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For many people, vacations are a chance to visit famous buildings, see historic sites, and tour interesting museums. If, however, you happen to live in one of those places with famous buildings, historic sites, and interesting museums, well, you often don’t get to them, because they’re part of the landscape, not something that you have to rush to see because it might be your only chance.
Growing up in the New York City area, and now living here, I’m one of those people who managed to miss almost all the landmarks that tourists flock to all day every day. I didn’t go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Natural History Museum or even Lincoln Center until I was in graduate school—and those might never have happened until I became friends with someone from a wealthy family, for whom going to museums and ballets was something to be taken as a matter of course (my family went to the local library…because it was free). I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty. And I didn’t go to the Empire State Building until last year.
Neal Bascomb’s Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City tells the story not only of the Empire State Building, but of two other buildings that raced into the sky in the late 1920s, rushing to claim the title of the world’s tallest building, only to be outpaced just months later by the upstart Empire State. With the Great Depression hitting at the same time, the Chrysler Building’s short reign at the top of the list and the even briefer moment of the Manhattan Company Building, have been all but forgotten.
Bascomb frames his story around William Van Alen and H. Craig Severance, once partners in an architectural firm who had had a bitter breakup that soon provided additional fuel in their competition to build the tallest skyscraper in New York. Van Alen had been the artist in the firm, while Severance handled the business. The partnership fell apart when Severance got sick of seeing Van Alen get all the praise and recognititon and decided that just about anyone could do the same work just as well, and that the architect part of the firm wasn’t as important as his role, the business facilitator. A lawsuit over client lists and remaining commissions made the separation a particularly nasty business, and the two men never reconciled.
When Van Alen got the commission from William Chrysler, the auto magnate, to build the city’s biggest skyscraper at 42nd St. and Lexington Avenue, it was a dream come true. Chrysler was the idea client—money was no object, he had no allegiance to the classical styles that Van Alen disdained, and he had just as much ambition as Van Alen. The Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, was the city’s tallest building at 792 feet. Chrysler wanted to outpace that, and Van Alen designed a building that reached 925 feet—a height that would make it the world’s tallest building (excluding non-habitable buildings such as the Eiffel Tower, then at 984 feet—an antenna added in the 1950s brought the height to 1063 feet).
Meanwhile, Severance had also taken on a commission from George Ohrstrom, a wealthy banker, to build a skyscraper at 40 Wall Street. Ohstrom had plenty of money also, and Severance, also determined to make his mark on the world, persuaded him to agree to build a building that would outpace the recently announced Chrysler Building. Architect Yasuo Matsui and the firm of Shreve & Lamb designed a building that would be 927 feet high.
Van Alen’s building started work first, but when he and Chrysler got word of 40 Wall Street’s plans, they were infuriated; much of the marketing Chrysler planned for the building was based on the idea that it would be the tallest habitable building in the world. He told Van Alen to do whatever was necessary to make it bigger than Severance’s building. Working in secret (there probably was some deal done with clerks at the building department, where the plans had to be filed, to keep the addition quiet), so Severance wouldn’t find out and adjust his plans to go higher, Van Alen created a spire to be hoisted to the top of the building at the last minute; the spire would bring the height of the building to 1046 feet—taller than 40 Wall Street and even the Eiffel Tower.
The spire was added with little fanfare and few noticed. Even though 40 Wall Street, started later, they planned to finish faster, completing construction in April 1930. The skyscraper was advertised as the tallest building in the world, but Severance was horrified when word came out about the Chrysler’s Building’s new height. When Van Alen’s building was completed at the end of May, it overtook 40 Wall Street’s title as the tallest building in the world. They had only held it for one month.
The Chrysler Building looks like something from a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie.
Chrysler had Margaret Bourke-White take photos from the upper floors of the building to be used for publicity. Just thinking about being up there makes me a little sick.
40 Wall Street was the world's tallest building...for about a month.
Led by political insider John J. Raskob, with popular ex-governor Al Smith acting as frontman, the Empire State Building was the latest in a series of groups that had promised to build taller buildings. The difference was that they had the money and power to do it. Raskob hired Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 40 Wall Street’s architects and they began construction on January 22, 1930. Even as the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street fought each other for the tallest building title, New Yorkers, suddenly foundering in the depths of the Depression, turned all their attention to the Empire State Building.
The newest skyscraper was constructed at breakneck speed. Each week, four and a half stories were completed. Steel from Pittsburgh mills traveled by railroad to New Jersey each day, and then it was shipped to Manhattan; when it arrived in the workers’ hands, the steel was still warm to the touch.
About 3400 workers were employed in construction, no small matter during the Depression. My father knew someone who worked on the building and he said the man told him that it was very stressful because the workers always had to look busy, even when there was nothing to do at the moment. If you were caught resting or doing nothing, you were immediately fired. He said that he worked with a crew of men who made themselves look busy by having one group build sawhorses which the other group then dismantled. No one wanted to risk losing this job.
Workers, anxious to hold onto scarce jobs during the Depression, got used to the heights.
Raskob pushed the architects to come up with ways to build the building to the highest height possible but also create as much usable, rentable space as possible. They finally decided to attach a spire that would be used as a mooring station for dirigibles, with passengers exiting onto the 102nd floor. It was good publicity, but the idea, with the swirling winds that high in the air, was dangerous and impractical. Dirigible travel didn’t catch on anyway—the Hindenburg disaster, a death blow to the airships, was only two years away.
The Empire State Building was completed in 410 days, opening on March 1st, 1931, with an elaborate ceremony led by Al Smith and his two grandchildren. The Empire State won the height war at 1248 feet and the publicity war, but all of the buildings struggled for tenants. Neither the Chrysler Building nor 40 Wall Street could advertise themselves as the world’s tallest building and thus had no real hook for tenants. The Empire State Building also wasn’t helped by its title; the building had so few tenants that it was nicknamed the Empty State Building.
The Empire State Building didn’t become profitable until 1948. After that, the building filled up and is a popular tourist attraction (not to mention a place to commit suicide or propose marriage—in terms of the former, I can tell you that when I went last year, as a person arriving late at night alone, I was tailed by security the entire time I was up there). It remained the tallest building in the world for 41 years, until the Twin Towers were completed. After they were destroyed in 2001, the Empire State Building again became the tallest building in the city and second tallest in the United States. Other buildings under construction are planned to outrank it. The Chrysler Building got terrible reviews when it was first completed, but now is well-regarded and considered one of the icons of Art Deco design. 40 Wall Street struggled for recognition (I admit I didn’t know which building this was until I looked up a picture) and changed hands several times. It’s now owned by Donald Trump.
Bascomb does a fine job sketching out the major players, and giving a mini-history of skyscrapers. His description of how work was done at these terrifying heights made me actually dizzy and somewhat sick. The book is a quick, worthwhile read, particularly for fans of New York and architectural history. I will say, again, though, as I've said about far too many, maybe sadly but perhaps more wisely, that I liked it, but didn't love it. And I suppose I should consider that fortunate.
My few complaints are that while there are photos, I wish there were more; some diagrams or cutaways would have been helpful too (okay, perhaps I’ve been writing for children for a little too long). Also, there isn’t an index, which is incredibly annoying. I’m guessing maybe this was a publisher’s decision, possibly something to do with the cost of adding a number of pages. Whatever the reason, it’s not worth it for a nonfiction book. Finally, I know no book is perfect—though some are closer than others—and you have to accept a certain number of small typos. But misspelling Ebbets Field (it’s spelled Ebbitts in the book)?! Of course this is the copyeditor’s problem, not Bascomb’s, but this is a just-can’t-make-it kind of mistake.
To talk about the skyline of Manhattan seems almost impossible, because it has been done so much. I have looked out enough windows and looked up at enough skies, yet I still marvel at it all. When I walk around and stare at the different buildings, with their different shapes, sizes, and small details, it seems incredible that someone built them from nothing, that they didn’t just appear one day full-blown and finished. And just two hundred years ago, a snowflake sized piece of time, there weren’t any skyscrapers, or machines or powerful tools to build them so quickly; one of the Empire State Building crew bragged about how it took hundreds of years to build the pyramids and the great cathedrals, but just a little more than a year for their great project. It’s a vain statement, but a justifiable one. I hope I never lose sight of this, or ever lose my sense of wonder when I look at all these things.