The Prize of the Race

New York is the San Gimignano of today, its bankers and wholesalers playing Montecchi and Capuleti with each other.

—Karl Lamprecht

In early October, Severance drove down with his daughter, Faith, to the Manhattan Company Building to tour the skyscraper. The column tiers had reached the fiftieth floor and they had to maneuver around the trucks bringing the next bundle of steel. Speed and height were the two measures of this race, and the 40 Wall Street team led in the first, and as far as the press and Severance knew, they were slated to win the second.

Leaving the chauffer to park the Rolls-Royce, Severance and his seven-months-pregnant daughter entered the site. She didn’t have to sign the usual waiver required by visitors. They stepped through the site and into the mine-cage elevator, which was simply a caged wooden platform operated by one of workmen. One writer called it a “vertical coffin.” Faith was not afraid as the gate closed and the bell rang, signaling the platform’s rise. It jarred and ratcheted upwards, gathering speed with each floor. While holding to the side of the cage, Faith observed in quick succession the various stages of construction. In the basement engineers installed the three massive vaults. Four enormous trusses allowed the second floor banking room to run its length without columns. On the seventh floor, workers laid the granite and limestone walls. The bricklayers had completed the walls from the eighth floor to the thirtieth floor and were fast at work on the next. Over two hundred workers moved about these floors lathing and plastering the inside. Derricks on the twenty-sixth-floor setback lifted steel up the side of the building and mixers turned the concrete before laborers poured it on the wooden-framed floor arches. Two thousand men—carpenters placing hoist rails, pipefitters attending to the steam siphons, asbestos helpers covering water risers, electricians wiring outlets, glaziers putting in windows, heating contractors installing radiators, laborers pushing buggies full of debris—moved about to the Starretts’ orders, and Severance pointed out to Faith what some of the men were doing. He spared her details on the importance of column loads and wind braces, unless she asked.

On several floors, Severance introduced his daughter to the men. He knew many by name and was as comfortable around them as he was the businessmen and financiers he met with at the Metropolitan Club. Regardless, the popular game of craps played by some of the workers on the higher floors was likely shelved until he departed.

The elevator didn’t yet extend to the fiftieth floor. Severance and his daughter would have had to scale a series of ladders to reach that high, but several floors below, Faith watched the riveting gangs securing another connection of steel. White-hot rivets passed between the heaters and catchers. The din of pneumatic hammers drowned out the taxicab horns and whistles of the boats passing in the harbor below. The fall winds would soon make the erection of the tower, rising from the last setback on the thirty-sixth floor, a more dangerous and numbing experience. Even now the wind rattled the scaffolds and blew the men’s shirts out behind them like sails. Crews worked day and night on the skyscraper, and they were catching up with the steel on the Chrysler Building, which had slowed as the first two arches of the dome were erected. The gangs on each building measured each other’s progress from their perches in the sky. Even the steel fabricators on each site were so uncertain as to which building would rise tallest that they wagered against one another as to the outcome.

Severance kept the exact details of the height race from his daughter, including the secret changing of plans and that he had promised to go higher than the Chrysler Building, regardless of how many stories Van Alen added. She knew this kind of promise was typical of him and that his desire to win the height race was only equaled by his wish to see Van Alen defeated. As they stood on a narrow section of scaffolding, no walls to any side, Severance and his daughter watched in silence as another rivet arced through the air, and the catcher, after receiving it, tapped the rivet against the column to shed any flakes from the coke fire. The pride Severance felt to have his daughter standing with him hundreds of feet in the air was matched by the swell of feeling Faith had for him, for designing this skyscraper and having achieved so much from the pure exercise of his will.

In October 1929, there was no absence of will—or some said, hubris—being exercised. Far to the west, sculptor Gutzon Borglum was shaping George Washington’s face in the granite side of Mount Rushmore. He and his miners dynamited, drilled, and chiseled his features, the first of four presidents to be memorialized in stone 5,700 feet over South Dakota’s Black Hills. Of his work, Borglum said he wanted “a few feet of stone that bears witness, carries the likenesses, the dates, a word or two of the great things we accomplished as a Nation, placed so high it won’t pay to pull down for lesser purposes. Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

If Americans felt they needed monuments to symbolize their presence in history, they only had to look toward their cities, where every year they added yet another batch of skyscrapers, hundreds of feet tall. Few cities were immune to the fever of building higher. Earlier that year the New York Sun began a series of daily photographs of these towers under captions like: “A Building Like This in Winston, Salem.” They had an abundant supply of city skyscrapers to choose from: Boston’s Custom House Tower (twenty-nine stories), Philadelphia’s Fidelity Trust Company Building (thirty-four stories), Cleveland’s Terminal Tower (fifty-two stories), Detroit’s Penobscot Tower (forty-six stories), San Francisco’s Russ Building (thirty stories), Seattle’s Smith Building (thirty-eight stories), Chicago’s Board of Trade (forty-five stories), and Houston’s Gulf Building (thirty-five stories), among nearly four hundred other skyscrapers higher than twenty stories in major and minor cities across the country.

In October 1929, in spite of the restless nights of many Wall Street investors, “world’s tallest” announcements sparked more imaginations than Borglum hoped to with his sixty-foot presidential busts. People argued about what prompted this rush of super-skyscrapers—some said they were the result of rising land values or a last gasp attempt to sell a plot of land by drawing attention to it; others thought that one-upmanship had finally become an art form. Whatever the reason, skyscrapers hit the headlines day after day.

The first came on October 2: The City Bank–Farmers Trust Building would rise seventy-one stories and 925 feet, only a few blocks from 40 Wall Street. Demolition was already underway in the construction of this “King of Skyscrapers.” Two days later, the architect Harvey Wiley Corbett slipped word to the press that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company had plans for a hundred-story skyscraper, final height not yet determined. “Desire for height supremacy has no part in the plans,” said one bank official, presumably with a straight face. “The most efficient height consistent with the size of the plot is the aim.” Hired as the builders, the Starrett brothers had their hand in this challenger for the title as well. Unfortunately for Metropolitan Life, it shared headlines with the developer A. E. Lefcourt, who claimed he was adding another skyscraper to his collection of twenty: this one one hundred and five stories, 1,050 feet high, and so slender in its upper stories that renting space there would be all but impossible. At least Lefcourt suggested that if a skyscraper taller than his was announced, he would abandon his plans.

He didn’t have to wait long. On October 6, the Herald-Tribune broke the story of a one-hundred-and-fifty-story structure, a “pile of steel, granite, brick and marble—a quarter of a mile high and two blocks square,” to be erected in the old dry goods district north of City Hall by Charles Noyes, who “always accomplished what he set out to do.” The sixteen-hundred-foot tower would cost $100 million, but real-estate experts assured Noyes the building would pay. New York architects weighed in on the developer’s plan; Raymond Hood said, “Some time ago I got our engineers to figure up just what would be the theoretical maximum height for a skyscraper. It is 7,000 feet. The affair is very simple . . . I proposed a tower 2,500 feet high and nobody batted an eye.”

Skyscrapers had plenty of detractors. New York’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Wynne, deemed skyscrapers seventy stories high a “menace to health,” and must have had a fit after hearing the news of a building more than twice that height. Henry James likened skyscrapers to “youth on the run and with the prize of the race in sight.” For this traditionalist, these new buildings crushed “the old quite as violent children stamp on snails and caterpillars.” Russians explained these lofty structures as capitalist greed, needing to squeeze the most profit from the smallest plot of land. The Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier characterized the world’s-tallest competition as a clear sign of American megalomania. Propagandists railed against the construction of ever taller buildings, calling them sky-scratchers, fly-scrappers, monstrosities, constrictors, engulfers, crowd-breeders, and dinosaurs. One lambasted New York’s skyline as a “dentillated jawbone.”

Noyes countered the critics by saying that he had received letters and phone calls from people across the country inspired by his grand plan. Financing the project, he assured, presented only opportunities for investors. International sportsman Major Kennelly said that he “feared for the angels in flight through the heavens at night if Noyes didn’t put signal beacons on the tip of his building,” but otherwise it was likely to prove a success. A few days later the announcement of an eighty-story building in the theater district barely deserved mention. In the Architect, Kenneth Murchison took a swipe at this New York obsession with height: “They seem to be springing up like asparagus tips all over the city, these high ones. We don’t mind them at all. It gives the town an excitable, nervous look that appeals to us . . . And it’s a great publicity-getter, too. All a man has to do is to announce, mysteriously, that he is going to erect a hundred-story building and presto! He gets on the front page. Remember Mr. Larkin with his hundred-story Lick telescope on West 42nd Street? It never got any higher than a linotype.”

In Los Angeles, plans were under consideration to construct an airport to serve one hundred planes an hour on the roof of a skyscraper. There appeared no limit in sight to what builders dared propose as the twenties spun to a close. “How long will it be before office workers look down from their windows upon cloud banks . . . The helicopter and the gyroscope will enable a man to land and start from a shelf outside his dwelling window,” read a New York Times editorial in 1929. “No dream is too steep for America.”

Van Alen refused to tilt his sword at every new skyscraper; the Manhattan Company and Empire State buildings were formidable enough. In the first two weeks of October Van Alen drew only one new design, for the lobby’s information booth. He had other concerns, like the construction of the vertex. Despite the fact that the vertex wasn’t finished, Chrysler’s press flaks were already telling newspapers that the steelwork was complete. This made the Chrysler Building “the tallest building in the world,” as the New York Times put it on October 16 (the Eiffel Tower was not considered a building because it didn’t lease space to tenants), “surpassing the 792-foot elevation of the Woolworth Building by 16 feet. This greatest height distinction, however, is not likely to be held very long, as the Manhattan Company Building on Wall Street is rapidly ascending to its maximum height.”

These articles showed how easily newspaper journalists and others were tricked. Van Alen knew the “last beam” on the Chrysler Building had yet to be set, and the skyscraper stood over 850 feet when the Times published its article. Of course, it was difficult to measure a skyscraper’s height by simply looking at it from the street or atop the Manhattan Company Building four miles downtown. The riveting gangs there could see that the Chrysler Building had finished the steel on the third of the seven receding arches, but that told them little of its exact height. If a journalist had managed to figure its precise height through the use of some surveying equipment, it was not reported, nor could any outsider know what had yet to be constructed.

Only Van Alen, Chrysler, and a few others knew the final height. The vertex was brought up to the dome in five sections. The difficulties in the structural design and erection necessitated an original approach. As Van Alen said, “It was manifestly impossible to assemble this structure and hoist it as a unit from the ground, and equally impossible to hoist it in sections and place them as such in their final positions.” A derrick perched on the seventy-fourth floor relayed the first section of Van Alen’s spire up the side of the building above the fifty-ninth-floor setback. Once the steel cleared the dome, the derrick then lowered the section into the fire-tower court, resting its square base on two 12-by-12 boards, 20 feet long, on the sixty-fifth floor. The vertex was hidden within the higher floors, and some of the floor framing had to be temporarily eliminated so that the vertex could fit.

Each section was made up of stacks of four corner angles, with light angle struts and V-type bracing. A cross-sectional view of the steel design made the vertex look like a stack of ever smaller pyramids. The second section was riveted onto the first, the third on the second, and so on. Later, the vertex would be covered in chromium nickel steel called Nirosta, the same finish that Van Alen selected to use on the dome. To attach the finish beforehand added too much weight to what Van Alen knew would already be a dangerous raising operation.

Setting the vertex into place was a tricky proposition, but Van Alen had an engineer’s mind and he was certain of his insight into how things worked. Once on an ocean liner in the Atlantic, he and a cadre of fellow architects debated the strength and direction of the Gulf Stream. The debate turned contentious. Van Alen grabbed a menu, took out a pen, and jotted down his address and a note: “$5 reward if returned to William Van Alen.” He slipped the menu into a bottle, corked the top, and tossed the bottle overboard. He promised its return from a faraway shore. Nine months later the bottle arrived at his office doorstep, sent by Colin Campbell of Scotland, who found it on a beach two thousand miles from where Van Alen had tossed it. Another example of Van Alen’s engineering insight was his invention of the Pentz compass, which he thought up while using an airplane to scout sites for his clients and asking the pilot about the workings of a plane’s navigation. The compass was used on the first airmail routes between Chicago and New York.

Van Alen had closely studied the problem of raising the vertex, and understood how the mechanics of lifting it would work. But he knew that his engineering insight had its limits, and he called on his structural engineer, William Edwin Squire, to ensure that his plan wouldn’t end in disaster. Squire, Van Alen’s younger cousin, ran a successful engineering practice with his father, who had designed the steelwork on Ebbitts Field. William Edwin moved a slide rule so fast that one could barely follow his hands. Squire checked and double-checked the vertex’s load and wind stresses; he inspected the steel when it arrived on the site, carrying around a hammer that he hit the steel with and listened to the sound before announcing, “Pretty solid.” For additional consultation, Van Alen hired Homer Balcom, an expert in wind vibrations who had cut his teeth at the American Bridge Company and built ships during World War I.

On October 17, the vertex was a week away from being ready. Engineering complications aside, Van Alen must have wondered what people would think of this last-minute addition. The early reviews of his design were favorable. The previous week in the New Yorker, T-Square had written that Van Alen’s “great tower . . . improves steadily as it progresses. The outlines of the soaring parabolic-dome treatment which will crown its peak are distinctly interesting, as is the modern use of contrasting dark and light material throughout, and the employment of metal panels at various floor levels.” In Pencil Points, Francis Swales praised that his design “seems to me better than nearly anything I have seen in the design of office buildings during the past several years.”

He had to believe the critics would also appreciate his terminating flourish.

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