We don’t know much about structures of the distant past, of course. But we do know that if you’d been hanging around Giza in 2570 BC or so, you’d have found the spanking-new Great Pyramid soaring some 481 feet into the sky--high enough to hold the title of tallest manmade structure for nearly four thousand more years.
The Great Pyramid was finally overtopped around 1300 by England’s Lincoln Cathedral, whose spire was said to stand 525 feet tall. Alas, this record-breaker was wrecked by a gstorm in 1549, ceding the honor to St. Olaf’s Church in Tallinn, Estonia--whose spire was barely three feet shorter--until this too burned down after a lightning strike in 1625.
Thereafter, the title to seesawed between a series of German and French churches--first St. Mary’s in Stralsund, Germany (495 feet tall, but guess what?--another lightning casualty in 1647); then back to France’s Strasbourg Cathedral (1647, with a 469-foot spire). It took the Germans over two hundred years to reclaim dominance with the spire of St. Nikolai at Hamburg (1874, 483 feet), only to have the French embarrass them again two years later when the cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen topped out at 495 feet.
The Germans ultimately won the spire wars in 1880 with the stupendous 515-foot tall northern spire of Cologne Cathedral, but this also turned out to be the last hurrah for Christianity’s long monopoly on erecting super-tall buildings. Instead, a secular structure--and one in the New World at that--claimed the title of World’s Tallest Structure for the first time. After being long delayed by a shortage of funds and then by the Civil War, the Washington Monument finally reached its full height of 555 feet in 1884 after 36 years under construction.
Yet this triumph was short-lived. Five years later, France once again reclaimed ownership of the World’s Tallest Structure, this time delivering a walloping knockout punch with its 986-foot Eiffel Tower. So complete was the Eiffel’s domination of the height race that it managed to retain its title right through the flurry of skyscraper building that took hold of America after 1900. Only in 1930 was it finally bested by New York’s 1,046-foot Chrysler Building.
The latter, ironically, had perhaps the most fleeting reign of all. It was unseated the following year by its downtown neighbor, the Empire State Building (1,250 feet), which retained the title for the next 36 years.
Although we usually think of skyscrapers when we consider super-tall structures, any freestanding structure qualifies, and thus the next two world height records were set by communications towers--first Russia’s Ostankino tower (1967, 1,772 feet) and then
Toronto’s CN Tower (1975, 1,815 feet). The latter owned the trophy for the rest of the twentieth century.
In 2000, however, Canada’s pride was quietly surpassed by a building still under construction in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Designed by architect Adrian Smith, the 163-story Burj Khalifa (known as Burj Dubai prior to its opening in 2010) sets the modern record at 2,722 feet, or just over a half-mile high. It's far and away the world’s tallest freestanding structure--for the time being, anyway.