New York City skyline, 1917
New York City skyline, 1917. National Geography, Alamy stock photo

The City Skyline

In the last decades of the 19th century, irritated New Yorkers became increasingly vocal about tall buildings cutting off light and air in their ever-morecongested city. A 1916 zoning resolution set out to solve this problem—and became a model for other cities.

Edward Murray Bassett, class of 1884, was the main author of this landmark ordinance. It regulated the use, height and area of buildings by district, not only setting upper limits on skyscrapers but also, for example, keeping factories out of retail areas. Its size limits also curbed street congestion.

Because of these rules, “the Manhattan skyline, with its attractive towers and setbacks,” became “a thing of beauty instead of the horror it might have been if unregulated,” exalted The New York Times in Bassett’s 1948 obituary.

The Times was a supporter from the start. A frontpage story on July 26, 1916, headlined “City Fixes Limit on Tall Buildings,” said the ordinance “is believed to be the most important step in the development of New York City since the construction of the subways.”

How did Bassett secure his legacy as “the father of zoning”? After serving one term in the U.S. House of Representatives (as a New York Democrat from 1903 to 1905), he declined to run for re-election, instead returning to the city and his job as a lawyer. He was legal counsel to several boards and eventually became chair of the City Commission on Building Districts and Restrictions.

The first major update to the 1916 ordinance came in 1961, long after the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building had defined the skyline. In 1992, the American Planning Association awarded Bassett a posthumous Planning Pioneer Award. The father of inventor Preston Rogers Bassett, class of 1913 (“Night Flying,” Amherst Made, Fall 2016), Bassett is also credited with coining the term “freeway,” according to a U.S. Department of Transportation website.