The best books about the New York City skyline

Who am I?

If you told me as a kid, growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, that I would someday spend nearly all my working hours reading and writing about skyscrapers and skylines, I would have thought you were nuts. But somehow, in my twenties, as I spent more time in New York City, I came to feel a deep connection with the metropolis. Its skyscrapers and skyline speak to its history as a city of strivers. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to merge my personal passions with my professional life as an economist. My recommended books are ones that excited me in my journey to understand better the city that I love.

I wrote...

Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan's Skyscrapers

By Jason M. Barr,

Book cover of Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan's Skyscrapers

What is my book about?

The Manhattan skyline is one of the great wonders of the modern world. But how and why did it form? Much has been written about the city’s architecture and its general history, but little work has explored the economic forces that created the skyline. This book chronicles the economic history of the Manhattan skyline. The story begins at the literal beginning with a tour of Manhattan’s natural history to see how geological conditions did—and did not—shape the skyline. From there, the book traces the rise of the island’s skyscrapers. In the process, the book debunks some widely held misconceptions about the city’s history. 

The books I picked & why

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Rise of the New York Skyscraper: 1865-1913

By Sarah Bradford Landau, Carl W. Condit,

Book cover of Rise of the New York Skyscraper: 1865-1913

Why this book?

This book is an amazingly detailed chronicle of the history of New York architecture and engineering that led to the birth and growth of the New York skyline. Carl Condit was one of the 20th century’s best scholars on the history of building technology, architecture, and transportation. Landau and Condit have deep-dived into archives and historical documents to uncover how the first skyscrapers were built.


Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago

By Carol Willis,

Book cover of Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago

Why this book?

A great account of the interaction between economics and architecture in the rise of the New York and Chicago skylines. Willis is the founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York City. This book was one of the first that I read as I started to do research on the economics of skyscrapers. I was fascinated by Willis' account. Arguably, this book, more than any other, helped to define my 15 years of research on the topic.


Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

By Eric W. Sanderson, Markley Boyer (illustrator),

Book cover of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

Why this book?

This natural history of Manhattan is about the natural “skyline”—the flora and geography that was converted from a natural wonder to the world’s most amazing city. Sanderson’s re-creation of Manhattan before it was Manhattan is a tour de force. While the book is not directly about the Manhattan skyline, a deep understanding of Manhattan’s geography and natural environment before European settlement is actually crucial to understanding how the skyline rose in the 20th century.


Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City

By Neal Bascomb,

Book cover of Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City

Why this book?

In about one year’s time, from 1930 to 1931, three buildings—the Bank of Manhattan, The Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building—in rapid succession claimed the prize of “world’s tallest.” This book is a great journalist account of the personalities behind the three-way race at the peak of the Roaring Twenties. We get to see the inside story of the developers, the architects, and the builders. 


The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

By Robert A. Caro,

Book cover of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Why this book?

Arguably, no single person has shaped the built environment of New York City as much as Robert Moses. To some, he was an evil dictator imposing his will on the urban fabric; while to others, he was the man who got things done. In his four-decade career, Moses oversaw the buildings of beaches, parks, highways, bridges, tunnels, public housing, slum clearance projects, and World Fairs. Caro’s work is a detailed chronicle of Moses’ life and projects. Five decades later, one can quibble with Caro’s conclusions, but it remains a jaw-dropping tome about how Moses reshaped New York, for good and for bad.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in New York City, New York State, and Washington D.C.?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about New York City, New York State, and Washington D.C..

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