectacular Skyscrapers from the Roaring ’20s to the Great Depression. - photo by Chris Hytha

Photography by Chris Hytha
Text by Mark Houser

As he was creating his collection of vivid, drone-photographed portraits that zoom in on nearly 200 historic skyscrapers across America, Chris Hytha found inspiration in the craftsmanship of the original builders. “I think there’s an underappreciated value in human-scale details even in places that humans don’t inhabit,” says Hytha, a Philadelphia artist and graduate of the architecture program at Drexel University. “You kind of expect to see fine detail in places where you can go up to it and touch it and see it close up. But having it almost out of sight, high above the street, you could argue it’s wasteful or unnecessary. But it makes the buildings more human; you can see the bricklayer or mason working on that detail and bringing it to life.”

Hytha hopes to stir more appreciation for structures that radically altered our skylines—not only in cities like New York and Chicago but across America—by showing them from a new perspective not visible from the sidewalk. For the last two years, he and I have been working on the Highrises Collection, an art and history project combining Hytha’s unique images with my own research and writing about the buildings and the people behind them. Together we have traveled to more than sixty cities from coast to coast building this collection, which can be viewed both online and in print in the book Highrises Art Deco: 100 Spectacular Skyscrapers from the Roaring ’20s to the Great Depression.

The lens of Hytha’s drone camera reveals ornamentation most passersby might never notice. Take the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, one of sixteen Texas skyscrapers in the collection. Besides the prominent A’s in the wrought bronze window grills honoring the building’s namesake, St. Louis brewer Adolphus Busch, the repeated initials E.F. in the four tall sculptural panels near the roof are a nod to the project manager, Edward Faust, who was Busch’s son-in-law.

Hytha’s compositions are not typical photographs. Instead, he shoots an image at each floor, stitches all the images together into a high-resolution composite scan, then cuts the picture of the building out and superimposes it onto a background shot from the same location. This process gives the highrises a flattened appearance similar to orthographic elevation drawings. Shooting at sunrise or sunset captures skies that are often hazy, overcast, or dark, allowing the building to pop off the screen or page, with enhanced shadows and dramatic contrast in the spirit of the illustration work of Hugh Ferriss.

One of the collection’s most stark renderings is that of Alfred Finn and Kenneth Franzheim’s Gulf Building (though it is no longer known by that name, which has been messily erased from the stone above its entrance). Against gathering storm clouds, the Houston building’s outline recalls the visionary design by Eliel Saarinen that took second place in the international competition for a new headquarters for the Chicago Tribune—a design that was never realized but became a Platonic ideal of the Art Deco skyscraper.

Not all the images in the Highrises Collection are so ominous. Hytha enjoys experimenting, and the adjustments and tinkering to set a desired mood can yield fortuitous results, such as the Longhorn burnt orange sky that frames his University of Texas Tower. “Because of my architectural background, which often [involves] imagining new worlds, new places, and new buildings, I take a similar approach to photography,” he says. “It’s not just documentation, it’s more about the feeling and the personality of a building and the feeling of an image.” 

To document the history of the highrises, I dug into newspaper archives and other contemporary accounts to bring the buildings into clearer focus, paralleling Hytha’s high-res exploration of their facades. For example, to me, Houston’s noble Niels Esperson Building is made all the more memorable by the poignant fact that Esperson’s widow and business partner, Mellie, broke ground with the steam shovel herself.

Even the well-worn territory of Manhattan and Chicago skyscrapers yields new surprises with the unique close-up approach. Phantasmagoric figures representing the “spirit of radio” atop the General Electric Building on Lexington Avenue may have been drawn up in a workshop a century ago, but they seem just as likely to be the creation of an AI program today. And Hytha reserves his highest praise for the Carbide & Carbon Building, a Chicago tower whose gilded spire is often likened to the foil of a champagne bottle top, though it can also be seen as an acetylene torch, which the building’s main tenant manufactured. “You can see in the image that it really does shimmer,” he says. “It’s such a bold choice for the designers and the people who commissioned it. It’s almost reminiscent of jewelry design.” 

Not only is the Carbide & Carbon building—now the Pendry Hotel—Hytha’s choice for the cover image of Highrises Art Deco, it also inspired the artist to construct a three-foot wooden scale model of the highrise, complete with 3D-printed details. The trial-and-error process was something of a return to his model-building projects in architecture school and gave him a new appreciation for the possibilities modern technology can bring. 

“With modern machines and CNC routing and all that we’ve accomplished technologically, I don’t think there’s a reason we can’t have ornamentation for its own sake on buildings again, and I think we can do it affordably,” says Hytha. “In architecture school, it was very unpopular to have ornament that was not inherent to the function of a building. I think that mindset needs to change. I don’t know why we can’t have beautiful, intricate details on our facades just for the sake of showing artisanal care and craft.”

University of Texas Tower (#106)

Address 110 Inner Campus Dr.
Opened 1937
Height 307′
AKA Main Building and Tower
Style Spanish Renaissance
Architect Paul Cret

A forest of new skyscrapers has transformed the Texas capital in the last decade. But Austin’s original highrise still holds a special place in the hearts of University of Texas alumni.

After vast reserves of oil were discovered on university-owned land, the board of regents went on a campus building spree and commissioned Paul Cret, an acclaimed Philadelphia architect, to put together a master plan. In 1933, the school’s fiftieth anniversary, they announced they would tear down the original university building and replace it with a new Main Building and Tower.

The tower was for books, not people; it held the undergraduate library. Students looked up what they needed in the card catalog, and their requests were relayed to the closed stacks upstairs, where librarians—some wearing roller skates for maximum efficiency—collected the needed volumes and sent them down via dumbwaiter.

That convoluted system was replaced with a new library in 1964, and the tower was turned into offices. Two years later, a disturbed student and former marine used the observation deck as a sniper’s perch, massacring 14 people and wounding another 31 before police killed him.

Adolphus Hotel (#96)

Address 1321 Commerce St.
Opened 1912
Height 312′
Stories 20
Style Beaux-Arts
Architect Barnett, Haynes & Barnett

Opulently decorated in the style of Louis XIV, this highrise hostelry was paid for by the King of Beers. It is named after Adolphus Busch, who made Budweiser into America’s first mass-market pilsner. 

Busch came from vineyard country in Germany’s Rhine River valley and preferred wine to beer. Nevertheless, he ran a hops and barley supply business in St. Louis, where he went into partnership with brewery owner Eberhard Anheuser. Using pasteurization and refrigerated railroad cars, they shipped their bottles to distant distribution hubs including Dallas, where Busch acquired a luxurious hotel and soon planned an even better one.

Dallas officials were so eager for the project that they sold their city hall to the brewing magnate so he could have its choice downtown parcel. Overseeing the construction was Edward Faust, who also happened to be the boss’s son-in-law. Faust was only following the old man’s strategy—Busch had married Anheuser’s daughter Lilly, and his brother Ulrich had married her sister. The architects also came from St. Louis, and so did the King of Beers chandelier. It illuminated the Anheuser-Busch display at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and now hangs in the main lobby.

Houston City Hall (#108)

Address 901 Bagby St.
Opened 1939
Height 175’
Stories 10
Style Art Deco
Architect Joseph Finger

The man who designed this highrise had to overcome a skeptical mayor who wanted the city hall to match the Spanish Renaissance look of the city library next door. Joseph Finger, an Austrian immigrant, won the argument by insisting that the modern architecture of his adopted land was “far above that of other countries.”

Mayor Richard Fonville preferred to give the job to Albert Finn, who had been selected for the project years earlier before it stalled in the poor economy. In the meantime, Finn had designed the San Jacinto Monument, a towering masonry column for the 1936 centennial commemorating Texas independence. But the mayor failed to persuade the city council.

Simple and boxy in its contours, Houston’s fourth city hall depends greatly for its visual interest on a series of friezes carved into the limestone by Texas sculptor Herring Coe, whose work also textures the Art Deco courthouse in Beaumont. Ethereal pastel figures in the lobby ceiling mural represent industry, culture, law, and government. Flanked by sculpted bobcats, minimalist clocks at the top, one on each side, tick the minutes and hours. The old city hall clock is preserved in a park across town.

Mercantile Bank Building (#99)

Address 1800 Main St.
Opened 1943
Height 523′
AKA The Merc
Style International
Architect Walter Ahlschlager

The only major skyscraper built in America while it fought in World War II, this highrise was erected from steel beams that arrived on site before the attack on Pearl Harbor shifted output to tanks and warships. Conceived by the same architect who produced the lavish Roxy Theatre in New York, this loftier but more subdued design got a frisky update of its original spire and clock in a 1958 remodeling.

Robert Thornton ran an unsuccessful bookstore and mortgage lending shop before he and two partners launched a bank in 1916 that became Mercantile National. Thornton spent three decades as its president and two more as chairman, then was elected to four two-year terms as Dallas mayor. 

He had first come to the city as an eight-year-old boy to attend the state fair; years later he led lobbyists who secured the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition for Dallas over bids from Houston and San Antonio. The fairgrounds were remade as a showcase of progress, and Thornton subsequently insisted his bank headquarters also emphasize ultramodern architecture and art. A successor bank called MCorp failed in 1989, and the property stood vacant until it was renovated into luxury apartments.

Texas & Pacific Railway Terminal (#100)
Fort Worth

Address 221 W. Lancaster Ave.
Opened 1931
Height 191′
Stories 12
Style Art Deco
Architect Wyatt Hedrick

Railroads were essential to the place called Cowtown, where cattle drivers once rode the Chisholm Trail to get their herds to trains in distant Kansas. So when this highrise opened, grateful officials named the busy road it stands on after John Lancaster, president of the Texas & Pacific.

The railroad’s name reveals the ambition of its founders, but the Texas & Pacific never managed to lay tracks to San Diego as planned. It ran out of money and stalled in Fort Worth for several years until robber baron Jay Gould bought the line and extended it to the state’s western tip to meet the Southern Pacific.

Lancaster succeeded Gould’s son as president in 1916 after a bankruptcy reorganization. At the banquet for the opening of this passenger terminal and office complex, a spiraling economy and slumping ridership led the executive to speak bluntly. “If we do not fill up that office building,” he said, “at least it can be seen from a long ways off.”

Of the many fine Art Deco works by Wyatt Hedrick in Fort Worth, this stands out for its bold massing and rich decor. The tower offices have been converted to condominiums, and the three-story passenger waiting room is now a stunning event venue.

Gulf Building (#109)

Address 712 Main St.
Opened 1929
Height 430′
AKA JPMorgan Chase Building
Style Art Deco
Architect Finn & Franzheim

This is the most impressive of dozens of highrises that once comprised the real estate empire of Jesse Jones. The developer, banker, and publisher was not only the most powerful businessman in Houston, but also one of the most influential people in Washington, D.C.

Jones built many of Houston’s first skyscrapers, including one in 1916 for Gulf Oil and the National Bank of Commerce that they eventually outgrew, necessitating this replacement.

Gulf relocated to Houston after the city got ocean access by dredging a shipping channel through the bayou, a project Jones led efforts to finance. A major figure in the Democratic party, he headed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation during the Great Depression, rescuing banks and funding New Deal projects, and in 1940 he was named secretary of commerce.

Architects Alfred Finn and Kenneth Franzheim collaborated on this highrise, which bears uncanny resemblance to Eliel Saarinen’s influential runner-up in the 1922 Tribune Tower contest. A full-length painting of Jones hangs in the main banking hall, where limestone walls set off a brilliant patterned metallic ceiling three stories high.

Niels Esperson Building (#110)

Address 808 Travis St.
Opened 1927
Height 410′
Stories 28
Style Renaissance
Architect John Eberson

A woman’s tribute to the husband she loved, this highrise commemorates a Danish immigrant who failed twice to get rich discovering gold but ultimately succeeded with oil.

Niels Esperson was a real estate agent in Oklahoma whose unsuccessful California mining days were behind him when he met Mellie Keenan, a Kansas girl half his age. Married in 1893, the newlyweds lit out for a gold rush in Colorado but had no luck; Niels even got tuberculosis. While recuperating, he studied petroleum exploration and finally struck it rich wildcatting at Humble Oilfield near Houston.

Niels died unexpectedly in 1922 while the couple were in Chicago to meet an architect drawing up a cinema for them. Mellie saw that project through then commissioned the architect to design this skyscraper across the street in a matching Italian style. From her 25th-floor offices, where she invited associates to join her for tea on the terrace, Esperson remained active in oil and her other diverse business interests for many years. Eventually she commissioned a second skyscraper next door and named it after herself. By then she had gone blind, so Niels never saw his building, and Mellie never saw hers.

Smith-Young Tower (#103)
San Antonio

Address 310 S. St. Mary’s St.
Opened 1929
Height 404′
AKA Tower Life Building
Style Gothic, Art Deco
Architect Atlee & Robert Ayres

Guides on the San Antonio River tour boats puttering past this highrise occasionally say its owner jumped off the roof to end it all. While not accurate in the particulars—Jim Smith shot himself in his Dallas apartment—it does reflect the shocking demise of a skyscraper speculator ruined by the Great Depression.

Smith and his older brother, Albert, were enterprising farm boys who ran a stable and then sold cars before starting up a successful paving business. Rolling the proceeds into real estate development with their lawyer, Jim Young, they erected this eponymous Gothic office tower with its cathedral vaulted marble lobby. Designed by a local father-and-son architect duo, it was the tallest building in town for decades, offering unobstructed sight lines to its plentiful gargoyles.

After the namesakes lost their building in the crash, it was redubbed Transit Tower for a bus company that moved in. The Army also leased space; Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had an office here before shipping out for World War II and the White House. In 1961 an insurance company rebranded both itself and the building as Tower Life, and that name has stuck since.

General Electric Building (#139)
New York, NY

Address 570 Lexington Ave.
Opened 1931
Height 643′
Stories 50
Style Art Deco
Architect Cross & Cross

Waves pulse from phantasmagoric figures representing the “spirit of radio” on the crown of this otherworldly highrise. It was originally commissioned by the Radio Corporation of America, but RCA transferred the still-unfinished building to its parent company after being wooed away to a planned development nearby called Radio City.

General Electric boss Owen Young created RCA after World War I, when the navy urged him to buy the American subsidiary of Marconi, a British firm dominating wireless transmission. The admirals had military concerns since the technology was used chiefly for ship-to-shore communications. But the new company rapidly swung its core business to consumer radios and broadcasting, launching the NBC network.

Young was an attorney whom GE hired as its counsel in 1912 after he successfully represented utilities suing it. As chairman twenty years later, he was back in court, forced to sell RCA to settle a federal antitrust action. The newly independent radio company moved into 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which for fifty-five years was called the RCA Building—the name this highrise was meant to carry.

Carbide & Carbon Building (#157)
Chicago, IL

Address 230 N. Michigan Ave.
Opened 1929
Height 503′
Stories 38
Style Art Deco
Architect Burnham Brothers

The golden spire rising from this earthy green tower often invites comparisons to a champagne bottle. It also resembles the glaring flame of an acetylene torch, an essential tool for welding steel for skyscrapers—and also the product line manufactured by the original anchor tenant of this highrise.

Union Carbide and Carbon, a New York-based chemicals conglomerate, owned several companies involved in acetylene, which burns brighter and hotter than other gases. Oxweld Acetylene, a Chicago subsidiary, produced industrial welding and cutting tools fueled by acetylene and compressed oxygen. The company took ten floors initially and eventually purchased the building, but its parent got the naming rights.

The designers took over the firm founded by their late father, Daniel Burnham, the famous Chicago architect whose scores of early highrise designs include the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. He might well have been pleased with his sons’ imaginative creation, which was the first building in Chicago to use colored terra-cotta cladding. It was converted into a hotel in 2004, and its lofty entryway and marble elevator lobby are extensively restored.

Penobscot Building (#93)
Detroit, MI

Address 645 Griswold St.
Opened 1928
Height 654′
Stories 47
Style Art Deco
Architect Wirt Rowland

This highrise is the last and tallest of three interconnected Penobscot Buildings that demonstrate the rapid advance of early skyscraper technology as well as a ballooning family fortune. All are named for the Maine river where Simon Murphy first learned the lumber trade before moving to Detroit in 1866 to harvest the vast Michigan pine forests.

Murphy’s timberlands would stretch to Wisconsin and eventually the West Coast, his assets multiplying with iron ore mineral rights under the trees and oil beneath a southern California ranch. His son, William, became the lead investor and financial manager of Henry Ford’s first and second car companies in 1899 and 1901, and when that contentious partnership dissolved, the younger Murphy founded Cadillac. Both men wound up rich enough for hard feelings to dissipate, and the first tenant to move into the new Penobscot was Ford’s consumer finance division.

The building’s main banking hall initially housed the Guardian Group, a local bank and trust company that merged in 1929 with a competitor opening its own Wirt Rowland-designed Art Deco skyscraper a block away. The illuminated orb at the Penobscot’s pinnacle—the knob on the ‘Nob—was the highest point in Detroit for nearly fifty years.

Humboldt Savings Bank Building (#78)
San Francisco, CA

Address 785 Market St.
Opened 1907
Height 244′
Stories 19
Style Beaux-Arts
Architect Meyer & O’Brien

Only the foundations of this Beaux-Arts beauty had been laid when the 1906 earthquake struck, so it became the city’s first post-disaster skyscraper. Its architects revised their blueprints in the aftermath to add new safety features—reinforced concrete, water standpipes, and automatic doors to seal the elevator shafts from fire—while the bank commissioned six more stories in the slab behind the tower to take advantage of inflated demand for office space.

George Luchsinger, Humboldt’s president during the project, was the son of one of the founders, a Swiss-born furniture maker who built a fortune manufacturing wooden rocker boxes that prospectors used to sift gold from gravel. Sadly, leading his father’s institution did not allay the executive’s severe depression, and Luchsinger committed suicide in 1914 with his basement gas stove. Depositors panicked until the state bank examiner reassured them that their savings were secure, and Humboldt’s attorney stepped in at the helm.

The attractive dome complemented a more famous one that used to top the Spreckels Building at the other end of the block. The rich terracotta molding of the Humboldt entryway is well preserved—as is its former banking hall, now a clothing store.

Explore the full Highrises Collection, sortable by region, city, style, decade of construction, and more, at HighrisesCollection.com. Select images are also published in the new coffee table book Highrises Art Deco: 100 Spectacular Skyscrapers from the Roaring ’20s to the Great Depression.

Chris Hytha is a designer and visual artist with a passion for photography and a degree in architecture from Drexel University. For the past decade his work has centered around the built environment, with an emphasis on digital editing.

Mark Houser is a professional speaker, freelance journalist, and researcher and writer for the Highrises Collection. He is also the author of MultiStories: 55 Antique Skyscrapers & the Business Tycoons Who Built Them and gives public skyscraper tours in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

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