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The world’s tallest building, as of February 2021, is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which dwarfs the Arabian city at a phenomenal 2,716.5 feet above ground — a triumph of engineering and design. However, some of the world’s previous tallest buildings may surprise you. From classic European cathedrals to modern American icons, discover nine incredible construction projects throughout history that once towered over the world.
The Great Pyramid Of Giza, Egypt
Original height: 481 feet
Record held: around 2560 B.C. - 1311 A.D.
Arguably the most famous tomb on the planet, the Great Pyramid of Giza was built by the Pharaoh Khufu as his final resting place. This limestone structure was the tallest building in the ancient world — no other civilization could match its prowess. It’s also the oldest pyramid on the Giza site; construction was finished in approximately 2560 B.C. The Great Pyramid was once filled with the treasures the Pharaoh needed for safe passage into the afterlife, but has long been plundered by grave robbers.
How the pyramids were built is one of history’s most persistent mysteries. Each stone block weighs over two tons, so moving them and layering them in such a geometric fashion was no small task. Archaeologists continue to investigate the ancient monument and regularly uncover new information about Egyptian society as a result.
Lincoln Cathedral, England
Original height: 525 feet
Record held: 1311-1548
The Great Pyramid retained its title as the world’s tallest structure for thousands of years, until Lincoln Cathedral in Lincoln, England, surpassed its height in 1311 A.D. Medieval architects added a new central spire to the existing Norman church, which raised its total height to a reported 525 feet.
Made from wood and capped with lead, this new spire meant that Lincoln’s mighty cathedral could be seen from miles in any direction. Lincoln Cathedral remained the world’s tallest building until 1548, when a powerful gale took the central spire out. It was never replaced, and the remaining spires struggled to support their own weight, so the cathedral was ultimately redesigned in the early 19th century.
Strasbourg Cathedral, France
Height: 466 feet
Record held: 1647-1874
This picturesque city on the banks of the Rhine River (which marks the border between France and Germany) is home to a stunning Gothic-Romanesque cathedral, which became the world’s tallest building in 1647 after its ornate spire was completed. Novelist Victor Hugo described Strasbourg Cathedral as a “skillful combination of monumental size and delicateness”.
Constructed on the site of a Roman temple, Strasbourg Cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe and is still the fourth-tallest church in the world. If you visit, make sure to see the fascinating astronomical clock and trek up to the 216.5-foot-tall viewing platform.
Cologne Cathedral, Germany
Height: 515 feet
Record held: 1880-1884
The late 19th century saw a number of churches compete for the title of the world’s tallest building, with each holding the record for a handful of years. The most well-known holder of the title (albeit briefly) was Cologne Cathedral.
The cathedral took over five centuries to complete, interrupted by wars, revolutions, and funding problems. When Cologne Cathedral was finally finished in 1880, it was the world’s tallest building for just four years — and the last religious structure to hold that title.
Washington Monument, D.C.
Height: 555 feet
Record held: 1884-1889
The central feature of D.C.’s National Mall, the Washington Monument reigned as the world’s tallest building in the late 1880s. Built to commemorate the first U.S. President, George Washington, the obelisk “stood in no one’s shadow” — just like the man himself.
Construction began in 1848 and was financed by a private group of Washington’s admirers, but money ran out and work was halted until after the Civil War. In 1876, construction restarted and was paid for with public funds. However, a different kind of stone had to be sourced — if you visit the Monument today, you’ll notice a brown line about one-third of the way up that shows where the new (lesser-quality) stone was used. The Washington Monument is still the tallest building in D.C., as well as the world’s tallest masonry structure.
Eiffel Tower, Paris
Original height: 1,024 feet
Record held: 1889-1930
People from all over the world flocked to the 1889 World’s Fair, held in Paris, where the star attraction was undoubtedly the event’s incredible main entrance — the new Eiffel Tower.
Designed by Gustave Eiffel, this wrought iron structure was not only striking to look at, but also a marvel of engineering. It utilized a lattice pattern to reach never-before-seen heights, catapulting the Eiffel Tower to the top of the tallest structure leaderboard. The original 1,024-foot structure was made even taller in 1957, when a television antenna was added. This took the Eiffel Tower’s total height to 1,063 feet.
Chrysler Building, New York
Height: 1,046 feet
Record held 1930-1931
In the 1930s, a skyscraper construction boom in New York City precipitated a new era of supertall structures. A number of projects in Manhattan raced to become the world’s tallest building, but it was the Art Deco Chrysler Building that finished first.
Architect William Van Alen found himself in competition with his former protégé, H. Craig Severance, who was working on 40 Wall Street at the same time. The two kept hearing of each other’s plans, making last-minute adjustments to their designs so their project would be taller. However, Van Alen beat Severance by adding a 180-foot stainless steel spire to the Chrysler Building, completing the project in 1930.
Empire State Building, New York
Original height: 1,250 feet
Record held: 1931-1970
Shortly after the Chrysler Building opened, a new office building just a few blocks away in Midtown Manhattan snatched its crown — the Empire State Building. An internal steel frame supports the concrete exterior, which is also a prime example of Art Deco architecture. An antenna at the top, added in 1985, brings its total height to 1,454 feet.
The Empire State Building has 102 stories, with 1,872 stairs leading up to the Observation Deck at the top. Every year, there’s a competition to see who can run up them the fastest — but if you’d rather not do all that legwork, take one of the 73 elevators to the top instead.
Warsaw Radio Mast, Poland
Original height: 2,121 feet
Record held: 1974-1991
While not technically classed as a building (as it is not habitable), the Warsaw Radio Mast is perhaps one of the most surprising structures to have once been the world’s tallest. Situated in Gąbin, just outside Warsaw, the 2,121-foot-tall steel mast was used for local radio broadcasts. However, its signal was so strong, it could even be picked up in North America and Africa.
The Warsaw Radio Mast was the tallest structure ever built, until it collapsed during maintenance work in 1991. No other structure surpassed it until the Burj Khalifa in Dubai was completed in 2009.