It’s a stretch, but New York City building ‘tallest’

Sorry Chicago, Willis antennas don’t count

The New York contingent said the spire had always been part of the plan to achieve the symbolic height of 1,776 feet.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
The New York contingent said the spire had always been part of the plan to achieve the symbolic height of 1,776 feet.

NEW YORK — For nearly 40 years, Chicagoans have been able to one-up New Yorkers on at least one measure: The City of the Big Shoulders had the tallest building in the United States.

But as of Tuesday, that crown is moving east. One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan has officially been ruled to be taller than the Willis Tower in Chicago. That judgment came from the primary arbiter of structural stature, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

New York’s tallest building was deemed taller even though it has six fewer floors and its roof is more than 100 feet lower than the top side of the Willis Tower, which was formerly known as the Sears Tower.


How can that be?

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It all depends on what the definition of an antenna is.

Both buildings have long masts poking skyward from their roofs. But those on the 1,451-foot Willis Tower are considered antennas, which the council does not count in calculating the height of a building.

The 408-foot long mast on 1 World Trade Center, on the other hand, is more than just a means of improving radio signals, its developers argued. They called it a spire and insisted it was a critical and permanent element of the architects’ overall design.

When 25 members of the council’s height committee met in Chicago on Friday, they heard the spire argument from the chief architect, David Childs of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and representatives of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which developed the trade center. The New York contingent said the spire had always been part of the plan to achieve the symbolic height of 1,776 feet.


The committee members unanimously agreed that the spire should be counted, said Timothy Johnson, the council’s chairman and a partner in NBBJ, a design firm.

“The building is in fact 1,776 feet,” Johnson said. “We don’t believe the spire will ever be removed.”

The Port Authority issued a joint statement with the architects and the Durst Organization, which is managing the building and recruiting tenants. “This iconic building represents the resilience of America, and today’s decision recognizes 1 World Trade Center’s rightful place in history,” the statement said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago was unmoved.

“If it looks like an antenna, acts like an antenna, then it is an antenna,” Emanuel said after the decision was announced. “At the Willis Tower, you have a panoramic view that is unmatched. You can’t get a view like that from an antenna.”


Emanuel’s tone reflects the pride Chicagoans take in their city’s architecture and its status as the home of the country’s first “skyscraper,” the 10-story Home Insurance Building.

Carol Willis, an architectural historian and founder of the Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan, said there were various ways to measure the size of a building beyond its height. “In the end,” Willis said, “buildings are about more than one dimension. It’s about height, floor plans, office space, location, and rent.”

She pointed out that the Empire State Building was about 200 feet taller than the Chrysler Building, and also had twice as much office space as the Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan Building at 40 Wall St. combined.

Walter Chrysler came up with a spire of his own to gain a similar edge in a rivalry in the late 1920s. To beat the 927-foot height of 40 Wall St., he secretly had a 125-foot spire assembled inside the crown of the Chrysler Building, boosting it to 1,046 feet.

The architects for 40 Wall St. countered that their building had the highest usable floor. And now Chicagoans can say the same about the Willis Tower.