In the old days, a glimpse of architectural piers — the vertical supporting structures that were once a common sight on the façade of a skyscraper — sent one's spirits soaring. The popularity of piers began in the Art Deco era with Raymond Hood's American Radiator Building at 40 W. 40th St. in 1924.
In 1930, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon applied thin stainless-steel piers to the limestone façade of the Empire State Building, while Schwartz & Gross designed 55 Central Park West, and Emery Roth designed the Ardsley building at 320 Central Park West. Beginning in 1932, Raymond Hood went to town with his pinstripe designs for the Rockefeller Center complex and the former Daily News Building at 220 E. 42nd St.
Piers became widespread after World War II, used in such major buildings as One Chase Manhattan Plaza and the former Union Carbide Building at 237 Park Ave., both designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1960.
Harrison & Abramovitz used piers for the Time-Life Building at 1270 Avenue of the Americas in 1959, and in the early 1970s, the architectural firm also employed them for the Exxon Building at 1251 Avenue of the Americas, the McGraw-Hill Building at 1221 Avenue of the Americas, and the News Corp. Building at 1211 Avenue of the Americas.
With the exception of the Time-Life Building, the piers used by Harrison & Abramovitz were too narrow: Instead of a picturesque picket-fence aesthetic, they created a waffling, pulsating, and dizzying pastiche of vertical lines squashed together.
The finest manifestation of piers was the World Trade Center's twin towers, designed by Minoru Yamasaki in the early 1970s. While the towers' stainless-steel piers were only 18 inches apart, the design worked and the buildings glimmered like a resonating silver tuning fork.
The most expensive piers are the three-sided, white-marble ones that surround the General Motors Building, while the slickest are Philip Johnson's angular piers used for the elegant recladding of the former Gulf & Western Building at 1 Central Park West.
Some of the most unusual piers can be found above the 67th Street entrance to the 1963 apartment building designed by Robert Bien at 857 Fifth Ave. These piers zigzag as if they had been inebriated at some spiffy charity ball and were struggling to keep on their top hats.
With the ascent of Deconstructivist architecture and an infatuation with all-glass buildings, piers have become a rarity. One recent exception is the Cielo, an apartment building at 450 E. 83rd St. designed in 2006 by Perkins Eastman.
Mr. Horsley is the editor of CityRealty.com.