Ready for their close-up

Pennsylvania duo focuses on “antique skyscrapers.”

Using a drone, Chris Hytha takes detailed photographs of older skyscrapers. Here are 16 of his favorites in Chicago.

Using a drone, Chris Hytha takes detailed photographs of older skyscrapers. How many of these Chicago landmarks can you recognize? Top row, left to right: Tribune Tower, Mather Tower, American Furniture Mart, Steuben Club. Second row: Reliance Building; 333 N. Michigan; Board of Trade; Carbide and Carbon Building. Third row: United Methodist Church, Hotel Intercontinental, Jewelers’ Building, Palmolive Building. Bottom row: Pittsfield Building, Wrigley Building, Trustees System Service Building, Monadnock Building.

Chris Hytha/Provided

They are domed or stepped back or crenelated, like castle towers. With illuminated clocks or fierce gryphons or flying buttresses. Urns and eagles, ladies liberty and neon signs.

In Chicago, there is the azure blue of the American Furniture Mart, whose windows seem to float against perfect summer skies. Or the white summit of Mather Tower, a reminder that the top four stories started crumbling and were lopped off, only to have the city eventually force the owner to helicopter in a replacement. The glittering gold crown of the Carbide and Carbon Building.

Chris Hytha, a 25-year-old Philadelphia photographer, calls them simply “Highrises” on his sleek online project presenting stunning high-resolution photographs stitched together from close-up drone shots of grande dame buildings across the country.

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But I prefer “antique skyscrapers,” the term coined by his collaborator, historian Mark Houser. I learned of the project when Houser’s self-published 2020 book, “MultiStories: 55 Antique Skyscrapers & the Business Tycoons Who Built Them,” fell into my hands.

Not just a valentine to lovely old structures, the book is a scholarly attempt to puff off the dust and view them afresh.

“Imagine if you never saw a building taller than five stories, when the tallest thing you ever saw is a church steeple,” said Houser. “This technology was mind-bending.”

And as photographed by Hytha, it still is. The book put Houser on Hytha’s radar.

This photograph of the Carbide and Carbon Building, 230 N. Michigan Ave., was taken by Chris Hytha using a drone.

This photograph of the Carbide and Carbon Building, 230 N. Michigan Ave., was taken by Chris Hytha using a drone. NFTs of his images sell for $5,000 or more, but he also sells posters for as little as $20.

Chris Hytha/Provided

“I’ve done photography since 2015,” said the Drexel University architecture school graduate. ”I’ve always been interested in the built environment. It started with row houses. Midway through that project, I was brainstorming what I wanted to do next.”

His attention settled on historic older skyscrapers.

“I saw each of these buildings as an individual, having its own personality, or character. Each of them are unique, in their materials, range of styles. The details at the top of these buildings was incredible. Details no one gets to see. I saw that as an opportunity to create unique images.”

Before he went to the trouble of visiting cities, however, he wanted to make sure the building owners wouldn’t sue him.

“I was doing a lot of research on copyright, wondering: am I allowed to take these photos of buildings that other people own and sell them as prints?”

That’s when he stumbled across “MultiStories.”

“I gave Mark a call,” said Hytha. “He was in Pittsburgh, and was really interested in what I was doing. We were aligned.”

The American Furniture Mart, 680 N. Lake Shore Drive, is among the older high-rise buildings that Chris Hytha focuses on in his work. Hytha photographed it using a drone.

The American Furniture Mart, 680 N. Lake Shore Drive, is among the older high-rise buildings that Chris Hytha focuses on in his work. Hytha photographed it using a drone.

Chris Hytha/Provided

Now they’re a team —the two visited Chicago in August and shot 16 buildings. While Hytha was taken with their image, Houser focused on their history.

“We don’t appreciate that these iconic buildings were disruptive high technology,” Houser said. “They radically changed every city in America, not just Chicago and New York.”

In his book, he digs up the granular detail of business relationships that birthed these buildings, returning them to the land of the living. Of course the owners of the Monadnock sued the state when the ‘L’ line was run down Van Buren, cutting off its light. Of course Frank Lloyd Wright, who briefly had an office in the Monroe Building, firehosed his notorious bile at it as “one of the effete gray ghosts of the past,” claiming it has less artistic vitality than a Chicago smokestack.

Hytha uses an ordinary consumer drone, a DJI Air 2 S, to take his pictures.

“This is new high-tech technology looking at old high-tech technology,’ said Houser.

This photograph of the Wrigley Building is actually made up of many smaller photographs taken with a drone-mounted camera.

This photograph of the Wrigley Building is actually made up of many smaller photographs taken by Chris Hytha with a drone-mounted camera. Hytha then combined the photos into one sharp image.

Chris Hytha/Provided

“The whole drone thing introduces a lot of challenges,” Hytha said. Permits, licenses, permissions, each city with its own hoops to jump through.

“Chicago was the most in-depth — I actually had to go through the film department,” Hytha said. “We went back and forth. At first, they were a little more restrictive — we were going to need to hire police to close down streets. But I said, ‘Hey guys, this is a little drone.’ We came to a compromise: only fly at sunrise.”

Hytha sells his photos in a variety of ways: as “Architecturally Annotated Prints,” 13-by-19-inch images including information Houser has dug up, limited signed editions of 100 for $100 apiece. In group posters for $20, or iPhone wallpaper for $10.

The big money, though, is in NFTs, non-fungible tokens — digital collectables that have shaken up the art world. Since April, Hytha has sold 65 NFTs of high-rises, for about $500 to $1,000 each. Though as with all NFTs, they also trade on an aftermarket, where these unique, unreproducible bundles of code have sold for five to 10 times what Hytha got for them.

Who pays $5,000 for the NFT of the top of a building?

“Usually people who have a special connection to the building,” said Hytha. “One of the fascinating parts of the project is that each one of these buildings has a community surrounding it, who really love the building. Maybe their father helped build it.”

This photograph of the Jewelers Building, 35 E. Wacker Drive, also known on film as the Gotham City courthouse, was taken by Chris Hytha using a drone.

This photograph of the Jewelers Building, 35 E. Wacker Drive, was taken by Chris Hytha using a drone. Some readers might recognize it as the Gotham City courthouse in “Batman Begins.” It also was heavily damaged in one of the “Transformers” movies,

Chris Hytha/Provided

The duo’s project showcases structures that have gone from neglect to veneration.

“A lot of these oldest iconic landmark skyscrapers have been through a long rough period of near abandonment,” said Houser. “Now people are moving back into downtown. We’re coming to appreciate these buildings again.”

The buildings, and the work that went into them.

“One of the most fun things about architecture school was learning to decode the reasons buildings are the way they are,” Hytha said. “To think about the decisions of the people who constructed them. I’m thinking about 100 years ago, the physical drawing of this facade, coming up with this dream, sending it to the builders, sourcing the stone, figuring out who can carve this eagle. I love stone carved eagles, using the country’s bird on top of your building. To see the hard work it took, the vision and the dream. Nowadays, a lot of new buildings don’t aspire to the same showiness and grandeur. These old buildings have a sense of patriotism and pride of the country, glamor and glitz, to put gold leaf on the roof where no one will see it.”

The white summit of Mather Tower is there because the original top four stories started crumbling and were removed.

The white summit of Mather Tower is there because the original top four stories started crumbling and were removed. Eventually, the city required the owner to replace them; the new top was delivered by helicopter.

Chris Hytha/Provided

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