The complete guide to high-rise America

Nowhere does skyscrapers like Manhattan - except Chicago. Jackie Hunter gets incredible views from the top in the US's loftiest cities
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The Independent Travel

In Chicago, one of the world's most architecturally important cities. The 110-storey Sears Tower at 233 South Wacker Drive (001 312 875 9696; www. the-skydeck .com) is 443m tall. It was completed in 1974, and for the next 23 years enjoyed the distinction of being the tallest building not only in the US, but in the entire world. It was superseded by Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers at 452m and then by Taiwan's Taipei 101 Tower, completed in 2004 and officially the world's tallest at 509m. However, the Sears Tower still boasts the world's highest occupied office floor on the 98th storey, at 436m.

Visitors to the Sears Tower pay an excellent-value $12 (£6.60) to take a pulse-quickening one-minute elevator ride up to floor 103, during which time they hear a short narration filled with facts about the building. The skydeck has pay-per-view telescopes and a multimedia history of Chicago, as well as those 360-degree views over the city and Lake Superior.

THE BEST CITY VIEW?

Surprisingly, no. At 344m, John Hancock Center at 875 North Michigan Ave (001 888 875 8439; www. hancock- observatory .com) is the city's third tallest. It was built in 1970 and for three years was Chicago's highest building, usurped by the 346m Aon Center (200 East Randolph St) which, a year later, was itself relegated to second tallest by the opening of the Sears Tower.

The John Hancock Center is located to the north of the city centre, and its 94th-floor observatory offers the most stunning aspects. (Admission is $9.50, suitably undercutting its taller rival, the Sears Tower.) The observatory offers detailed maps so that you can identify the buildings and landmarks you're looking at, and an unsurpassed skyline view through vast floor-to-ceiling windows. The panorama takes in the Loop, the financial district at Chicago's heart and the distinctive overground railway that encircles it. The tower is so close to the water that you can spot boats sailing far out on the lake. There are fun photo opportunities and an e-mail-postcard facility, both aimed at the "guess where I am?" type of tourist. If your nerves are up to it, try the Skywalk outdoor walkway and see for yourself why they call this the Windy City.

The Signature Room and the Signature Bar (001 312 787 7230) occupy the 95th and 96th floors. The prices match the elevated status, and the prospect of a sundowner at sunset at the Signature Bar is so popular that you will probably have to queue for the privilege. It opens at 5pm daily, and no, there isn't a happy hour - the bill is always pretty steep.

Far from being just a tourist attraction, the John Hancock Center teems with life all year round. At the base of the tower there's a post office; shops, cafés and bars take up the lower floors, and higher up this sturdy, tapering, glass-and-steel tower with its dark, X-shaped supports are flats and offices with astonishing views across the city where the skyscraper was born.

WHY CHICAGO?

The resplendent modern city that stands today grew out of a terrible disaster. In the autumn of 1871, a fire which started in a ghetto abutting the business district spread out of control. Within a week, it had destroyed 17,000 buildings, displacing almost 100,000 people and killing 300.

The movers and shakers who had lost their livelihood were determined to put their city back on its feet as quickly as possible. The rebuilding of Chicago that was immediately proposed gave ambitious architects from all over the US and further afield carte blanche to realise their most grandiose ideas. One of those was Louis Sullivan, a Bostonian who arrived in Chicago in 1873 and helped define the Chicago School style of architecture.

The Chicago School's greatest innovation was the development of the steel-framed building: a steel structure was lighter and more fire-resistant than masonry and wood, and gave birth to taller, more streamlined buildings - the first modern skyscrapers. Notable examples to look at in Chicago include the Reliance Building, the Art Deco Chicago Board of Trade building and the Rookery. By the 1920s, the Chicago School influence faded as architects experimented with new and varied styles. Among the finest high-rises created in the early mid-century, which you can still see today, are Chicago's Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower - HQ of the city's leading newspaper. This cathedral to journalism is decorated by pilfered masonry from celebrated structures around the world, from the Parthenon to the Berlin Wall. In the foyer, inspirational motifs evangelise about newspapers.

MORE MODERN TOWERS?

In 1938, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was part of the exodus from Europe escaping the rise of the Nazis, whose rule had forced the closure of the Bauhaus school of design, of which Mies was director. He was appointed to take over the architectural syllabus at a small technical college in Chicago, and brought with him the German-influenced International Style and his famous dictum, "less is more". This gave rise to buildings that were tall, simple and angular, devoid of decoration, flat-roofed and wrapped around with bands of glass. Stand and gape at Mies's astonishing Lake Shore Drive apartments, the glass-and-granite Federal Center and the 52-storey IBM building, built in 1969: Mies died before its completion, so the final stages were overseen by one of his associates. If you yearn to sleep in the city's tallest hotels, book into the Four Seasons (001 312 280 8800; www. fourseasons .com) or the Park Hyatt (001 312 335 1234; www. hyatt .com) both offering superb lake and city views from their picture windows.

LOVE THE ARCHITECTURE, BUT I CAN'T STAND HEIGHTS

Luckily for you, architecture buffs who like the vertical views but prefer to keep their feet closer to earth are not overlooked. The best starting point is the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), housed in the Santa Fe building at 224 South Michigan Ave (001 312 922 8687; www. architecture.org). This world-class institution runs a busy programme of excellent architectural tours, lead by informed and articulate guides.

You can enjoy their expert commentary while on foot or even on a bicycle. But the best way to admire Chicago's architectural legacy is from the deck of a tour boat: that way you can keep your gaze turned upwards without posing a danger to yourself or others, which is not the case when walking or cycling in a city.

The CAF's daily River Cruise is very popular and good value, so advance booking is recommended. Buy your $23 (£12.80) ticket at the CAF (see above) or at its branch office in the John Hancock Center. Starting at the Chicago River bridge on North Michigan Ave, just above East Wacker Drive, this tour offers stupendous views of the city's high-rise history, from Sullivan's late-1800s work to the 20th-century visions of Mies van der Rohe.

Walking tours focusing on either Historic or Modern Skyscrapers are held year round, at 10am and 2pm most days depending on the time of year. They start from the CAF ArchiCenter shop at 224 South Michigan Ave and last around two hours; $12. Unmissable sights: the Citibank "cash register" building; Bertram Goldberg's corncob towers; the First National Bank Building; Water Tower Place; the AT&T Center and Park Tower.

I'M HOOKED ON HIGH-RISE: WHERE NEXT?

New York is Chicago's rival for spectacular skyscrapers. The buildings are not only amazing to look at, but many have great historic or cultural associations, too. In the early 20th century Manhattan was the promised land, albeit a rather skinny island. It has been said that a skyscraper is "a way of making the land pay", so in order to capitalise on the available space, New York's early modern architects expanded upwards, creating symbols of wealth, power, opportunity and inspiration.

WHERE DO I START?

To learn about New York's high-rise history, the obvious starting point is the excellent Skyscraper Museum at 39 Battery Place (001 212 968 1961; www. skyscraper.org), open 12-6pm, Wednesday-Sunday, general admission $5/$2.50 students. Here the past, present and future are linked. As well as looking at blueprints, models and photographs of Manhattan's first skyscrapers, you can learn about the progress being made at nearby Ground Zero. This is the vast building site where the World Trade Center's Twin Towers (which were New York's tallest buildings) stood from 1973 to 11 September 2001, and where a replacement WTC is under construction. The design by Daniel Libeskind centres around his Freedom Tower, comprising offices, broadcast facilities, an observation deck, wind turbines, events space, restaurants and an antenna that will top it off at a height of 521m, or exactly 1,776 feet - commemorating the year America achieved its independence.

NEW YORK'S FIRST SKYSCRAPERS...

...were Downtown, on and around Wall Street, the city's financial district. Until the early 20th century, it was rare to see a building taller than six storeys here. In 1913, undoubtedly inspired by Chicago's renaissance, the dime-store magnate Frank W Woolworth was among the first few businessmen to erect a towering, steel-framed building as a shrine to his prosperity.

The 60-storey Woolworth headquarters, 233 Park Place at Barclay, was the world's tallest building until 1930. It remains one of Manhattan's finest sights, both inside and out, a marvel of grandiosity with its Gothic façade and Romanesque lobby, designed by the architect Cass Gilbert in homage to the Houses of Parliament in London. As you take in its outrageous style and innumerable surface details, bear in mind that it cost Woolworth $13m - paid in cash.

Donald Trump is a man with a towering presence in this city: he now owns the 283m-tall tower at 40 Wall Street, constructed in 1930 and now known as the Trump Building.

MOVING ON UP?

By the late 1920s, skyscraper mania had taken off and was spreading uptown in Manhattan. The Chrysler Building (405 Lexington Avenue at East 42nd Street) stole Woolworth's crown when it was completed in 1930, yet held the title of tallest building (at 319m) for a mere 40 days. But its appeal is enduring: the sight of its gleaming, elegant, * *automotive-inspired roof and stainless-steel spire is one of the most iconic in all modern architecture. There's no observation deck, but this is a structure best admired from outside, at sunset. An Art Deco masterpiece.

The Empire State Building at 350 Fifth Avenue (001 212 736 3100; www. esbnyc .com) was completed in 1931 and is a must-see on any itinerary for the "scraper-chaser". It is well worth the queuing involved to reach its 86th-floor viewing deck, 381m above the street. Observatory hours are 8am-midnight daily and the general cost of admission is $14. Its full height is 449m at the top of its TV transmitter, which was added in 1976.

Amazingly, a mere 20 months after the contracts were signed with the architects, the Empire State was ready for its first tenants to move in. The actual construction took just 11 months: with 3,500 workers on the job, at peak activity it rose by one storey per day.

One of the tallest and most distinctive modern landmarks is the Citigroup Center, 601 Lexington Avenue, which stands 279m high and has a sharp, wedge-shaped roof. At United Nations Plaza, bordering East 47th and East 48th Street, you'll find Trump World Tower, a 262m edifice to the man they call The Donald. Built in 2001, it's a dark, vertiginous slab of steel, glass and concrete, and contains some of the city's most luxurious apartments. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is said to own one of them. Prices start at $950,000 for a one-bedroom apartment.

No trip to New York would be complete without a visit to the busy Rockefeller Center (Sixth Avenue and West 49th Street), the focal point of which is the 259m GE Building. It was completed in 1933, at the height of the Art Deco boom, and was the location for the famous photograph "Lunchtime atop a skyscraper": a breathtaking image of 11 building workers sitting at ease on a girder that dangles hundreds of metres above the city street. The picture was taken by an anonymous photographer during construction in 1932.

The rooftop observation deck closed almost 20 years ago, but has been undergoing restoration and is due to open on 1 September, all being well. Call 001 212 332 6868 or go to www. rockefellercenter .com for further details.

CAN I GO UP WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN?

For a high-rise night out, make your way to the 65th-floor Rainbow Room Grill at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (001 212 632-5100; www. rainbowroom .com), which boasts panoramic views, for drinks or dinner. Yes, it's cheesy, but not in a bad way, and the cocktails are great. Then spend the following morning chilling out at the new Mandarin Oriental's magnificent 37th-floor spa, where the relaxation suite offers floor-to-ceiling views of the park while you recline on your lounger, post-massage, nibbling healthy snacks and feeling incredibly spoilt. And, when you're suspended weightless in its swimming pool, looking at the tops of other skyscrapers, try not to visualise the 35 floors of space that separate the water in which you're bobbing about from the New York pavement; it can make you feel a little peculiar.

The Mandarin Oriental is part of the 229m Time-Warner Center, which opened on Columbus Circle (001 212 805 8800; www. mandarinoriental .com) last year. The check-in desk is on floor 35, and the rooms continue up to floor 54. The wonderful views of Central Park and the city skyline from its full-height windows are a big selling point. The Time-Warner complex also includes an upmarket shopping mall and several chic restaurants, CNN Studios and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

I'D LIKE TO SLEEP IN THE SKY

Head for the Four Seasons at 57 East 57th Street (001 212 758 5700; www. fourseasons .com) to bag an extremely luxurious crow's nest and the prestige of the highest hotel bed in the city. The presidential suites on the 51st floor of this five-star hotel have recently been refurbished by the legendary Japanese architect I M Pei, whose projects in the Western world have been few and very carefully selected. Suffice to say the interiors, as well as the views, are quite something. Sleep soundly in the knowledge that no one's pillow is higher up than yours. Otherwise, opt for one of the Tower rooms on the floor below, with great views over the city or Central Park - the choice is yours. Prices start at $845 (£469) per night for a tower room and $1,500 (£833) for the presidential suite, room only.

WHERE BEST TO ADMIRE THE NEW YORK SKYLINE?

To best appreciate the beauty of Manhattan's high-rise architecture, cross over the bridge to Brooklyn. From there you can see the skyline in all its glory. For a truly romantic experience, book in for dinner at the River Café (001 718 522 5200; www. rivercafe .com) on Water Street, right underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The old-fashioned air of elegance, wonderful cocktails and direct views over the water to Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor make for an unforgettable experience.

GETTING HIGH ELSEWHERE IN AMERICA?

High-rise highlights are thin on the ground. Indeed, you reach sixth place in the top 10 of tall American buildings before you find somewhere outside New York or Chicago. The 312m Bank of America Plaza at 600 Peachtree Street NE in Atlanta has the distinction of being tallest in any US state capital (New York and Chicago are not state capitals). You cannot stay there, but close by is the Westin Peachtree Plaza (220m), one of the tallest hotels in the world (001 404 659 1400; www. westin .com/ peachtree; doubles from $230/£127, room only).

Los Angeles was described by Quentin Crisp as "New York lying down", but it has one high-rise claim to fame. The 310m US Bank Tower in Los Angeles, scrapes the seventh-tallest building in America by just three metres from the AT&T Corporate Center in Chicago. The one non-high-rise US city is Washington DC. Planning laws in the nation's capital prohibit skyscrapers, which allows the 169m Washington Monument (001 202 426 6841; www. nps.gov/wamo) to preside over the city.

THE 10 TALLEST AMERICAN SKYSCRAPERS

1; Sears Tower, Chicago; completed 1974; 110 floors; 443m

2; Empire State Building, New York; completed 1931; 102 floors; 381m

3; Aon Centre, Chicago; completed 1973; 80 floors; 346m

4; John Hancock Center, Chicago; completed 1969; 100 floors; 344m

5; Chrysler Building, New York; completed 1930; 77 floors; 319m;

6; Bank of America Plaza, Atlanta; completed 1992; 55 floors; 312m

7; US Bank Tower, Los Angeles; completed 1990; 75 floors; 310m;

8; AT&T Corporate Center, Chicago; completed 1989; 60 floors; 307m

9; JP Morgan Chase Tower, Houston; completed 1982; 75 floors; 305m

10; 2 Prudential Plaza, Chicago; completed 1990; 64 floors; 303m

HIGH-RISE IN CELLULOID

By Nanna Arnadottir

Skyscrapers have been performing cameos since the beginning of film. But there are skyscraper movies with no real high-rise buildings in them, such as the Tower of Babel in Metropolis, which was inspired by Manhattan but not filmed there.

Bladerunner, which was influenced by Metropolis, and Skyscraper, "starring" Anna Nicole Smith, are both examples of movies located in high-rise environments that do not exist.

Here are the 10 most well-known skyscraper stars.

1 King Kong Empire State Building, New York

2 Sleepless in Seattle Empire State Building, New York

3 An Affair to Remember Empire State Building, New York

4 Vanilla Sky Times Square, New York

5 Spiderman Times Square, New York

6 Batman Begins LaSalle-Wacker Building, Chicago

7 Towering Inferno Bank of America Building, San Francisco

8 Independence Day US Bank Tower, Los Angeles

9 Die Hard Fox Plaza, Los Angeles

10 Lethal Weapon International Tower apartments, Long Beach, California

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