Equivalent to War

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone, let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred, because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and the wrought substance of them—“See! This, our fathers did for us.”

—John Ruskin

Cold hard numbers often measure the scale and danger of war: how many divisions fought, the number of men lost, how many of each kind of soldier saw action, and how many weapons were on the battlefield. In the construction of skyscrapers, the builder was the four-star general in this “nearest peace-time equivalent to war,” as William Starrett called it. At best, the architect served as an advisor. Men fell and lost their lives; ground tactics and speed won minor skirmishes; but ultimately, strategy steeled with determination carried the day. Still, the numbers told much of the drama of this war now being waged solely between the Chrysler and Manhattan Company buildings.

On the construction of the former—which by August had reached the forty-fifth floor—the builder Fred Ley employed:


Plus, there were hundreds of other workers, from structural engineers to bricklayers, blacksmiths, master plumbers, concrete workers, derrickmen, sawyers, plasterers, and watchmen. In the end, Chrysler paid for the labor of 2,400 men, 21,000 tons of structural steel, 3,826,000 bricks, 391,881 heated rivets, 794,000 partition blocks, 446,000 tiles, 3,750 plate glass windows, 200 sets of stairs, aluminum railings running two-fifths of a mile, 15 miles of brass strip, 35 miles of pipe, and 750 miles of electric conductor wire. The heaviest columns carried loads of up to seven million pounds.

On the lot of 40 Wall Street, the numbers of material and men under the Starrett brothers’ watch roughly equaled that of the Chrysler Building, but these numbers were all the more staggering because of how rapidly the construction was executed. By the middle of June the wrecking gangs began to pack up their gear. The first steel billet was placed on June 20; the first column set up on June 27, and by July the workers poured the first cinder concrete arches on the lower floors. By August 8, the steel had reached the twentieth floor. The builders aimed to finish the skyscraper in thirty weeks, short of the necessary tenant changes. The general of the Manhattan Company Building, William Starrett, commanded with an iron-fist and clockwork precision. He planned every move and had “expediters” watch that his orders were carried out to the letter—and second. They knew the art of this war better than anyone.

There were actually five Starrett brothers. Raised in Lawrence, Kansas, they came from a family of carpenters and stonemasons. Building was in their blood. Their father, a minister who survived Quantrell’s raids on the town, designed and constructed the local Presbyterian church and the stone house where they lived. Their mother, a Quaker schoolteacher, instilled a work ethic that bordered on the masochistic. The family moved to Chicago when the city was “a young giant bursting [its] clothes,” in the words of Paul Starrett. The oldest son, Theodore, cut a path for his younger brothers to follow, joining the office of Burnham & Root as a draftsman. Paul left school early as well, going first to a ranch in New Mexico to fend off tuberculosis, then moving back to Chicago for a stenographer’s job that Theodore arranged with “Uncle Dan” Burnham. Not skilled at drawing—“lousy,” Paul said of himself—he focused on overseeing the construction of the firm’s commissions; he liked figuring the strength of the columns and beams, setting foundations, and learning everything there was to know about brickwork, plumbing, hoists, elevators, flooring, and how they came together on a site. He considered becoming an engineer until Burnham stopped him. “You can hire any number of engineers who will be content spending their whole lives doing routine,” he said. “You Starrett boys are different. You have a genius for organization and leadership.” At Burnham & Root, he superintended the construction of two pavilions at the 1893 Columbia Exposition, among a number of other major projects, before moving on to New York, where he rose to be president of the Fuller Company, which was the first construction company to organize itself into a large-scale business. At this position, he oversaw the building of landmarks including Pennsylvania Station; the Plaza, Commodore, and Biltmore Hotels; the Lincoln Memorial; and a multitude of office buildings.

The third and fourth brothers, Ralph and Goldwin, also went into the business. The youngest, William, was saved from the grocery trade when hired as an office boy at the Fuller Company. In New York, he was the timekeeper on the Flatiron Building’s construction (1902), ensuring the scheduled flow of material and men. Before turning thirty years old, he superintended the erection of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station (1907), managing hundreds of men and millions of dollars in costs. His understanding of how each of the trades worked off one another, despite their separate paces, and how the timely delivery of steel and stone fueled this motion, gave him a reputation for efficiency. During World War I, he ran a division of the War Industries Board responsible for the war effort’s domestic construction, including barracks, hospitals, airfields, roads, electricity, and other facilities needed to house and train 1.8 million soldiers. He oversaw roughly $150 million worth of construction in the summer of 1917, the speed of his work contributing significantly to the mobilization of trained draftees to the Western Front. At the time of the Armistice signing, he had been promoted to colonel.

In 1922, Paul and William joined forces and added a partner, Andrew Eken, a Fuller Company vice president, to build one of the largest construction companies in the country. They were widely praised for their speed and well-organized management of projects. Their principal role, as detailed by William Starrett in his famous volume, Skyscrapers and the Men Who Build Them, was “not to erect steel, brick, or concrete, but to provide a skillful, centralized management for coordinating the various trades, timing their installations and synchronizing their work according to a predetermined plan, a highly specialized function.”

If you stopped at the 40 Wall Street site and peered through a gap in the ten-foot-high protecting wall, you would have seen only chaos. In the morning, men kicked about in lines to receive a nod from their foreman that they had a job for the day. An endless flow of Mack trucks brought wood, wire, aluminum, plaster, brick, and stone up the Pine Street ramps, unloaded, and drove away. Just as quickly the material was hoisted through wooden chutes and up the sides of the building. In this beehive, spare space was a luxury. Derricks swung their booms. Rivets shot through the air. Pneumatic hammers went rat-tat-tat. Electric saws cut through wood. Wheelbarrows careened through the traffic of men and machine. Donkey engines whined, and bell signals rang and rang, as if a nervous child was at the helm in the foreman’s office. Men with notebooks spun through the maze of a dozen trades, spying here, looking there, ducking past men carrying sacks, scribbling on their pads, and then hurrying away to another corner of the site. Timekeepers filed in and out of the constructor’s field office. Mixers clattered and spun their viscous dough. Cables and pipes snaked through the lower floors, sharing space with terra-cotta workers and the sweepers who tried to fight back the swell of debris.

Steel gangs scrambled up the columns to receive the beam connections, no mesh net or rope to stop a fall. They moved about like spiders on the web they spun. With the high summer sun beating relentlessly on their backs, the men dripped with sweat, but no more so than those charged with heating rivets in their small cauldrons up two hundred feet high. On the cable scaffolds below, bricklayers shouted for more mortar, their bodies twisting up-left-and-down-right to fix the eighth-floor wall with hand and trowel. Concrete was slathered onto steel. Hoists brought more hoppers of brick. Winches clattered. Temporary mine-cage elevators carried the men from floor to floor. The derricks lifted another tier of columns. Debris shot down the chutes and crashed into a bin, shooting up a cloud of dirt and dust. Two thousand men heaved, shoved, cut, climbed, hammered, groaned, smoked, ate, drank, signaled, lifted, mixed, threw, dodged, and spent muscle and sweat in a flurry of motion.

To glean any order from the chaos, one needed only to step into the field office, a shedlike structure placed strategically at the edge of the action at 40 Wall Street. There, a heavy-built man with mallet hands, Mr. Adams, stood among a crew of timekeepers and auditors. As job superintendent, the former carpenter oversaw every worker on the construction site. He took his marching orders from central command, a thirteenth-floor office on Fortieth Street and Park Avenue which was Starrett Brothers & Eken headquarters. Paul and William Starrett sat behind solid, plain desks. There was no fine artwork on the walls or fancy ornamentation, the sparse furnishings belied the fact that at the moment they ran over $40 million in construction projects. Behind their soft features, spectacles, and bald pates stirred a passion for building and leadership that distinguished them as more than worthy competitors to Chrysler and any others hoping to erect the world’s tallest skyscraper. At sixty-two years old, Paul Starrett, and his younger brother, William, had witnessed the birth of skyscrapers in Chicago and had written much of their history since. They brought that vast pool of experience to 40 Wall Street.

On the site, Mr. Adams had stacks of plans to execute for the Starretts. Like a battalion leader, he changed the location of his command quarters every six weeks or so, and his team of ninety packed up and shifted across the field to be better placed amid the action. Beyond the schedules for steel deliveries and erection dates, the progress of each trade was charted out by odd-numbered days and even-numbered story levels. The lines looked to be chasing one another across the page: steel, pouring arches, brick, floor fill, elevators, plaster, electric work, tile, marble, plumbing fixtures, and terrazzo. This said nothing of the thousands of drawings (architectural, structural, mechanical) blueprinted, filed, and indexed on cards. The construction site was orchestrated down to the lowliest laborer.

According to William Starrett, building skyscrapers “is a fascinating game . . . and to those of us who stay in it year after year it’s like strong drink; we get so that we just cannot do without the strenuous activity of it all. And it is a compelling thing, too; a man gets his pride up over it, pride of accomplishment, pride in making good on prediction and forecast. ‘It can’t be done’ carries a challenge that the dyed-in-the-wool builder sometimes too eagerly accepts.” Naysayers were frequent casualties of the Starrett brothers and their schedules.

Every morning before 8 A.M., the foreman of each trade hired his crew for the day. At the gate, they were issued a hiring ticket detailing name, class of worker, and pay rate. The timekeeper then gave each a number and a brass coin that he returned at shift’s end. Twice daily, thirteen timekeepers moved around the site to inspect what the men were doing and whether or not they had slipped out for a drink at the nearest speakeasy. At week’s end, each worker was issued an aluminum check with his number that he then handed in to the paymaster. The job runner on the site acted like a field commander, scrambling between architect and subcontractor with drawings, verifying that each revision in the plan was checked and counterchecked. His team of seven expediters ensured the on-time delivery of materials, tracking shipments such as stone from the quarries to the construction site. The chief foreman then managed the eight hoists that carried these materials to the workmen on each floor. They followed orders from the construction department, who managed each of the fifty subcontractors. Every system was so well traced that the Starrett brothers, who owned the hoists, charged the subcontractor’s use of them by the hour: $5 per. A daily job diary, much like a battlefield report, detailed the number of men employed by the Starrett brothers and their subcontractors. In shorthand, it listed the activities of the men, including even the number of water boys, who given the sweltering August heat, were in sharp demand. While the Starrett brothers ran fifteen other construction jobs simultaneously with 40 Wall Street, they knew what costs they “had in the building as of August 18, just how far each item of construction had been carried, and whether or not (barring acts of God and the public enemy) the building would be finished on the following May 1.”

The most important factor in the schedule was the delivery and erection of the steel. If the iron workers and derrick gangs ran even one afternoon behind schedule, then the other trades were forced to slow down. In a rare show of faith, Starrett Brothers entrusted the structural engineering, fabrication, and erection of the seventeen thousand tons of steel to the fabricator Levering & Garrigues of New York. Given the tight schedule, fabrication of the steel was split between three plants, one run by Levering & Garrigues and two contracted out to Bethlehem Steel Company. On Monday morning the men in charge of fabrication, erection, purchasing, and shop drawings planned out the steel needed that week and what days it should be delivered. Despite experts harping that the demand for speed was simply too harsh for the steel fabricators, the president of Bethlehem promised the Starretts, “We will make our deliveries on time. Work twenty-four hours a day, Saturday, Sundays and holidays if necessary.” They never disappointed, having the tiers of steel ready as needed. The expediters then contacted the foreman two days prior to delivery to learn the exact hour the derrick and riveting gangs required the steel.

Railcars brought the steel to the New Jersey shore, a fact always confirmed by the expediters, who contacted the railroad yards. The boat captains who navigated the steel across the river were informed of the weight of that day’s steel. The expediter also contacted the New York City dockmaster, who would arrange for a berth for the lighter, and the trucks knew when to arrive to pick up the steel from the Old Slip. Every rolled column and beam was tattooed with a number and other markings, specifying the truck to carry it to the site and the derrick to lift it out. The truck matched its color code with that of a derrick at 40 Wall Street. After maneuvering through the congested downtown streets, the drivers idled south of William Street and waited for their colored flag to be raised, and then drove forward for the steel to be hoisted from the truck bed. Military precision.

By middle August 1929, they had already completed the complicated truss work for the banking rooms and the setbacks on the eighth, twelfth, and nineteenth floors. Soon the steel erection would move into high gear. The tower only had 33 columns to carry each floor, a sharp reduction from the 103 needed for the fourth floor. The weight of each of these columns fell as dramatically because the higher they were placed, the less of a load they needed to carry. Of course, all of this was charted out in scores of diagrams, each steel member calculated to its exact load, then numbered and punched with slots for its connections. The engineers forecasted potential wind loads and designed kneebraces to secure the tower’s rigidity. Every energy—from the members of the 40 Wall Street board, from Levering & Garrigues and Starrett Brothers, to consulting structural engineers Purdy & Henderson, to Craig Severance, Yasuo Matsui, and consulting architects Shreve & Lamb—had been directed toward the soundness and efficiency of the design.

Then Severance discovered that the steel and architectural plans, as drawn, didn’t carry the tower higher than the Chrysler Building. Their uptown rival was set on going higher than the announced 808 feet. This was unacceptable for the 40 Wall Street team, even as derrick #5 lowered its boom to hoist the bundle of steel from truck #7D, and the surefooted Ed Radigan readied to heat another rivet. It was the first of many surprises to come in the days ahead.

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