When it was completed in 1931, the Empire State Building instantly became the tallest in the world. Standing an impressive 1250 feet tall, it was the first 100-story building in history and held the record as the world’s tallest for the next 41 years, until the completion of One World Trade Center in 1972. After that, the title moved to Chicago, and then to a number of super-tall buildings in Asia, until the current world’s tallest—Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—took the title in 2007.
Precisely what constitutes the world’s tallest building is debatable, with arguments raised over whether or not uninhabitable structures (like telecommunications towers) qualify for inclusion, and whether the extra height gained by the addition of radio masts and flagpoles should be taken into account. But using a straightforward list of habitable structures measured from ground to roof as a yardstick, the back catalog of former World’s Tallest Building title-holders actually includes some quite surprising entries.
1. THE PYRAMID OF GIZA // EGYPT
When the Great Pyramid at Giza was completed after 20 years of construction in around 2500 BCE, it stood an imposing 480 feet tall—although erosion has knocked a full 25 feet from that total so that it stands 455 feet today. Precisely what held the title before then is debatable, although contenders include several more of Egypt’s pyramids, the 28-foot Tower of Jericho completed around 10,000 years ago, and Göbekli Tepe, a mysterious site in Southern Turkey that dates back to the 10th millennium BCE.
2. LINCOLN CATHEDRAL // UNITED KINGDOM
When construction of the immense central spire of Lincoln Cathedral in England was completed in 1311, it is believed to have stood an impressive 525 feet, easily surpassing the Great Pyramid’s height by more than 40 feet and breaking its run as the world’s tallest building after a staggering 3800 years. Sadly, all three of Lincoln’s spires have been lost: the two smaller spires were removed in 1807, almost a century after concerns about their safety were raised by the architect James Gibbs, while the taller central tower was destroyed by a storm in 1548. Its collapse also meant that Lincoln Cathedral’s title was temporarily handed over to …
3. ST. MARY’S CHURCH // GERMANY
The 495-foot-tall Marienkircher or St. Mary’s Church in the town of Stralsund in northeast Germany was completed sometime in the 13th century. It might have unceremoniously snatched the title from Lincoln Cathedral after the disaster of 1548, but the Marienkircher has had its own share of bad luck throughout its long history: its bell tower collapsed in 1382, and its central steeple blew down in a storm in 1478 and had to be replaced. The replacement, however, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1647—handing the title of world’s tallest building over to …
4. STRASBOURG CATHEDRAL // FRANCE
After a run of bad luck for ecclesiastical buildings, Strasbourg Cathedral—at 466 feet tall—managed to hold on to the title of world’s tallest building for the next 227 years (although some in the 19th century thought it was shorter than the Great Pyramid). But in the late 19th century, improvements in building techniques and architectural engineering led to a flurry of tall buildings completed all across Europe.
In 1874, a rebuilt St. Nicholas’s Church in Hamburg was completed after the previous building burned down 30 years earlier; standing 482 feet tall, it took the title from Strasbourg (but went on to be all but destroyed during the Second World War and is now in ruins). In 1876, a cast iron spire was added to Rouen Cathedral in France, which stole the title from Hamburg. Then in 1880, work was finally completed—after a 407-year hiatus—on Cologne Cathedral in Germany: construction had originally begun in 1248, but was halted in 1473. The finished building stood 515 feet tall, enough to steal the title from Rouen and return it to Germany. But just like its predecessor, Cologne Cathedral only held the title for the next four years.
5. WASHINGTON MONUMENT // UNITED STATES
, the 555-foot Washington Monument became the world’s tallest entirely stone-built structure, the tallest obelisk anywhere in the world, and the first known structure in North America to hold the title of world’s tallest building. Despite that impressive record, however, Europe reclaimed the record just five years later with …
6. THE EIFFEL TOWER // FRANCE
The 986-foot Eiffel Tower was the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair. Although its designer and namesake Gustave Eiffel had a permit allowing it to stand for a total of 20 years, it was originally intended to be dismantled when the fair was over. Thankfully, aside from its popularity, part of the reason the Tower still survives is that it proved an excellent telegraph transmitter, and even proved useful in intercepting German radio signals during the First Battle of Marne in 1914.
On its completion on March 31, 1889, the 984-foot Eiffel Tower instantly became the world’s tallest building (although, astonishingly, it shrinks by up to 6 inches during cold weather). It held the record for the next 41 years, until finally it was beaten by …
7. THE CHRYSLER BUILDING // NEW YORK
When it was opened on May 27, 1930, New York City’s Chrysler Building broke the Eiffel Tower’s record by a full 60 feet—it stands an impressive 1046 feet tall, making it the first building in history to break the 1000-foot mark (thanks largely to a 185-foot spire constructed in secret to prevent any competition from beating it). It remains the tallest brick-built building in the world (although it does have a steel frame), despite holding the record as the world’s tallest for just 11 months: the Empire State Building was completed on April 11, 1931.