Call It a “Vertex”

What figure the poet might employ to describe the skyscraper, dwarfing the church, outpointing the cathedral spire . . . There is an epic implication in man’s defiance of the laws of gravity and beauty in the naked uplift of steel.

—Sheldon Cheney

Every time William Van Alen stopped at the Chrysler Building construction site, he was watching a line of his design being realized, whether by the men putting up the brickwork or those connecting another story of the skyscraper’s frame to the one below. It was a slow, deliberate process, advanced one day at a time. He must have been anxious to speed the construction, to see the dome rise in a web of steel. Still he had much to appreciate by September 4. Workers had finished the four setbacks flanking the north and south ends of the skyscraper. To the west and east, the tower rose from the fifth story clear toward the sky. His many months of paper designs had finally taken form in steel and stone.

Below the first setback at the seventeenth floor, the gridiron of windows, along with the basket-weave pattern of white brick and Georgia marble, gave, as Van Alen had hoped, an expression of “an absence of motion . . . where a sense of stability [was] to be desired,” in the lower masses of the building. Before the second setback at the twenty-fourth floor, the vertical movement of the skyscraper began. The windows flowed upward in a seamless line, the result of his use of aluminum spandrels between the windows on each floor. The surrounding white brick drew the eye toward this vertical movement. Between the third and fourth setback, the three stories of brick punctuated by windows had more horizontal lines, again to express the firm base before the tower rose from all four sides. At the thirty-first floor, gargoyles in the shape of the Chrysler radiator cap would cap the corners of this setback. Van Alen had designed their wingspans to spread fifteen feet. More than ornaments, they served to break the optical illusion of the tower bulging at the top. Between the thirtieth and thirty-first floors, a black-and-white brickwork mosaic of cars raced around the skyscraper. Van Alen had drawn these mosaics, and much of the building’s surface treatment, during his rush of design work the preceding February. While Chrysler had his cars and Mercury wings, Van Alen put his mark on the building with a series of inverted V figures patterned in the brickwork between the windows on the twenty-sixth floor. The chevrons were a symbol from the Van Alen family shield.

Above these setbacks, the tower rose unobstructed. In the center of each tower face, the windows drew the eye upwards in one great sweep. He managed this by designing the spandrels between the windows of each floor with dark tones, so they matched the look of the windows from a distance. Then to the sides of the tower face he highlighted the horizontal lines of each floor by specifying black glazed brick to be set in the piers between the windows. Black brick, stretching from the edge of the windows to the corners of the tower, further tied together these horizontal bands.

On September 4, Post & McCord was putting together the sixty-fourth floor, while the bricklayers hurried below them. A derrick perched on the twenty-sixth floor brought up another bundle of beams from the street and rested them on the landing platform. Another derrick station on the fifty-ninth-floor stepback relayed the steel higher. Since the setback was only nine feet wide, a special cantilever platform had been constructed to widen the space by twelve feet for the derrick. Other derricks then carried the steel to the connectors now putting up the next frame of steel. It wouldn’t be long before the builders would begin the erection of the dome, a complicated web of curved and angled steel whose members were shaped in a shipbuilding shop and would require painstaking exactness to assemble. Unlike the floors below, the dome was not a matter of repetition; rather each steel member demanded a close look at the blueprints to see where it went. Plus, the men would have to work from pipe scaffolding since the interior framing at these levels was too complicated to stage the steel erection.

Despite these difficulties, this work was nothing compared to what would be constructed within the dome’s fire tower at the sixty-fifth floor. Only those who had to know of this “vertex”—as Van Alen called his secret weapon to win the skyscraper race—were informed. Not even the steelworkers selected to build the tall spire would know fully what they were constructing. Since Van Alen came up with the idea earlier that summer, he had sketched and revised the vertex numerous times. With Ralph Squire, the structural engineer, Van Alen settled on the design of the twenty-seven-ton steel structure. Nothing had ever been built like it, but Van Alen knew it would serve as the perfect finishing point to his skyscraper.

“The tower should grow out of the lower masses surrounding it,” he said of skyscraper design, “and it should terminate in a crowning feature that is a natural and logical development of the tower itself, not merely an ornament placed on the top of the tower. All parts of the design should be tied together in a closely knit composition, each part not only belonging to the whole but accentuating the effectiveness of the other parts.”

Theory aside, Chrysler hoped the radical design would win him the skyscraper race, particularly after Van Alen revised its height upward after Al Smith’s Labor Day weekend announcement. No contender, particularly the skyscraper to rise eight blocks south of his own, would trump his ambition to claim the height crown.

Although it was called the Empire State, to Chrysler, it might as well have carried the General Motors name. He was in direct battle with his former company in the automobile business, and now its two lead men, who had largely caused him to leave Buick years ago, had announced intentions to build a skyscraper higher than his own. Although they had once exchanged letters of kind wishes and good-natured ribbing, Chrysler and Raskob were now set against one another in a competition of ego measured in stories of steel. It was proof of how little human nature had changed in the seven hundred years since rival Italian merchants erected competing towers to prove their prowess in the marketplace.

The brilliance of Van Alen’s spire was that, if they managed to keep it secret, it would stun Raskob and the 40 Wall Street team. But their ability to keep their plans under wraps would be tested soon enough.

“This is not a building for investment primarily, but is to carry the ideals of Mr. Chrysler,” explained Frank Rogers at the September 10 craftsmanship award ceremony for the skyscraper’s workers. The event should have been a quiet one, not worthy of much coverage, if any, in the newspapers. Periodically the New York Building Congress handed out certificates and gold buttons to the workmen who had distinguished themselves on a particular site. Typically, representatives from the Building Congress, workmen, and the skyscraper’s architects and builders congregated for some speeches about a job-well-done and the presentation of awards, yet this afternoon several journalists crowded into the fourth floor of the Chrysler Building for the event. Reports of a skyscraper race were increasingly circulating, and the newspapermen were there to see if it was true.

Neither Chrysler nor Van Alen showed at the ceremony, perhaps not wanting to answer the press’s questions. Standing in for Van Alen, C. B. Deer offered his congratulations to the men and told them how Chrysler had been intimately involved in all of the building’s plans. The contractor Fred Ley stood up to tell the men that “the better you do your work, the more we can do for you.” And after apologizing for Chrysler’s absence due to an urgent meeting in Detroit, Rogers praised his boss as a “super-craftsman” and credited the workmen for their craftsmanship and interest in helping make the skyscraper a unique addition to the New York skyline. As a symbol of their great efforts, Chrysler planned on placing in the building’s lobby the mechanic’s tools that he had created many years before.

Then a New York Sun journalist stood up and posed the question: were the rumors true that Chrysler had plans for his skyscraper to surpass its stated height of 808 feet and sixty-eight stories? He wanted to know if Chrysler planned on allowing the Manhattan Company Building, and the recently announced Empire State, to rule the skyline. In a devious play of telling as little of the truth as possible without lying, Rogers answered that the skyscraper consisted of “sixty-eight usable floors.” That evening, the New York Sun carried a single column article recounting Rogers’s response and then mentioned the names of the awarded workmen. Soon enough the articles would command more space and make their way to the front page, above the fold.

A race between skyscrapers suited the “jazz journalism” of the decade perfectly. Interest in politics lost out to business, and business to a good story, mostly those that had a good dose of sex, crime, and outlandishness: Al Capone and speakeasy raids, Babe Ruth’s home-run bonanza, Commander Byrd’s Arctic expeditions, or a Jack Dempsey fight. As an old-fashioned contest of wills, a skyscraper race would provide great material for the full-page photograph sections now popular in the tabloids. Aside from the two thousand daily newspapers, the newly founded NBC and CBS networks were eager to fill the round-the-clock radio airtime with juicy tales. This demand for stories spawned the cult of celebrity, and like the race to fly solo across the Atlantic, the height contest was about men using the advances of the modern era to soar into the clouds.

Safe from the spotlight, the men who actually built these skyscrapers with their sweat and labor worked backstage to the architects and owners eager to settle old scores. They were not dissimilar to the Florentine uomini senza nome e famiglia (“men without name or family”) who built Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome at the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. They worked long days, reported to a foreman who timed their labor by the hour, climbed hundreds of feet by ladder, ate their meals high above the ground, and if hurt on the site, were often left destitute. In their job a careless slip meant a gruesome death, and there were many such accidents. Under the guidance of Rogers, the Chrysler Building site protected the workers better than Brunelleschi could have hoped for his own men, yet for all the watchmen, temporary railings, elevator shaft barricades, tubular scaffolding, and around-the-clock medical aid, only skill and luck prevented a strong gale of wind from unbalancing a riveter and pitching him headlong from the sixty-fourth story. The reward for their work, tallest building or not, arrived on payday.

The steelworker’s premium rate, $15.40 a day, and high insurance premiums was proof of the peril involved. One insurance company recorded two thousand deaths among the fifteen thousand men they provided coverage in the preceding twenty years. Of course, a look at the men on the Chrysler job demonstrated the risk: the foreman was missing a pair of fingers; a rigger walked with a staggered step, his left leg shorter than the right despite the aid of an artificial heel; a sweeper had a shoulder that sloped at an awkward angle.

Every steelworker had a dozen stories to tell. There was the Frenchman who became unbalanced on a beam ten floors high and saved himself from the long drop by catching his foot on the steel as he fell. He swung himself down to the ninth floor. There was the Irishman who slipped and tumbled down through the interior of a skyscraper before catching his hand on a plank. Then there was the “Prince of Wales of the Girders,” Paul Rockhold for short, who was thirty years old, had started working on steel at fifteen “as a kid on the loose,” and recently won a gold button on the Manhattan Company Building job for his exceptional work. Several years before he had fractured his leg in ten places after a fall from a site off Riverside Drive. When asked “why weren’t you killed in that fall?” Rockhold responded, “The devil wasn’t out that day.” Another time he skipped the stairs and took a ride down on a hoist; the cable slipped and the engineer saved him in the nick of time, stopping the hoist at two hundred feet from the street. The shock of the stop was nearly as bad as the crash would have been.

“Anyone hurt?” a reporter asked him.

“We got our hair rumpled a little. Nerves too perhaps,” Rockhold said.

“Ever been really scared up at the top?”

“Yes, and scared plenty. But when that happens you’ve got to beat the scare.”


“Get fighting mad.”

Rogers could post as many safety bulletins as he liked, but it was men like Rockhold whose sweat and willingness to take risks was what made these buildings rise. On a suspended duck-walk, the bricklayers moved to a tireless rhythm: grab brick from pile, set in place, spread mortar, rotate, grab next brick. A few stories up, the concrete workers poured the floor while the carpenters prepared the walls and elevator shafts. To pass boards up, men stood at the building’s edge and relayed them one at a time. The first man swung the plank in an arc to the man on the floor above, who in turn grabbed the end and swung it in another arc to the third man, and so on up the side of the skyscraper. These workers suffered accidents and the occasional deadly mishap, but the steelworkers stood closest to the reaper’s blade. Of course, those “roughnecks up above yuh,” were puffed up with so much pride, some of the “brickies” thought they deserved what they got.

When the derrick brought up the next tier of steel, the connectors scaled the top of the column below, lined up the holes, and stuck in temporary bolts. They had the most dangerous jobs and as one derrickman put it, “wore out the most clothes.” Another gang scampered up the column after them and dangled a plumb-line down to make sure the steel was set straight. Then he secured the connection with more bolts. The four-man riveting gang followed. They moved to their own timing, one developed over years together. A riveter’s skill rested not only in his own ability but also in the way he worked with the three others in his gang. And there were always four: the heater, catcher, bucker-up, and gun-man. They developed as a gang and won or lost their jobs as a gang. If a riveter fell ill, the entire gang missed out on the day’s pay and another four took over. When one member found himself on the wrong end of the pneumatic hammer or surrendered to a safer job, then the gang brought in another fellow, passed on their skill, and developed a new rhythm that balanced itself with the old. More often than not, they came from the same town or country. The best gangs usually came from Newfoundland, where their fathers and grandfathers, former sailors, passed on the skill of working up high. Some were Irish, others Mohawk Indians who spoke to one another with hand signals and seemed least affected by the hundreds of feet of empty space below their feet.

A new member worth keeping was one who learned how to do the job well—and quickly. He learned when and how to toss a red-hot rivet to the catcher thirty feet away, whether he was on the same floor or not. He grew skilled in catching the rivet in a tin can (“the cup”) without losing his balance or letting it fall on the unsuspecting public below. If he missed and it hit someone down below, that cheap lump of steel suddenly could cost the builders ten thousand dollars in damages. He learned how long he could drive rivets before his arms went numb and it was time to switch with the bucker-up. Holding the dolly bar on the other end was an easier job than managing the pneumatic hammer that weighed thirty-five pounds, drove a thousand blows per minute, and shook the steel for a good ten stories.

The new guy learned how to avoid the snaking coils of pneumatic tubing under his feet, and why it was not such a good idea to drink at the local Irish bar past midnight the night before. Most of all, he learned to take care in bad weather. Said one riveter, it was “the most dangerous part of the work. We see quite a lot of the weather. When it rains, everything gets slippery. And when it gets cold, sometimes your hands get so stiff that you can’t hang on to anything. That’s bad.”

In spite of all these lessons, a man still needed to master his fears to take the elevator as high as it would go and then ascend a series of wooden ladders to the topmost part of the skeleton skyscraper. It was not uncommon, said one grizzled foreman, for new steelworkers to “find themselves on a narrow beam with no handhold, fall flat on their stomach, clutch the beam, wrap themselves round it, shut their eyes and gasp as though drowning.” Unlike the thousands forced to construct the pyramids of Egypt, these steelworkers chose this line of work, despite the risks. “You don’t retire from this job,” said one heater on the Manhattan Company Building who had a scar on the side of his head from rivet he failed to catch. Older men, deaf from the concussion of the riveter’s gun, continued steeplejacking until their bodies gave out. Some were thrill-seekers and simply liked the view; others started in the trade as a rivet-jack, running errands for the gang, and knew of no other life than the one up on the narrow beams. Most loved the freedom of knowing that if their boss rode their backs too hard, they needed only collect their pay and move on. There was always another frame of steel going up across the street or in another city. Their allegiance to the owners of the skyscraper was tenuous at best. Described one steelworker: “We have an old axiom: when working on something that may fail and leave us behind, we work one hand for ourselves and one hand for the company.”

At 4:30 when the whistle blew, the cacophony on the site ended abruptly, as if the curtain had been drawn on a great show. Tools were set away; the coke furnace used to heat the rivets was extinguished. The steelworkers threw on coats and grabbed their lunch pails. Some slid down columns. Others moved quickly to the ladders, then the elevators. They settled with the timekeepers and scattered in a hundred different directions, some to sit down with their families for dinner, others to clean up for a date with the new gal, and many to put back a whisky at the nearest speakeasy and call it a day’s job done.

Did they care about the height race? Probably not, unless they had bet a few days’ wages on who would win. “When a steel man gets through with a skyscraper,” said journalist William Bridges after profiling several in the New York Sun, “it isn’t a part of him. It’s a good job, or a tough job, or maybe he almost got bumped off while he was working on it, so he remembers it for that reason. As a thing that artists paint and writers strive mightily to describe, he doesn’t see a skyscraper. His part of it doesn’t show, anyway. The brick masons come along at his heels and cover up the skeleton as fast as he runs it up. It isn’t his building when he gets through.”

They were like the sailors of the great expeditions of old. They enjoyed their freedom, bore the perils, and took pride in their skill. As Paul Rockhold said, “You get to love it and can’t quit it. Life down on the street’s too slow. Who wants to be a pencil pusher after he’s worked with steel . . . It’s nice to point to a mighty suspension bridge or a towering building and say, ‘I helped erect that.’ ” But the glory went to those whose orders they executed. In building skyscrapers, this glory, and the concern in obtaining it, was reserved for the likes of Walter Chrysler and the others who wore suits instead of brown denim overalls, rubber-soled shoes, and caps drawn tight over their heads.

Paul Starrett had long since traded in his scuffed-up clothes for attire befitting the board room. In the second week of September as the Manhattan Company Building speeded toward its completion, he and his brother, William, arrived at the Biltmore Hotel to meet with Al Smith and bid on the Empire State job. Had they been gamblers, they would have referred to this as covering their bets in the skyscraper race. Four other builders had already met with the owners. The Starretts, always ones to take advantage of an edge, knew Robert Brown, a vice president of Chatham Phenix and the man charged with setting up these presentations. They were “old friends,” said Paul Starrett, who told Brown that he wanted to be the last builder to make his proposal. This way he could play off and against the promises made by the others. In a call before the meeting, Brown also let him address a concern that Raskob and his team had about the 40 Wall Street construction job.

During the call, Brown said to Paul Starrett, “A rival of yours just told me that you spent money like drunken sailors down there on overtime.”

Paul admitted the overtime expense. It was “justified” and “worth $2,000,000” to have the skyscraper ready by May 1930.

“I am glad to hear that, Paul,” Brown said. The builder’s word was enough to end the matter.

The two brothers rode the elevator to the fourteenth floor and the secretary told them to wait. The competition filed in and out of Smith’s office. Paul was anxious, an emotion foreign to him when bidding on a job. After all, the Starretts had built this very hotel. He had mastered these meetings long ago, knowing what to say and when. His confidence in his craft went unquestioned, still Paul felt the same unease of a kid pacing before his first interview. He wanted this job more than any other; he sensed its importance before knowing much about the design or whether Raskob would come through with the financing.

Finally the fourth builder headed out of Smith’s office, and the secretary ushered the Starretts inside. The former Governor greeted them. “Well, what have you got to say for yourself?”

Raskob was there, no doubt drumming his fingers on the table, which he often did when in the process of making a decision. Even at fifty years old, he had the look of an eager student, perched at the edge of his chair, listening intently, in command of all the facts. Smith sat at the table’s head. Pierre du Pont, Louis Kaufman, and the other members of the syndicate also attended. The wealth in the room and its hold on the city’s levers of power awed architect Richmond Shreve, whose firm Raskob had unofficially chosen to design the skyscraper. The architect provided another edge for the Starretts in this meeting. As a consultant on the Manhattan Company Building, Shreve had seen the builders in action. He could testify to their efficient command on site. Plus, if the Starretts won the job, nobody was better to work with than Shreve and his partners.

The mild-mannered Shreve had the presence of an accountant and often took to scribbling numbers in his notebook. He wore conservative suits, glasses, and had the thinning hair of a man who constantly ran his hands through it while trying to solve a problem. There were few architects with more vigor and understanding of the complexities of building the modern skyscraper. Every morning, Shreve worked two hours at home before having breakfast and leaving for the office at eight o’clock. In the evening, he hiked a mile uphill to reach the house he had designed overlooking the Hudson River. In between, he directed an architectural practice with over thirty draftsmen, oversaw commissions worth millions of dollars, and demanded that his office and construction projects run on or ahead of time—no compromises. Shreve was an immigrant from Nova Scotia, had run his own paper route growing up in Albany, New York, and possessed a keen dislike for wasted effort. One architect who had spent time with Shreve on the various architectural and building committees he led said that if the polite Shreve “thought his idea in danger or accomplishment delayed or obstructed, his natural instincts of a fighter were roused; people were of secondary importance and he could be quite ruthless.” Raskob had chosen his architect well. Hopefully, he had the same good taste in builders.

Paul began his pitch with a little truth-twisting, saying that they were the only builders who first trained as architects. He recounted their jobs with New York Life and Metropolitan Life (Paul knew the latter’s money would be useful to the Empire State Company in winning a loan to finance the $50 million skyscraper). As for speed, the rate of four floors erected per week on the 40 Wall Street site spoke for itself. Paul told the group that they were the ideal candidates to build the Empire State and that construction speed was paramount.

“Our fee is insignificant compared with the amount we will save you by shortening the time of construction,” the builder said, deflecting early the criticism that Brown warned him about.

“How much is your fee?” Smith asked.

“Six hundred thousand.”

“That’s your asking price.”

“No, that’s our real price!”

“But you fellows will get a lot of advertising out of this,” Smith countered. “Think of it, the biggest building in the world, and your name down there on the fence! Advertising is a wonderful thing, Starrett! Look at Dobbs. Dobbs gives me all my hats, and when I go out and make a speech I hold up the hat so that people can see the name Dobbs on it! That shows what value Dobbs puts on advertising!”

Raskob and the others laughed. Paul’s nerves had settled enough for him to respond, “I know it would be a wonderful thing to build this building, but I’m through with building buildings to advertise myself. I’ve been in the business forty years, Governor, I don’t need that kind of advertising.”

“How much equipment have you got on hand?” Smith asked.

“Not even a pick and shovel.” He needed to prove why they were worth the fee, not argue the number, not yet. Paul realized another builder had promoted their command of all the equipment needed for the job. “Gentleman, this building of yours is going to present unusual problems. Ordinary building equipment won’t be worth a damn on it. We’ll buy the new stuff, fitted for the job, and at the end sell it and credit you with the difference. That’s what we do on every big job. It costs less than renting second-hand stuff, and it’s more efficient!”

“How much of the work will you do yourselves and how much will you let out?”

Again Paul Starrett saw right through the question: another builder promised their firm would execute much of the work themselves. “We won’t do anything that we can sublet to advantage!” He surprised those in the room. It was important to differentiate themselves from the other builders, and by hiring subcontractors for most aspects of the construction, they would ultimately save time and money.

“How long will it take you to do the job? It took five years to build the New York State Capitol and not so big a building either.”

Paul and his brother had run the numbers, using their experience on the Manhattan Company Building to study the schedule for a skyscraper nearly three times its size. “Well, Governor, we’ll show you the difference between building for the government and building for a private company.”

At the end of the interview, they exchanged the usual pleasantries and Smith thanked the Starrett brothers for their time. Paul and William left the room and hoped their bold answers had won the board’s favor. Back in Smith’s office, Raskob knew he had just met the men who would build his skyscraper. As usual he had let his front man run the conversation, while Raskob held the final word. The decision to choose Starrett Brothers & Eken, who now battled Chrysler with the 40 Wall Street skyscraper, was a quick one. Smith and Shreve were dispatched to the builder’s office on 101 Park Avenue to settle on the price. It was a minor expense compared to the $16 million for the land and nearly double that in labor and material costs. By September 13, they had a letter agreement with the Starretts, and an announcement was made soon after.

All that remained to be done was to settle on the design and begin knocking down the old Waldorf-Astoria’s walls.

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