Old New York Before The Skyscrapers In 39 Vintage Photos

Published August 22, 2016
Updated May 6, 2020

These fascinating photos of old New York reveal what the city looked like before towering buildings dominated the skyline.

These days, one cannot think of New York City without envisioning the steely thicket of soaring buildings whose foundations dig deep into Manhattan soil. While inextricable from the idea and physical reality of New York City today, these skyscrapers compose a relatively meager part of the city’s nearly 400-year history.

Indeed, the New York City most of us recognize vis-a-vis its splintered skyline really began to develop over a short period of time.

From the early 1910s to the 1930s, New York City saw approximately 20 percent of its tallest buildings — including the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and the Woolworth Building, among others — enter construction. And with it, endless commentary on the physical appearance and meaning of the city that French architect Le Corbusier famously deemed a “beautiful disaster.”

Below, we look back at a New York City on the cusp of architectural transformation — just as planners and architects began looking high into the sky and saw not clouds but opportunity:

Gotham Fire House And Engine, East 3rd St. (now Ladder 9, Engine 33, 42 Great Jones Street), New York City, 1901
A firehouse and engine on E. 3rd St. in 1901.New York Historical Society

Six Unidentified Little Girls Seated On A Wall Street Stoop, New York City, August 18, 1904.
Six girls sit at a Wall St. stoop on August 18, 1904.New York Historical Society

5th Avenue   33rd Street 1900
Women stroll on Fifth Ave. at 33rd. St., 1909.New York Public Library

Battery Park
Battery Park.New York Public Library

People Gathered Outside The Free Public Baths At The Battery, New York City, 1890.
People gather outside the free public baths at the Battery, 1890.New York Historical Society

Crowd Watching Baseball Scores Being Posted On The Sun Building, New York City, 1914
Crowd watches baseball scores being posted on the New York City Sun Building in 1914.New York Historical Society

5th Avenue In 1909
Traffic at Fifth Ave. and 25th St., 1909.New York Public Library

Early 1900s New York City
Cyclists on Broadway, 1915.New York Historical Society

1st Ave 2nd Street
First Ave. at 2nd St.New York Public Library

Police Office And Suspender Peddler Talking In Front Of Pier 5, New York City, 1898.
A police officer speaks with a street peddler in front of Pier 5, 1898.New York Historical Society

11th 21 14
The 11th Ave. piers from 21st St. to 14th St.New York Public Library

Photos Of Old New York
Second Ave. and 122nd St.New York Public Library

MacDougal Alley, Greenwich Village, New York City, Undated (ca. 1890 1919).
MacDougal Alley in Greenwich Village, circa 1890-1919.New York Historical Society

42nd Street   12th Avenue 1896
Street cars at 42nd St. and 12th Ave., 1896.New York Public Library

2nd 35
Second Ave. at 35th St.New York Public Library

4th 23
Fourth Ave. and 23rd St.New York Public Library

Astor House In New York
Astor House at Broadway and Barclay St. circa 1895-1919.New York Historical Society

H:6.5 In. W:8.5 In.; Glass Negatives; Negatives (photographic)
Hotel Brevoort in 1895.New York Historical Society

The Original Washington Square Arch, New York City, 1889.
The original Washington Square arch, 1889.New York Historical Society

Arch
The Washington Square arch.New York Public Library

Broadway Before Flatiron
Broadway before the construction of the Flatiron Building.New York Historical Society

The Central Park Reservoir, New York City, Undated (ca. 1890 1919).
The Central Park reservoir, circa 1890-1919.New York Historical Society

Fifth 33rd
The corner of Fifth Ave. and 33rd St.New York Public Library

Rooklyn Bridge From The East River At 12th Street 1891
A view of the Brooklyn Bridge at 12th St., 1891.New York Historical Society

Crowd Reading Notices On The Closed Doors Of The Seventh National Bank Building, June 27, 190
Crowd reads notices on the closed doors of the Seventh National Bank Building on June 27, 1901.New York Historical Society

Curio Shop On 28th Street, Back Of 5th Avenue (?), New York City, 1913.
A curio shop on 28th St. and Fifth Ave., 1913.New York Historical Society

Corner Of Lexington Ave. And E. 82nd Or 84th Street1899
Corner of Lexington Ave. and E. 82nd St. or 84th St. in 1899.New York Historical Society

The Williamsburg Bridge Under Construction, New York City, April 27, 1902.
The Williamsburg Bridge under construction, April 27, 1902.New York Historical Society

Fifth 48th
Pedestrians on Fifth Ave. and 48th St.New York Public Library

Vintage New York Public Library
The New York Public Library.New York Public Library

Fifth 42 South
Fifth Ave. looking south from 42nd St, 1880.New York Public Library

Fifth 59th
A view of Central Park from Fifth Ave. and 59th St.New York Public Library

Fifth Ave Arch
A view of Fifth Ave. from the Washington Square arch.New York Public Library

Fifth Broadway 23
Fifth Ave., Broadway and 23rd St.New York Public Library

Fifth W53
A choir sings on the corner of Fifth Ave. and W. 53rd St.New York Public Library

Lower Manhattan Skyline Viewed From The South Street Piers, New York City, 1915.
A view of the Lower Manhattan skyline from the South Street piers. 1915.New York Historical Society

Madison Square Garden And Park, New York City, Undated (ca. 1890 1910).
Madison Square Garden and Park circa 1890-1910.New York Historical Society

The Flatiron Building (Fuller Building) Seen From Across Madison Square Park, Undated (ca. 1902 1919).
The Flatiron building seen across from Madison Square Park, circa 1902-1919.New York Historical Society

Three Unidentified Boys Playing On A Sidewalk, New York City, 1893.
Boys play on a city sidewalk, 1893.New York Historical Society

And if you enjoy seeing old New York before the age of skyscrapers, check out this restored video tour of New York City in 1911:


Want more old New York? Check out the city when the subway was the most dangerous place in the world, and when punk took over Lower Manhattan.

All That's Interesting
All That's Interesting is a Brooklyn-based digital publisher that seeks out the stories to illuminate the past, present, and future.