New York city’s iconic skyline doesn’t just attract tourists: it frames the lives of millions of New Yorkers.

It is difficult to imagine such a familiar fixture changing or evolving, especially when that silhouette is synonymous with the Big Apple. But what forces shaped, defined, and etched that skyline into the minds of people around the world?

The Skyscraper Museum located in downtown Manhattan–Battery Park–attempts to answer that often-unasked question. A skyscraper–particularly in a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world–represents many different things to many people: investment, design, technology, and destination. How and why were skyscrapers first conceived? And once built, what do they become?

The museum’s permanent collection features handmade models of downtown and midtown, as well as models of some of the world’s tallest buildings. The evolution of skyscrapers and the race for the title of tallest building has led to constant iteration worldwide, particularly in newer cities such as Dubai. And with the additional stories come amazing feats of engineering and technology, to allow a structure to safely ascend vertically.

Juxtaposing the skyscrapers of today with the monoliths of the past, like Notre Dame and the pyramids, paints a picture of humans reaching for new heights over centuries and millennia. The past century has certainly seen the fastest advancement of that goal, particularly in urban development.

The museum’s current exhibit Ten & Taller charts the history of ‘skyscrapers’ by mapping buildings from the past 150 years that reached at least ten stories: quite an achievement in terms of the technology available during the late nineteenth century! Many of these contemporary ‘skyscrapers’ are no longer standing.

The exhibit was built on the work of structural engineer Donald Friedman, who spent years researching the shift from masonry to steel architecture. The museum obtained information about and photos of skyscrapers that had been demolished. For this exhibit, the museum indexed, organized, and shared the information online in grid, map, and timeline views.

From these resources, one gets the sense that the city not only looked different back in the day, but felt different. When ten stories is considered tall, the city probably felt a lot less towering and sprawling than it does presently. Although, at the time, buildings ten stories high may have been considered an unsettling novelty.

The skyscrapers of old that have since been demolished were sometimes historic fixtures, like the 1875 Tribune building. But equally as interesting as the buildings that were torn down are the buildings that remain standing–well over a hundred. Many of these structures would be impossible to greenlight today, based on the city’s current (convoluted) building codes. Although buildings are not as often dismantled in a dense city like New York, they are almost constantly renovated, which adds another dimension to the urban facade.

Previous exhibitions at the Skyscraper Museum have explored the implications of skyscrapers and their expanding role in urban development. Times Square, 1984 chronicled a crucial juncture for the development of this infamously busy hub and popular tourist destination. The Woolworth Building @ 100 tells the story of the iconic Woolworth Building a century after it was built. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Vertical Dimension explores the famous architect’s fascination with skyscrapers, although of his many designs, only two were ever built, and neither in New York. THE RISE OF WALL STREET traces the increasingly vertical growth of one prosperous New York neighborhood. GARDEN CITY | MEGA CITY highlights an architectural firm building in urban South and Southeast Asia with an emphasis on integrated green space. And SUPERTALL! surveys ambitious 21st century skyscraper projects.

Skyscrapers will only grow taller, slimmer, and smarter in the coming century, as more and more are built in growing urban areas. So pay a visit to the Skyscraper Museum today, to see what the race for air space is all about!