Beacons of Truth: Newspaper Buildings in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

This piece by Lily Corral is the sixth and final entrant into the Third Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. Corral takes on the life cycle of the media industry, and shows how the architecture built by newspapers reflects the industry’s birth, heyday, and now legacy.

Daily news comes to us in all forms. These days, you can get it in your inbox as a carefully-curated newsletter, through your headphones as a podcast, or even left at your doorstep as a paper copy to sift through. That last option, however, seems to be increasingly threatened as media companies struggle to find a profitable business plan. The life cycle of legacy media—print publications in the form of newspapers and magazines—may be in its final phase.

But it hasn’t always been this way. The early part of the media-industry life cycle saw these titans of industry produce some of the grandest architecture of its time. As papers fought to capture more readers, the physical places they produced became increasingly important. With their economic life cycle on an upward trajectory, these companies had the means to build and build up in ways not seen before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the newspaper industry was booming.[1] By the end of the nineteenth century, there were 43 daily newspapers—28 printed in English and 15 printed in foreign languages—in New York alone.[2] Competition reached a high. The papers began running larger, sensationalized headlines, focusing on crime stories, adding games or comics, and trying to cater to their audiences’ needs.

In this race to be the best, publishers began to look beyond their papers: they set their sights on the sky. Newspapers came to place a great value on their buildings, which would announce the paper to the city, not unlike the “newsies,” young boys who would cry out the day’s headlines to sell papers.

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 Newspaper Row, [Park Row], New York, c. 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Newspapers’ buildings became such important symbols that they would even appear in mastheads and promotional materials. In Chicago, competition between the top two papers led to radically different building designs so as to distinguish between them. In New York, proximity bred even more competition. New York’s Newspaper Row, located along Park Row near City Hall and the police department, housed most of the city’s publications, each vying to be the heartbeat of the city. In both cities, publishers had the same goal: design a building that would embody the core values of their print product. The resulting designs varied widely, from Art Deco buildings to neo-Gothic towers.

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New York City – the New “Tribune” Building on Printing House Square, wood engraving, 1875, Prints and Photography Division, Library of Congress

Amongst the first publications to realize the need for a symbolic building was the New York Tribune.[3] After publisher Horace Greeley’s death in 1872, shareholders became concerned about the quality of their investment. Greeley’s replacement, Whitelaw Reid, needed to solidify the paper in the minds of the readers during a time of great change. In order to send a message that the paper was there to stay, Reid came up with a plan for the new building, making key design decisions before an architect was even involved. It was his idea to design the soaring clock tower, which came just shy of the height of the spire at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.[4]

Reid eventually hired Richard Morris Hunt as the architect for the project. For Reid, having the tallest building was of the utmost importance. From the start, he knew that he wanted the building to be nine stories tall. However, when he found out that the Western Union Building might overtake his building in height, he requested the addition of a tenth floor, pushing the edifice to 260 feet and beating out the 230-foot Western Union Building. As one of the first tall structures to occupy Park Row, the New York Tribune Building was completed in 1875. (The building was eventually demolished in 1966.)[5]

In an era of steel and skyscrapers, architects and newspapers worked to define what a news building should look like. Should it have different qualities than one built for protecting people’s assets—and if so, what should it look like? The different responses to this question would eventually fill the skyline with some of the most interesting buildings we have today. While different publications chose different styles, they all sought to embody a sense of nationalism and authority. The publications hoped to earn a deep trust from the public, and one way to do this was to produce an image that conveyed a sense of history and stability.[6] The fortified structures would symbolize that the publications had no intentions of closing up shop in the near future. The newspaper industry would construct some of the tallest towers of the era, rivaled only by those of the banking and insurance industries.

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Façade of New York World building, between 1900 and 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Joseph Pulitzer took this to another level when he acquired the New York World and set out to make the most revolutionary building of its time. At its completion in 1890, the building stood as the tallest in New York, reaching 309 feet to the top of its dome.[7] Pulitzer had such a strong idea of what his paper should be that it informed the design of the building on Park Row; once again, the standout features of the building would not be designed by the architect, but by the publisher himself. For Pulitzer, the building was to be an embodiment of the paper’s success. The observation deck atop the building was open to the public, allowing locals to experience the city as they never had before. With an admission fee of five cents, visitors could experience the thrill of riding an elevator to the 22nd floor, then ascend a final staircase to reach the dome. Pulitzer even went so far as to make the building’s exterior bulletin boards out of marble: he spared no expense on the place where the news of the day would be posted. In the race to be the leading source of information, Pulitzer wanted his building to reflect his paper’s reliability and success.

After holding a competition, Pulitzer selected George B. Post to design the building.[8] Post designed a rather classical-looking structure. Yet the masonry hid the fact that the building was actually constructed using steel framing for the interior. Unfortunately, the building was demolished in 1956.[9]

Newspapers wrote glowing reviews of their respective homes once they were opened, using their powers of publicity to praise their new buildings. The Tribune Company even printed out special souvenir booklets on its new building for visitors titled, “Glimpses of Tribune Tower: Presented as a souvenir of your visit to the home of the World’s Greatest Newspaper. Within the seven mini-chapters, the building is described in great detail, from a walkthrough experience to the origins of the inset stones on the façade. It can further be said that the editorials weren’t only informing the public of how it should read their new buildings, but all new developments in the city, thus setting the table for architectural criticism.

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Tribune Tower Building, Chicago, Illinois, looking north-east, January 3, 1931, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Chicago Tribune held one of the most-popularized architectural competitions for its new tower. While the previously discussed publications simply appointed an architect or held smaller competitions, the Tribune took a more inventive route with a highly publicized competition. Typically, architectural competitions as such had been held for public buildings, not private ones. Thus, the call for submissions proclaimed the idea of the paper as belonging to and working for the people.[10] Framing it this way led to those involved with the building to refer to the building as the “Tribune monument” before it was formally named Tribune Tower. The eventual winning submission, designed by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells of New York, was a neo-Gothic style tower. It was completed in 1925.

Back on the east coast, Raymond Hood would go on to design the Daily News Building for Joseph Medill Patterson, whose grandfather and namesake published the Chicago Tribune.[11] Patterson decided to cater to a working-class readership. The Daily News would set out to be the everyman’s paper, targeting an audience that other publishers saw no immediate value in catering to. Even as the paper’s popularity grew among a new market, the paper had to launch a full campaign to convince advertiser’s that its audience was worth marketing towards. The paper began to use the term “Sweeney” to refer to the everyday reader that was being overlooked by other media companies and ran many ads that eventually captured the attention of the advertisers. [12] Patterson’s strategy brought tremendous growth, and before long, the need for a new building could no longer be avoided. The Daily News Building is a 36-story main tower, with a nine-story printing plant next door. In the frieze on the main building, an image of people walking is inscribed with the words: “He made so many of them.” This is a nod to Patterson’s growing subscription base among everyday New Yorkers. The Art Deco building opened in 1930.

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Daily News Building, 220-226 East Forty-second Street, New York County, NY, after 1933, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Of these four buildings, two of them have been demolished, while the other two, the Chicago Tribune Tower and the New York Daily News Building, remain valuable pieces of real estate in fashionable areas. The Tribune Tower is located at the entrance to Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and the Daily News Building is located on New York’s 42nd Street, just down the street from Grand Central Station and the Chrysler building. Yet neither of the existing buildings still houses the publication for which it is named. The New York Daily News moved out of their building in 1995 and the Chicago Tribune moved out just this year. That iconic building on Michigan Avenue, which once personified the paper, was a relic of the past—when newspapers and the buildings they occupied were symbols of power in the city.

In today’s climate, legacy media continues to sell off its expensive real estate holdings to eliminate costs. After nearly seventy years at its home on Young Street in downtown Dallas, the Dallas Morning News moved into its next home, the newly renovated Statler Hotel. With the move, the News left behind architectural touchstones like the Rock of Truth, a journalistic creed that was inscribed on the front façade of the paper’s longstanding home.

We may have seen the last legacy newspaper construct a building of architectural significance. The New York Times building, designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2007, was perhaps the last significant architectural design created for a media company. In taking a look at some of the monumental media buildings of the past, we begin to understand the power and influence associated with the industry in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Publishers’ race for readership shaped the physical form of major urban areas.

With the industry’s life cycle approaching a nadir, it’s unclear what a rebirth would look like. As publications move away from tangible, daily print products and onto screens that are updated around the clock, what will become of the spaces they occupy? Electronic publishing has reduced the demand for physical space. There is no longer the need for on-site printing presses. Meanwhile, newsrooms have shrunk as editorial staff is whittled down and writers no longer have to be in the newsroom to file a story. This evolutionary cycle away from the physical, both in terms of a space and a product, has led to greater access to the most up-to-date news, but it has also left publications unable to capture a profit and therefore unable to continue to be placemakers in the city. Moving forward, the architecture of the American newspaper industry that still stands must now find new life in hopes of preserving an industry’s storied history.

photo.jpgLily works as a research assistant for the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she is pursuing a graduate architecture degree. Prior to this, Lily worked as a journalist covering commercial real estate as an associate editor at D CEO Magazine and as a TV reporter for the CBS affiliate in West Texas. She holds degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University.

Featured image (at top): The Washington Post Building, between 1900 and 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 


[1] Aurora Wallace. Media Capital: Architecture and Communications in New York City (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 182.

[2] Carol Willis. “The Skyscraper Museum: Newspaper Spires Walkthrough,” accessed February 24, 2018, http://skyscraper.org/EXHIBITIONS/PAPER_SPIRES/walkthrough_intro.php

[3] Aurora Wallace, “A Height Deemed Appalling: Nineteenth-Century New York Newspaper Buildings,” Journalism History 31, no. 4 (2006), 178.

[4] Willis, “Newspaper Spires Walkthrough.”

[5] Dale Cressman, “From Newspaper Row to Times Square,” Journalism History 34, No. 4 (2009): 182.

[6] Wallace, “A Height Deemed Appalling,” 178.

[7] “Opening of the New Pulitzer Building.” Scientific American (1845-1908); Dec 20, 1890; Volume LXIII., No. 25.; American Periodicals pg. 384.

[8] Willis, “Newspaper Spires Walkthrough.”

[9] Cressman, “From Newspaper Row to Times Square,” 182.

[10] Solomonson, The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition.

[11] John Arthur Chapman, Tell it to Sweeney: The Informal History of the New York Daily News (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961).

[12] John Arthur Chapman, Tell it to Sweeney: The Informal History of the New York Daily News (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961).

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