What is your favorite BIG Picture idea for Huntsville

Skyscrapers: Apples and Oranges

In following the several conversations here about skyscrapers, I must say I've also been fascinated with them from an early age. I believe it was at the age of ten that my father took my brother and me to watch an Atlanta Braves games, back when Hank Aaron was just a few home runs away from breaking Babe Ruth's record. Even then, Atlanta had many tall buildings, and I remember seeing the downtown Atlanta skyline from several miles away and being so amazed. As a young boy raised in Huntsville in the 50s and 60s, I'd never seen such buildings!

 

So why, in general, are we fascinated with tall buildings? That's really a question with many answers on different levels, but for this post, I'd like to add this as a possible answer: Tall buildings in the twentieth century gave us a quick means of telling if what we were looking at was important and powerful or not. The more imposing a skyline, the more the possibilities, and the more possible relevance to us personally.

But why did I couch that in the past tense? Is it not relevant in the twenty-first century? I believe it is still a relevant measure of the importance of a city, although it isn't quite the same perception, meaning, and significance as it was in Pre-World War II (WWII) America. Here's why I think that.

 

We all know how spread out Huntsville is. As a matter of fact, it is the 29th largest city in terms of its physical size (215 square miles!). Juxtapose that figure for area with population: currently the 29th largest city population-wise is Louisville, KY, with a population of 619,287 as of 2018, slightly above many well-known big cities such as Atlanta, Miami and Cincinnati. Check out http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/.

 

But Huntsville isn't alone; almost everywhere in America has seen the effects of suburbia since WWII. One exception would be cities that by the mid twentieth century were already "landlocked" by adjacent smaller municipalities, thus preventing expansion of the city limits of the main city. Atlanta, Birmingham, and Pittsburgh come to mind in that category. But in the golden age of skyscrapers in America (1900 to WWII roughly), life in a city was quite different from that in the later half of the century. No suburbia and fewer automobiles meant a compact city and a dense population.

 

In fact, if we were to measure the Huntsville of today, within the normal constraints placed upon a typical city of pre-WWII days, here's what we might be looking at. Assuming our current population of just about 200,000 for Huntsville proper, we also might be looking at much smaller neighboring cities and unincorporated areas: everyone lives in the city. So my rough estimate of the population of a modern, yet "pre-WWII defined" Huntsville: 275,000 to 300,000.

 

Now, about that downtown skyline. Since we are comparing a pre-WWII approach to city-building, I've put together what our city might look like if our most notable (and includable) buildings were downtown. This list of skyscrapers makes a few assumptions.

1 - The average square footage per large building in major cities during the era was roughly 20,000 sq ft.

BTW, the average height per floor, same period, was about 12.5 ft. (more for offices, less for hotels and apartments)

2 - no light or heavy industry downtown, just the more visible offices, hotels and apartments.

3 - It is a rough back-of-the-envelope estimate that includes notably large buildings from _all_ areas in Madison County.

 

Here's an example of how I translate into a pre-WWII skyline:

The Boeing Gateway Center is easily twice the square footage per floor of typical early 20th century hi-rises. 15 total stories times 2 = 30 stories if it were downtown in 1945.

 

The entire area on the west side has so many modern very broad buildings; that's the current architectural style. In general we might have 3 or 4 30-to-40 story buildings by my estimate. Shorter hi-rises of say 10 to 15-stories - an estimate of maybe 20 or 30 of them? Remember - back then, square footage per floor was tighter, and I am indeed including ALL areas in counting up these numbers.

 

 

So, I think those numbers say something significant about little 'ol big Huntsville.

 

And ultimately, I do have to agree; a few taller downtown buildings would make for a more pleasing skyline.

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Idea No. 213