The Soaring Twenties

“What floor, please?” said the elevator man.

“Any floor,” said Mr. In.

“Top floor,” said Mr. Out.

“This is the top floor,” said the elevator man.

“Have another floor put on,” said Mr. Out.

“Higher,” said Mr. In.

“Heaven,” said Mr. Out.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “May Day”

Like other races—to build the transcontinental railroad, discover the North Pole, scale Everest, or land on the moon—the race to build the tallest skyscraper in the world demanded sheer determination, deep pockets, terrific speed, unbridled ambition, grand publicity campaigns, and a dose of hubris. It began in 1924 with architects William Van Alen and Craig Severance, who had just passed into their partnership’s tenth year. In the course of a few short months, a bitter rivalry would begin to take shape—one that would ultimately bring their celebrated union to an end and cause a much greater battle ahead.

In the winter of 1923–24, Severance & Van Alen, Architects, was riding a wave of critical and financial success. They had recently completed the Bainbridge Building on West Fifty-seventh Street, and a review was imminent in one of the leading journals, Architectural Record. This was the latest in a string of commissions the partnership had won for high-profile projects in New York, including the Prudence Building at 331 Madison Avenue and the Bar Building on West Forty-fourth Street, where the firm now had its offices. Their client list consisted of the most reputable names in the city, including the Standard Oil Company of New York, the Title Guarantee & Trust Company, and E. E. Smathers, Esq. Scores of draftsmen worked in their “factory,” as large architectural practices were called at the time.

The two men went into business together when they were in their early thirties and were anxious to make their way in New York. Both had struggled for years in the same kind of draftsmen factories that they now ran, where long hours and meager wages went hand-in-hand with T-square and tracing paper. In Van Alen, Severance found a talented designer who dazzled clients with his eye for style and form, not to mention his training at one of the most exclusive schools of the time, Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In Severance, Van Alen gained a charismatic partner who managed the business. What one lacked the other supplied. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that “an arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength.” So it was with their partnership.

This kind of balance between partners had given rise to many of the most famous firms, including McKim, Mead & White, Carrère & Hastings, Sullivan & Adler, and Burnham & Root. Affectionately called “the steersman of the ship” as William Mead was, or “the plumber” as John Carrère once said of his role in the firm, partners like Severance managed the firm’s staff, smoothed the ruffled feathers of the clients, oversaw the finances, and dealt with the less glamorous engineering elements, including heating, plumbing, and electrical details. Severance’s role, quite simply, was to keep the ship sailing and the big commissions coming.

Like Stanford White and Thomas Hastings, Van Alen was helpless when it came to business affairs, but he could draw brilliantly, and he distinguished his firm from the host of others through his inventive designs. With each passing year, Van Alen’s plans grew bolder. Breaking with tradition, he chopped off useless cornices from the tops of buildings and set windows flush with the wall. Architects in New York stopped by to see his designs. When Richard Haviland Smythe came by the J. M. Gidding store on Fifth Avenue, a writer asked the architect, “Well, how do you like it?” Smythe replied, “How I don’t like it is what you mean . . . Van Alen’s stuff is so darned clever that I don’t know whether to admire it or hate it.” Similar things were said of White and Hastings in their time.

As it turned out, however, this partnership between Van Alen and Severance was not immune to the perils that threaten many successful firms: petty jealousies, questions of direction, money, and who was really responsible for the firm’s success. For the two architects, both of whom enjoyed more than their share of ego, a rift eventually developed. The fact was they were very different men. Van Alen spent evenings at the Architectural League of New York, debating with his fellow architects, many of whom he had studied with in Paris. Severance went to the Metropolitan Club after a long day, passing his time with industrialists and financiers, men who could give him jobs. When Severance needed a drink, he often joked about his command of a language his partner spoke fluently: “All my French is coming back to me . . . Entrez le boite!” The differences that made the two effective as partners also diminished their chances of resolving the conflicts that arose between them.

By their tenth year, the architects had long since left behind the personal warmth that had characterized their early partnership, when they had spent weekends together in the country, and Van Alen had asked Severance to be the best man at his wedding. In 1923 they became embroiled in a lawsuit over their commission on the Hotel Empire on Sixty-third Street. The owners had cancelled their contract, complaining that the plans, for which Van Alen was responsible, had been consistently late. They lost out on more than half their fee.

Then the February 1924 issue of Architectural Record finally arrived with the review of the Bainbridge Building. The critic Leon Solon liked the building, praising the design as “most satisfying” and an “imaginative reaction.” He thought that it made a bold new step in design, particularly because of the façade’s light treatment, which revealed the building’s steel structure rather than hiding it behind some heavy masonry details. Solon concluded: “In William Van Alen’s work we welcome the identification of design with structure after its long architectural dissociation.” The problem with the review was that Van Alen was the only one praised. It mentioned Severance only as a name on the partnership’s letterhead. One can appreciate the bitterness this engendered in Severance. After all, Bainbridge Colby, the former secretary of state under Wilson, was a personal friend, and short of this relationship the commission never would have happened.

Not only had Van Alen earned all the recognition for the building, but the review also established Severance & Van Alen, Architects, as a practice showing “the greatest energy in shaking off the shackles of purposeless convention.” As Raymond Hood, one of the decade’s leading architects, learned in the first days of his practice, clients often disdained innovation. The story went that Hood had submitted preliminary sketches for a bank commission he hoped to win in Providence, Rhode Island. Hood was known as somewhat of a rebellious and bold designer, and the bank president came back to him and said, “We’re going to ask McKim, Mead & White to do it.”

“But you can’t,” said Hood. “Those men are dead. . . . If it’s an old firm name you want, I’ll give you one. How about Praxiteles, Michelangelo & Hood?”

Many big-spending clients whom Severance sought and wooed were like Hood’s banker. They closed the door on firms that strayed too far from classical tenets. Severance decided he didn’t need a partner who upset convention. He could just as easily hire talented designers who would follow his lead, and keep all the profits to himself. A few short months after the review, the partnership officially ended, and so did their friendship. Van Alen moved out of their office, never to return.

Within months, Van Alen sued Severance. They skirmished over money and how the client list would be divided. The suit dragged out over a full year; eventually Severance won. Van Alen appealed the decision, but failed to have it overturned. Neither man took on another partner in his career, nor did either forget what had happened between them.

Several years later, in 1929, Severance and Van Alen were locked into yet another struggle—one that would change New York’s skyline and challenge each man to build higher than anyone had gone before. It also would lay down the gauntlet for a third skyscraper to stretch even higher. It began as a contest between their egos and became a race involving many players, each with their own agendas. They included two rival automobile giants, a young Wall Street titan in it for the game, a political hero on the mend, and two brothers out to crown their building careers. As the long shadow of the Great Depression began to darken the edge of the Roaring Twenties, the race to build the world’s tallest building captured the nation’s imagination.

To understand this chase into the sky, one must look further back in history—far beyond the building of the first skyscrapers in America. In man’s earliest days, he constructed basic shelters of wood, leaves, and earth. As the burden of survival lightened, he began to develop beauty and grandness in his designs. Man wanted to make his mark on the world, and the structures he built became a statement of self.

So humankind built, at times with great ambition. On the Nile’s west bank, the Great Pyramid of Giza, reaching 450 feet high with over two million stone blocks, served as the tomb for King Khufu. On a hilltop in Athens the Greeks built the Parthenon, a temple that towered over the city below. Triumphal arches and the Colosseum marked Rome, while on the hills of San Gimignano, rival Italian families built hundreds of towers—one taller than the next—to declare their power. In Southeast Asia, the Khmer empire erected massive tiered stone spires, the earthly representation of Mount Meru where their Hindu gods lived. Great Chinese pagodas, French cathedrals, ziggurats, lighthouses, bell towers, and even the simple steeple that stands above a countryside village—what they may not have in common purpose or scale, they shared in command of height. This height expressed preeminence, whether of their gods, their engineering skill, their power, their wealth, or their position above others.

The demand for height was equally strong in America. In the days before the Revolutionary War, rebels raised tall liberty poles in city squares, risking the bayonets of British soldiers, to declare their freedom. By 1850 sightseers offered up a shilling to climb the wooden stairs inside Trinity Church’s steeple for a bird’s-eye view of New York at 284 feet. In the nation’s capital, the 555-foot Washington Monument completed in 1884 honored America’s first president. Soon thereafter, the demand took form in mountains of steel and stone that many called “skyscrapers,” a term used by the end of the nineteenth century, when rival insurance companies and newspapers competed for the title of New York’s tallest building—or at the least the tallest building in their particular industry.

Home Life battled with New York Life and Equitable. The headquarters of the Tribune beat out the Sun, then lost to the World at 309 feet in 1890. After its construction, architect Harvey Wiley Corbett recalled, “Architects said nothing would be higher; engineers said nothing could be higher; city planners said nothing should be higher, and owners said nothing higher would pay.” Nonetheless, by 1899 the Park Row Building in New York City held the height crown at 386 feet, outstretching its tallest Chicago rival, the Masonic Temple, by 84 feet. Of course, one had to disregard the Times Building, which proclaimed that it reached the “extreme height” of 476 feet, if one included the basement floors in the measurement. Its owner was neither the first, nor the last, to manipulate what “tallest” meant, but the man on the street knew.

By the turn of the century, architects had mastered these man-made mountains, if not in style then in engineering. Only their owners’ ambition limited their height, and if there was one thing hard to limit in a country coming into its own—having built a railroad from coast to coast, won the Spanish-American War, and transformed itself with the Industrial Revolution—it was ambition. In 1903 the Fuller Building was completed at Twenty-third Street and Broadway, and though not the tallest at 285 feet, the city marveled at its distinctive flatiron shape. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz expressed what many saw: “With the trees of Madison Square covered with fresh snow, the Flat Iron impressed me as never before. It appeared to be moving toward me like the bow of a monster ocean steamer—a picture of the new America still in the making . . . The Flat Iron is to the United States what the Parthenon was to Greece.”

The attention sparked by the Fuller Building inspired ever taller skyscrapers. It was part advertising, part proof of their company’s success, and part economics in deriving the most office space from the narrow plot of land.

In 1906 came the Singer Building, a monument to Isaac Merrit Singer, the manufacturing genius of the sewing machine. Originally the company settled on a thirty-five-story tower, but wanting it to be the tallest, they doubled its height, moving ahead with plans for a skyscraper designed by Ernest Flagg that rose 612 feet tall when completed in 1908. A year later, the slender Singer tower with its three-story curved mansard roof (and flying from its flagpole a thirty-foot-long banner with S-I-N-G-E-R spelled out in giant letters) lost its crown to greater aspirations, those of John Hegeman, the president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. From sidewalk to crown, the fifty-story tower, modeled after Venice’s Campanile of San Marco, measured 700 feet tall. Then came Frank Woolworth, the five-and-dime store king, who had a score to settle with Metropolitan Life for denying him a much-needed loan years before. The loan denial cost Hegeman his crown and in 1913 set the Woolworth Building, at 792 feet tall, as the skyscraper to beat in the years ahead.

The tale of the Woolworth Building and its owner foreshadowed the skyscraper race in the Roaring Twenties. Born in upstate New York, Frank Woolworth escaped the family farm to be a dry-goods store clerk. He had an instinct for attracting customers, acting on the novel idea of placing items for sale in the shop windows. His efforts boosted sales but didn’t fill his own pocket. Soon enough he went out on his own. In February 1879 he opened a shop in Utica, New York, full of small items—baby toys, buttons, note tablets, soap, harmonicas—and hung a sign that read “The Great Five Cent Store.” Thirty years and millions of nickels and dimes later, F. W. Woolworth Company owned 596 stores across the country, plus Canada and England. He had mastered the art of “location, location, location” and of giving the public a good show; it paid for his extravagant lifestyle and thirty-room mansion off Fifth Avenue. Woolworth ate well, drank well, and fancied the latest cut in suits. When his bankers refused to give him a loan for a skyscraper in New York, he financed the $13.5 million structure out of his own pocket.

For his site, he chose Park Place and Broadway, a perfect spot near City Hall, the financial district, and the Brooklyn Bridge. For his architect, he hired Cass Gilbert, a young star who had apprenticed at McKim, Mead, & White, the training ground for many of America’s greatest architects. Woolworth wanted a Gothic tower, suggesting the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament in London as a model, but the question remained how high to build. He fretted about the cost: one had to sell quite a few marbles, Christmas ornaments, and dolls to build a skyscraper, particularly the tallest. Twenty-five stories seemed more manageable. If he wanted to continue higher later, then Gilbert could design for that possibility. Gilbert cast aside the old drawings to begin again.

But while on tour in Europe, Woolworth kept hearing about the Singer Building, how grand and tall it was. He and Gilbert then settled on a third proposal for a 620-foot skyscraper. In November 1910 the New York Times published a stark, black-and-white rendering of the tower. At night the tower would have so many lights that a couple sitting on their back porch fifty miles away could see the skyscraper’s apex. Still Woolworth remained unsatisfied: second highest was second highest. He sent Gilbert off to measure the exact height of the Metropolitan Life Building. The architect returned to Woolworth’s office with the answer.

“How high do you want the tower now?” asked Mr. Gilbert

“How high can you make it?” Mr. Woolworth asked in reply.

“It is for you to make the limit,” said Mr. Gilbert.

“Then make it fifty feet higher than the Metropolitan Tower.”

In January 1911 Woolworth acquired another parcel of land at the corner of Barclay Street for his site, a sure sign he meant to go higher. Gilbert returned to his drawing board. His builder, Louis Horowitz, tried to rein in this modern Croesus. One had to think about costs and economic return. After all, Cass Gilbert said a tall building’s purpose was “to make the land pay.” Woolworth feigned indifference whenever someone presented this reasoning to him. Later he confessed to Horowitz, “There would be an enormous profit outweighing any loss. . . . The Woolworth Building was going to be like a giant signboard to advertise around the world [my] spreading chain of five-and-ten cent-stores.”

Two years later, after hundreds of changes to Gilbert’s designs, Woolworth planned an opening worthy of an emperor’s coronation. Dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce” by the popular reverend Parkes Cadman, the Woolworth Building dwarfed the spire of Trinity Church by over five hundred feet. Its final height was 792 feet and one inch above the sidewalk. On April 24, 1913, crowds gathered out front in City Hall Park. Invited guests were brought into New York from Washington and Boston on special trains and put up at the finest hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria, to dress. At 7:30 in the evening, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in Washington and “80,000 lights instantly flashed throughout the Woolworth Building. The event marked the completion, the dedication and the formal opening of that regal edifice, the tallest and most beautiful building in all the world. . . . Assembled there was a great host of statesmen, captains of industry, merchants, journalists, scholars, poets—all representative Americans, proud to break bread with and honor the man who had realized his dream.” So read the building’s purple-prose brochure.

For all of the master showman’s announcements of “highest in the world,” the Eiffel Tower actually reigned as tallest at 984 feet. Europe still led the world culturally and symbolically. From entrance to tower, the Woolworth Building was an adaptation of European style and design. In his office, the Empire Room, Woolworth kept Napoleon’s portrait hung at eye level and a bronze bust of the conqueror as well. Soon, though, a Great War would catapult Europe into unimaginable horror and cause a dramatic shift in the balance of world power. Only then would Americans look within their own shores for heroes. Only then would its architects dare to go higher and do so in a style of their own. A young architect named William Van Alen, fresh from school and with an office in the same building where Gilbert designed the Woolworth Building, planned to explore the new frontier.

First, however, came the darkness.

At dusk on August 3, 1914, Sir Edward Grey, England’s Foreign Secretary, stood at a window in Whitehall. The night before, a telegram had come in warning that Germany was set to invade Belgium. France would be drawn into the struggle, then England herself. The killing of Austria’s Archduke Franz-Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, was the spark; centuries of history fueled the flames.

“Could this country stand by and witness the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history and thus become participators in the sin?” So spoke Grey earlier that day as he tried to rally England into the war. Now he was tired. Down below men lit the street lamps. Grey turned to his friend in the room and uttered what may have been the most prophetic words of the war: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Millions of Grey’s countrymen and allies threw themselves into the cauldron of the war. In the trenches men fought to defend a few hundred feet of charred earth. The soldier-turned-artist Paul Nash described the horror: “The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell-holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . they plunge into the grave which is this land . . . It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless.” Men with machine guns mowed down thousands. Soldiers didn’t even have to aim, they just fired into the mass of bodies. Gas poisoned the fields. Flamethrowers spilled death into dugouts and pillboxes. Lice, flies, mites, mosquitoes, mutilated parts, and rats the size of cats served as a soldier’s companions in the trench. Worse than all of it, though, was the waiting: the waiting as the shells shot down from the sky, the waiting for the hunger to pass or sleep to come, the waiting for death. As the months and years passed, this wasteland swallowed up a whole generation of Europe.

President Wilson hesitated to move America into the Great War. The country wanted little to do with it. When Wilson could delay no further, he ruthlessly prosecuted the war. He issued the draconian Espionage Act and launched a vicious propaganda campaign against the Germans. He instituted the draft and by war’s end the United States had a standing army of four million, half of whom saw action. He called on legions of businessmen to direct America’s industrial might for the fight. He spared no effort.

America brought the war to a close. Her efforts decided the outcome at a cost of 112,432 men, many of whom suffered in the trenches, but in sheer brutal numbers, there was no comparison: Germany lost 1,773,000; Russia, 1,700,000; France, 1,363,000; Austro-Hungary, 1,200,000; Britain 908,000. In total, Europe lost 8,500,000 people and suffered 21,000,000 wounded.

By March 1919, with America’s troops marching down Fifth Avenue to raucous cheers and brass bands, much had changed. The United States ranked as the mightiest economic and financial power. The country discovered it need not look back to Europe to help find its way forward. The horror the war had wrought left few to admire the past. Staid Victorian values and old governances held little power, yet what was to take their place? People had few answers. If life was so cheap as to merit the loss of millions, then what was its meaning? Congress rejected Wilson’s idealistic League of Nations. Most people refused to think of what might come to pass if reparations cut too deeply, or of consequences at all. Instead they danced and drank; they slashed away at convention and wanted experience for experience’s sake. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the poster boy for the decade to come, gave words to what everyone felt: “A fresh picture of life in America began to form before my eyes—America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it. The golden boom was in the air.”

While Europe was forced to tend its wounds, America accelerated at a dizzying pace into the 1920s. The decade saw the first pilot to cross the Atlantic in a solo flight and declare in France, “I am Charles Lindbergh.” It saw the spread of mass production, mass marketing, and mass consumption. It brought us flappers, short skirts, the Harlem Renaissance, a woman’s right to vote, the martini, celebrity scandals, the cult of youth, talkies, mobsters, the great Babe Ruth, speakeasies, 104 words for “intoxicated,” Dorothy Parker’s Round Table, the fast-step, and lots of cigarettes and sex. Passion was liberated, and there seemed no end to it: there were million-dollar-bout fights, ticker-tape parades, pole-sitting contests, the tabloid boom, mah-jong, hip-flasks, the handsome and hapless President Harding followed by Coolidge’s prosperity, stock market mania, marathon dancers, and movement, always movement. The decade was best described by a boy in Muncie, Indiana, who when asked by his Sunday-school teacher to “think of any temptation we have today that Jesus didn’t have,” answered: “Speed.”

A deep ocean now separated the old from the new, and New York became the lighthouse for all to seek. The modern spirit arrived upon its shore, with a generation of artists seeking the truth in their work, a truth that reflected their life and spoke American. This spirit revealed itself in theaters and musicals across the city. Jazz musicians played it in clubs and sold it on vinyl in the millions. Fashion designers, advertisers, publishers, writers, aviators, painters, architects, and businessmen gave the spirit expressions never before seen or heard or read. As Sherwood Anderson said about New York, “It is a European city no longer. It is America. It is itself. Imperial New York. Plenty of time yet. Men and machines. We are all so young yet. Wait and see. Wait and see what New York will do.”

The stage was set and fittingly located in a place whose flags were emblazoned with the motto “Excelsior,” meaning “ever higher.”

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