A Three-way Race

My name is Ozymandias, King of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

The better the secret, the harder it is to keep. Chrysler took a leap of faith in thinking word of his going higher would remain a secret. With each person in the know, the possibility of a slip grew tenfold: a draftsman in Van Alen’s office might have glanced at one of his finial drawings and had a friend who worked for Severance; the structural engineer Ralph Squire might have dictated a letter to the wrong stenographer about a change in the shop drawings; a foreman at the steel fabrication shops might have told the Starretts since they brought so much business; or perhaps someone simply spoke too loudly over dinner. In the small New York construction community, it was only a matter of time before Severance learned of Chrysler’s plan. He never confessed who told him, nor would one expect him to tell. At least Van Alen and Chrysler managed to keep the specifics of their plan from leaking. By August, Severance only knew that Van Alen meant to beat out the Manhattan Company Building in the height race.

The summer should have been a good one for Severance. He was the lead architect on what he thought would be the tallest skyscraper ever built in New York. He had recently won the commission from Julius Nelson to build a forty-five-story skyscraper at Thirty-fourth Street and Seventh Avenue that he promoted as a “modern interpretation of the ancient Greek architecture.” The building boom continued, and business was good. A legion of draftsmen and specification writers toiled away in the huge open space of his twelfth floor office on Forty-fourth Street. His two lead designers, Langfour and Lazinsk, drew most of the original sketches and plans, working together so effortlessly that they seemed almost one person. While Severance met with clients in his private office fitted with a gold Tiffany desk set and a horsehair couch, his secretary, Charlie Gross, a tall unsightly man, made sure the boss’s orders were followed and tracked every dollar that went in and out of the office. Severance had job captains leading teams of draftsmen on different projects and engineers for them to consult with on structural or mechanical questions. The speed of construction on the Manhattan Company Building was proof of the kind of architect that excelled in this modern world.

But forces beyond his control, namely the press, were out for him. In June, the same critic that lambasted his design of the Delmonico Building struck again with a review of the Ohrstrom-backed office building at 400 Madison Avenue. “Distressingly pretentious,” said T-Square. The crown “breaks out in a riot of battlements and machicolations that seem entirely unnecessary. And oh, the unevenness of the stone jointing.” Severance couldn’t have taken this well, but there was nothing to do. When he had previously sued the New Yorker because of a bad review, the attention drawn to the suit only brought more notice to the embarrassing remarks. Then in August Pencil Points published a flattering profile of Van Alen that depicted Severance as a “suffocated poet,” one who had sacrificed his imagination and passion for the sake of business success. The article concluded that since Van Alen had severed their partnership, “his most strikingly original and interesting things have been produced.” To worsen matters, the New Yorker subsequently published reports of a race between two New York skyscrapers, first saying that Van Alen was designing both and, second, mistaking the Manhattan Company Building with One Wall Street.

Never, so far as [Van Alen] knew, had an architect been placed in such an awkward position before. Things have been going along in his office strangely—staff divided into two, each side commanded to secrecy, secret codes, two kinds of hog-Latin employed, secret passageways, workmen pledged. All most complicated. What will happen to Mr. Van Alen nobody knows, but observers think it likely that when both buildings are done Mr. Chrysler will probably release a ten-thousand-ton, collapsible, unfolding, one-man top on his building and be countered by No. 1 Wall Street with a semi-floating Zeppelin superstructure, and that the duel will then begin all over again.

Humiliatingly for Severance, the correction two weeks later failed to name him as the architect on the Manhattan Company Building. Not only was Van Alen aiming to go higher, but the press continued to treat him as some kind of hero while Severance suffered its scorn, or worse, absence of mention. Severance was not one to turn the other cheek, especially to the likes of his former partner. He had a reputation to maintain, and there were few able to hold his will at bay.

Van Alen was now decidedly in his path and had much to fear in placing himself there. George Ohrstrom was just as stalwart a competitor, having proven his mettle in war and by amassing an empire in terrain thick with those who prey on the unfit. He needed weekend fox hunts (golf was too slow) and the five-mile walk from his office each night to burn off all the fight he had left in him by the end of each day. This was a man who said that his career was not motivated by money, but rather “the game” of outwitting those who dared go up against him. As for the Starrett brothers, it took only so many of their allusions to the equivalence of war and construction to see what they had at stake. A change in the schedule and the additional costs of revising the height was a small price to pay for a building that would “last as long as the pyramids,” said their partner Andrew Eken.

The winner of this race had much more at stake than a trophy on a shelf or a line in a record book. His victory would stand tall in the skyline long after his days had ended. To win was to secure one’s place in history with the most visible of landmarks. Yet as the skyscraper race in New York came to a boil, expressions of pride at stake were muted at best. The architects and their clients talked about achieving the maximum levels of return in rentable area. “Economic height” was the phrase of choice. Meetings discussing plans to go higher were kept quiet, and the reasons for such even quieter. Publicly they maintained that every decision about height was based on the bottom line.

Yet these were men of Homeric levels of hubris in an age when anything and everything was possible. Having attained the pinnacles of success in their chosen professions, they each were looking to crown their careers. As for a challenge of egos, well, that was left to anonymous statements like the one National Geographic published after the close of the twenties:

“Why did you make it so high?” the journalist Fred Simpich asked the owner of a “cloud tickler” on Forty-second Street.

The man discoursed on land values, zoning regulations, leases, cubic foots, square foots, and crowding.

“Yet Egypt couldn’t have been so crowded,” Simpich pressed. He promised not to use any names in the article. “When Cheops piled up his Great Pyramid; nor Babylonia when its people raised their tower . . . But there was Nebuchadnezzar . . .”

“Of course; pride, too,” the owner confessed, moving to his office window. He stared out at the city below him as drifts of fog passed across the sky.

The Manhattan Company Building, like most skyscrapers in New York, had a return to make and was planned to achieve this end. To win the crown of the tallest, however, the architects and their backers made decisions that had little to do with anything as rational as economic height. Their actions spoke for themselves.

“Don’t tell me how it can’t be done. Tell me how to do it,” Ohrstrom often told his people, and he must have been in such a mood when he brought the Starretts and Severance together and decided to change the plans. It would wreak some havoc with the schedule, but by the third week in October, one way or another, they would surpass the Chrysler Building.

The architects began the redesign. Although Matsui was not as motivated as Severance to beat Van Alen, the Japanese architect understood the “lure of having the highest and largest structure” and proved instrumental in their efforts to attain it. By August 18, they had settled on adding five “penthouse” floors on top of the sixty-seven stories as previously announced, bringing the total height of the Manhattan Company Building to 900 feet. By increasing the pitch of the pyramid crown, they fit the additional stories. It was a simple solution that didn’t require any major adjustments to the structural steel design in the lower floors. Some builders later commented that the foundations and structural steel were planned from the beginning to support a heavier load, if necessary, in order to “whipsaw” Chrysler’s skyscraper into second place. Known for certain, however, was that the additional height (and costs encumbered) added a nominal amount of additional rental space for potential tenants and was excluded from investment return calculations. “Economic height” was not an issue in the 40 Wall Street team’s decision.

Now they needed to keep this secret from reaching Van Alen, or they would have to push even higher. As for a “Zeppelin super-structure,” as predicted by the New Yorker, such a plan was never floated, at least not on Severance’s skyscraper.

In August of 1929, a rumor floated in real-estate circles that a new developer would soon take over the Waldorf-Astoria site at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue from the Bethlehem Engineering Company. Its president, Floyd Brown, had failed to deliver the final payment due Chatham Phenix National Bank and Trust Company, and the bankers promptly took the lease away from him. The head of Chatham Phenix, Louis G. Kaufman, put together a syndicate of the who’s who of New York business to finance the project, promising a monumental office building instead of loft-space for light manufacturing and storage as previously designed by Shreve & Lamb. By August the site had yet to be cleared and there were no further announcements from Kaufman’s office.

Who would swoop in and take over the project? Given the steep rise in land values, the two-acre site would need a tall skyscraper to see any return on the lease’s purchase. More important, this was the Waldorf-Astoria: the epicenter of New York society for nearly four decades. The eight private dining rooms and ballroom had seen extravaganzas and fêtes for kings and queens. If anything replaced it, it would have to be grand.

Three months before, the hotel had received guests for the final time. People wept. The city mourned. The event had all the trappings of a public funeral: baked meats, sober speeches, an American flag at half-staff, and people soaking their sorrows in too much wine. Some lamented the passing of a great landmark, one that hosted royalty, noble statesmen (including every United States president since its opening) and returning soldiers from World War I. Others already missed Oscar, who ran the place with the kind of old-world service that was disappearing in this hectic, hard-driving city. William Pendergrast, chairman of the Public Service Commission, gave the hotel’s eulogy to the five hundred prominent New Yorkers invited to the final ballroom dinner, saying, “Instead of having the feeling that something near and dear is dying, another interpretation is that something very much like a great personality . . . is retiring after many years to a peace to which it is entitled.”

In more genteel times, the night may have ended with that, but this was 1929. In the roof garden, Benjamin Wise, a famous auctioneer, stood behind a podium and called forth a glass-topped mahogany dresser.

“The first item of the sale, ladies and gentleman, and a gorgeous thing it is. Solid mahogany. Beautiful lines. Please do not say anything less than fifty.”

“Ten,” came a cry. Wise began listing all the celebrities who had touched the dresser’s mahogany. The bids surged to twenty dollars. A woman shouted, “Twenty dollars and fifty cents.”

“Who said fifty cents?” Wise asked. “There is no such thing as fifty cents, madame. This is the Waldorf. Please don’t forget. This is the Waldorf.”

It went on for hours—rugs, tapestries, paintings, tables, and Louis XIV chairs.

“Who starts it at $20?” Wise yelled. “Seven, seven, seven, Eight! Ten—twelve and a half. Fifteen! Seventeen! Waldorf rugs. No dollar-a-yard sale stuff here! My, what a bargain! Going at nineteen! Sold to this lady. Show your number, lady. Sixty-nine. Sold!”

Another landmark was reduced to what the market would bear in dollars (the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel would later relocate to Park Avenue and Forty-ninth Street). Yet for all the New York glitterati at the farewell evening, two men were conspicuously absent from the evening’s list of attendees: John Jakob Raskob and the former Governor of New York Alfred E. Smith. The press had hounded the two for months, demanding to know what they planned to do now that Smith’s bid for the presidency, backed by Raskob as the Democratic National Chairman, had ended in defeat. It was heard that Raskob, having left General Motors to run the 1928 campaign, would join the Chrysler Corporation to help the automobile man gain on his rivals. But when General Motors reelected Raskob to the Finance Committee, these rumors ended. If Chrysler snubbed him, neither spoke to the press about it, but relations between the two definitely cooled. Raskob also floated the idea of an investment company where those less fortunate than he could invest two hundred dollars but receive five hundred in stock, the difference made up by a loan granted by a subsidiary company. “There would be no limit to the capital of the company,” said Raskob, nor the possible returns to the investor, particularly in these heady stock market days.

As for Smith, he took a position on the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company board while local Democrats continued to urge him to reenter politics. Most stories, however, featured an idle Smith training his parrots to say, “Hello, Al,” and playing the organ grinder for guests at his fourteenth-floor apartment at the Hotel Biltmore on Madison Avenue near Grand Central Terminal. He joked, “Now, if only I had one of those monkeys from my old Albany zoo, I could go out and make a good living.” Sarcasm and investment plans aside, many waited for the real announcement of what these two men, who held so much political and financial power between them, would embark on next.

Masters of the art of spin, Smith and Raskob had plans, but they waited to reveal them until all the pieces moved into place. Known to only a select few, letters and conversations passed back and forth between Raskob and Chatham Phenix’s Kaufman about developing the Waldorf-Astoria site. The two had been close for years and had the kind of relationship where business was done first by handshake, contracts later. Quietly, Raskob gathered information about building operations. He ran figures, lots of figures. “Please do not trouble to acknowledge receipt of this,” he ended one letter to Kaufman, as if closing the loop as tightly as possible. He had two of his men prepare a report on the cost and returns of the General Motors Building in Detroit and the du Pont Building, in Wilmington, Delaware. Kaufman returned with letters that detailed estimates he had run for the Waldorf-Astoria property. Reference was made to the “enormous size of the building,” that Raskob proposed. Indeed. He had big plans, ones to challenge the Chrysler and Manhattan Company towers leaping into the sky. Though at the moment they were battling each other to be the tallest skyscraper ever erected—their builders executing lightning-fast plans—they risked defeat from another front, one that was still only an idea and some profit-loss estimates. Raskob seldom failed to carry through on his plans, and he had already promised Smith could come along with him for the fight.

The caged green parrot in the corner belted out a “Hello, Al!” as the ruddy former Governor of New York eased back into his chair, shirtsleeves rolled up, at the Biltmore Hotel suite where he had lived since leaving Albany. The room was fitted with trophies from Smith’s political life, including a Tammany tiger, photographs with various presidents, and the blue-and-gold Governor’s flag furled in one corner. The whiff of a cigar was constant in the air. It was August 29, 1929. The morning’s headlines would pale in comparison to the next day’s. In the nearly ten months since Hoover beat Smith in a landslide election in which the governor lost his own state, there hadn’t been much news to report on Smith. He had retreated from the spotlight because of a long campaign of taking it on the chin for being a Roman Catholic, a New Yorker, an anti-prohibitionist, a man who pronounced radio “raddio” and hospital “horspital.” The electorate had spoken: they cared more for the business of business than the people who slaved away in shops and factories. It made him even question his faith in the Emma Lazarus sonnet carved on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor . . . Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me . . . I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Smith was raised at 174 South Street in Manhattan, a poor immigrant neighborhood considered the “Wickedest Ward in New York.” At night, prostitutes and petty criminals ruled the tenement-lined streets. Smith’s father was an Irish immigrant in a time when bias against them ran deep. Still he managed to carve out an existence for his family. He drove horses and worked as a part-time guard. There were happy days, like the ones playing on the docks or crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on a rope-and-board walkway before the bridge officially opened. Unfortunately, his father died before Al Smith turned fourteen. His family left destitute, Smith dropped out of Catholic school two years later to support his mother, taking odd jobs as a fishmonger, plumbing supply salesman, and subpoena server. He entered politics to level the playing field for those like him. He fought heroically, won the sobriquet “The Happy Warrior,” and became an institution in New York politics. Now his hold on the levers of power had been wrenched loose.

His six-week vacation in Florida and Cuba—courtesy of his political backers, a litter of Irish-American fat cats including James Riordan, William Kenny, and John J. Raskob—had helped a little. The board positions at Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Riordan’s County Trust Company eased some of the financial pressure of losing his salary, grand residence, staff, and the only job he had known for the last decade. Still, he was a career politician without an office to hold, and his supporters, some of whom were among the reporters crowded in his living room, wanted Al Smith to have a mission, much as he had in fighting for the rights of the underclass, most famously in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that claimed 146 lives, the majority teenage immigrant girls. In the eight months since his defeat, he refused to comment much on the mayoral election slated for that fall, nor on how Hoover was faring in the White House.

Today, he was surrounded by reporters for the first time in months, brushing off their incessant questions: Would he reenter politics? When? In what capacity? Taking a puff on his cigar on that late August afternoon, Smith drew in his audience of reporters. The fifty-five-year-old former actor was a master of anticipation. His short, wiry frame bristled with energy.

“I’m to be an Irish landlord,” Al Smith said with a smile. His bodyguard and the last of his staff from Albany, Sergeant Roy, was ready if any in the room rushed him, demanding to know more. Few dared mess with the big Irish former bouncer.

Smith had a statement to read, but he rarely glanced at prepared scripts. His keen memory held on to facts and names learned years before, and he fascinated friends by attending plays and later repeating dialogues from memory. He could have delivered his prepared speeches verbatim without notes, but he preferred to ad lib. Once during a floor debate in the state legislature, a group of Republican assemblymen tried to humiliate him because of his rough-and-tumble upbringing. Interrupting Smith, one of the men called out, “Mr. Speaker, I have just heard that Cornell won the boat race.” Across the aisle someone shouted, “That doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m a Yale man.” Another returned. “It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m a Harvard man.” After yet another said, “It doesn’t mean anything to me, I’m a U. of M. man.” Smith spun around and retorted, “It doesn’t mean anything to me . . . I am an F.F.M. man.” One of his Tammany colleagues yelled, “What is that, Al?” Smith responded, “Fulton Fish Market. Let’s proceed with the debate.” They had to quiet the laughter down in the assembly first.

That afternoon in his apartment, he put on the same showman’s hat. First he made it clear that he was living up to his promise to tell them of his future plans as soon as he had learned of them. Two hours before their arrival, he had accepted a job as the president of a new corporation that would soon begin demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to build an eighty-story skyscraper called the Empire State Building (hereinafter referred to as the Empire State). The development would cost $60 million, cover two acres of land, and boast a tower that ascended toward the heavens. The job was his main business, and they planned on finishing the construction in eighteen months.

“There are no pikers in this organization. I’m in good company on this deal,” Smith said, detailing his board of directors—some of the wealthiest men in New York, including John J. Raskob; Pierre du Pont, head of General Motors; and Louis Kaufman, president of Chatham Phenix. When asked about the complicated history of the site, how it was that Bethlehem Engineering Company lost their hold on the lease to Chatham Phenix and how Smith and Raskob became involved, the politician simply answered that they had bought the property “from the present owners.” That was the end of that line of questioning.

“But this building we’re going to put up,” he enthused, “will be wonderful. It’s going to be the largest office building in the world and the largest single real estate undertaking in the history of the country.”

He then turned to the written statement, as if duty bound by Raskob. “The building will be close to 1,000 feet high, the equivalent of the length of five city blocks. It can house at one time more than 60,000 people, which is half the population of the city of Syracuse . . . It will tower over the busiest section probably in the world. It will contain 3,000,000 square feet and 64,000,000 cubic feet. From the roof of the building on a clear day looking to the south you can see Sandy Hook, to the north the hills of Westchester Country, to the west the Orange Mountains of New Jersey and to the east a large part of Long Island.”

Not able to help himself, the showman put down the paper. “Why when you get to the tower of that building, nobody will be able to build within 300 feet of us north and south . . . Wouldn’t that be a dandy place for a broadcast station?”

“Do you plan to put one there?” a reporter asked.

“Not that I know of—yet. It just occurred to me what a dandy place it would be for one.” He said that he didn’t even know what he was to be paid, nor had the architects for the skyscraper been chosen.

“Does this mean you are leaving politics?” another reporter pressed.

“No, indeed. I’m not retiring from politics either city, state or national. But I haven’t any political plans at the moment.” He promised to be busy on the construction of the skyscraper, commencing three weeks hence, and later running its operation.

As he finally led the reporters from his suite, one asked when he was moving to his Fifth Avenue penthouse. “Not until after the election, I think,” the former governor replied. “Although the architect was here just before you came and said it would be ready October 1. Do you know one of the things I’m most interested in are these goldfish here?” Underneath the parrot’s cage was a glass bowl of goldfish. “It’s a terrible job,” Smith said, “having to change the water for those fish and the architect is trying to make me a self-filling bowl so I’ll not be bothered with it.”

The next day this blend of underplay, showmanship, wit, and substance had its desired effect: the announcement was carried in the headlines of papers across the country: “80-Story Tower Will Rise Soon” and “Smith to Direct Tallest Building.” Only the Graf Zeppelin’s round-the-world flight and Palestinian riots won out in terms of coverage. Smith “The Happy Warrior” indeed had big plans. The question remained whether the new competitor for the world’s tallest building, whose height promised to be the first to surpass the Eiffel Tower, would be constructed. If bookies posted odds, they set them on no more than a guess. The superskyscrapers of John Larkin and Mussolini remained unbuilt, as did a number of other promised thousand-footers. The leaseholders of Empire State, Inc., could be looking to turn a quick buck. The only one truly able to answer this question was not Al Smith but, rather, John Raskob, who pulled the development’s strings. However, he rarely offered the press an opportunity to court such speculation.

The 40 Wall Street team decided to move ahead with their new plans, more concerned with Van Alen’s redesigns than a paper tiger like the Empire State Building. The question was how to implement those plans in secret. The Manhattan Bureau of Buildings required the filing of all plans and alterations for a building, whether it was seventy-story skyscraper or three-family house, an addition of ten floors or the installation of a bathroom on a tenement’s third floor. The forms needed to be filled out in triplicate, notarized, and approved by the superintendent’s office. Failure to do so resulted in a stop on construction or severe fines. The law was clear, and all these filings were available to the public—and then often published by the press. Somehow they needed to keep their revisions from dockets that detailed the most minor of alterations in the city.

The city no longer reeked of corruption; Teddy Roosevelt no longer stormed the streets as police commissioner, finding crooked dealings at every level of city government. Nonetheless, New York remained a metropolis where influence greased the wheels, and between the Starrett brothers, George Ohrstrom, and Craig Severance, they had plenty of influence at the Bureau of Buildings, given the tens of millions in construction projects they controlled. Not surprisingly, none of them admitted using their influence to keep the plans secret while the steelworkers rigged another column higher (nor did anyone from the Chrysler Building team on their changes). But on or about September 1 revised plans were filed for 40 Wall Street, and nothing showed up on the dockets for public consumption. Paul Starrett said there were attempts “made to learn the closely guarded secret” of their skyscraper’s height, but they managed to keep it quiet, at least for the moment. One can imagine Severance slipping the plans to Charles Brady, the bureau superintendent, over a drink at the Metropolitan Club. Or perhaps Brady knew nothing of it. Perhaps Severance’s trusted lieutenant, Charles Gross, went down to the Municipal Building, the bureau’s headquarters, to pass the revisions to one of Brady’s minions who had been convinced to aid their little deception. What was the harm, really? If confronted, the clerk could confess that the plans were lost in the shuffle of the hundreds of forms that landed on his desk every month. After all, the plans eventually found their way into the building’s file.

These were the chances Severance willingly took to stamp his mark on history. His favorite expression was borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s The Palace: “Carven deep in the timber . . . Chiseled deep in the stone . . . After me cometh the builder . . . Tell him that I too have known.”

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