Aladdin’s Genii and Paper Fights

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.

Or what’s a heaven for?

—Robert Browning

“I feel like my own boss up here,” a steelworker told Margaret Bourke-White. “Nobody can reach me to give me orders.” Throughout the winter months, she snapped photographs of the Chrysler Building, sometimes shimmying out onto an eagle’s head, nothing but empty space far below her feet. She told her parents that the heights didn’t bother her and that she understood the freedom the steelworkers enjoyed. Although she admitted that one evening, after a day on an open scaffold braving subzero temperatures and fierce winds, “I descended fifty steps of unfinished stairway under my own footpower. After summoning a cab, I found I couldn’t make the step from the curb into the taxi. I fell and cut my shins.” Her explanation? “It took more out of me than I was aware.”

Perhaps that insignificant episode was a sign, or a warning unheeded, of what was to come in the days ahead for a city that had ascended great heights, but was worn out from the effort. The wild times, the late nights and early mornings, the music, the sex, the dance, the booze—every binge eventually ends with an empty bottle and the drift into an uneasy sleep. Variety’s column “Box Scores of the Havoc” described how Broadway, “famed for its mirth and jollity, became the locale of misery.” Broadway producers stared dejected at the vacant seats their actors faced. Clubs closed. At the Hotel Pennsylvania, singer George Olsen looked out at the evening’s crowd, passed out the music for “Happy Days Are Here Again” to his band, and said, “Sing it for the corpses.” At the end of 1929—in just one of many such sad stories—Henry Grew Crosby, a thirty-two-year-old Boston blueblood, and Mrs. Josephine Roth Bigelow, a twenty-two-year-old married to a Harvard student, were found at the Hotel des Artistes, each with a gunshot wound to their head. In Exile’s Return, Malcolm Cowley tried to get at what drove the two to their suicide pact, and in the attempt, evoked the country’s mood: “Everywhere was the atmosphere of a long debauch that had to end; the orchestra played too fast, the stakes were too high at gambling tables, the players were so empty, so tired, secretly hoping to vanish together into sleep and . . . maybe wake on a very distant morning and hear nothing whatsoever, no shouting or crooning, [to] find all things changed.”

Attendance spiked at the long-shunned Trinity Church. The Wall Street traders and lawyers who crowded the pews often found themselves singing the verses from “Lead, Kindly Light.” On New Year’s Eve, the 369th Infantry Band played on the exchange floor, but there was no good news to celebrate. Neglecting calls from Hoover and his cabinet that the worst was over, companies laid off thousands of workers and general despair began to settle over the economy. Their tax cut and loosening of credit showed how helpless they had become. Confidence in the American financial system had eroded to the point of nonexistence, causing several bank and industrial mergers to fall through. Automobile manufacturers, like Walter Chrysler, continued to speak of prosperous days ahead, but it was wishful thinking. Eventually they would have to cut production and close plants.

In this environment, only so much building and hundreds of thousands of square feet of new space could flood the market before, as one editorial noted, “the newest New York became a sixty-story city unoccupied above the twentieth floor.” Plans for super-skyscrapers fell by the wayside as the economic slump deepened. John Larkin, who had first spurred imaginations with his one-hundred-ten-story tower in 1926, sold the land on Forty-second Street where the skyscraper was supposed to rise, saying “we were about five years ahead of time so far as the neighborhood was concerned and we couldn’t afford to wait any longer.” The directors of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company went ahead with their hundred-story tower, erecting the base for this monster skyscraper, but eventually ended it there. The City Bank Farmers Trust Building, which was slated in October 1929 to be seventy-five stories, was trimmed back to sixty-five stories, then fifty-four stories.

Amidst these deflated ambitions, Raskob went ahead with his plans for the Empire State. He intended to see his skyscraper erected, even though each drop in the Dow Industrial index increased the risk of financial disaster. Putting three million square feet of office space into an already oversupplied rental market was not the kind of move that had won him acclaim as “Wall Street’s greatest mind.” Even after several friends sat him down to tell him that it would be perfectly understandable if he backed out of the project, Raskob told them that he meant to keep his promise of building the world’s tallest skyscraper. It was about beating Chrysler, because Raskob didn’t like the idea of another man out-topping his vision, but more importantly, the former stenographer wanted the world to see that all was not lost. With the Empire State Building, America would always have a symbol that represented the ability of any man, no matter his background, to achieve great things.

As for Bourke-White, her steeplejacking on the Chrysler Building ended just as the Empire State started, leading her to question whether her photographs would make a difference in a race whose late entrant appeared bent on winning. “I don’t know whether the photographs proved anything,” she said, “except that a photographer has to work in all kinds of weather.”

Those who spoke of the Empire State—from Raskob, to Smith, to the architects and builders, to the men hired in its construction—spoke with a messianic tone. Each had a job to do to see this “vaulting ambition” stand in the skyline, and they intended to see it through until the end.

Raskob secured the money, a task made difficult by the market devastation, yet proving how much faith people had in him, not to mention his ability to twist a few arms when needed. It was one of the most remarkable, yet largely unrecognized, achievements in the building’s rise. The syndicate originally put together to buy the land from Floyd Brown provided $10 million in initial funds: Raskob and Pierre du Pont contributed the first half ($2.5 million each) and the other members, namely Louis Kaufman, the other half. In December 1929 the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company granted Empire State, Inc., a loan for $27.5 million. They immediately paid $8 million into the building corporation, and subsequent installments were scheduled at certain stages in the construction. The remaining $13.5 million in capital came from the sale of bonds. Raskob and du Pont each purchased one quarter of these bonds and Chatham-Phenix the other half. Except for an additional $1 million in bonds, the financing arrangement matched to the dollar the amounts Raskob outlined to Kaufman several months before.

The Starretts harnessed their every skill in its construction, taking what they learned from the Manhattan Company Building and applying even more advanced methods. They were no less enthusiastic than Raskob about completing what Paul described as his career’s climactic project. “I was to build the world’s tallest—not only the tallest one but one which expresses most completely and honestly the skyscraper idea, whose beginnings I had seen fifty years earlier . . . The Empire State Building is truly an epitome of all that has preceded . . . all the spirit, the imaginative and technical daring, and even some of the frenzy, that animated the decade of which it was the culmination.” By February 3, 1930, they completed the wrecking of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel down to the sidewalk. They honored sentimental requests for souvenirs: the Iowan who wanted a piece of the Fifth Avenue iron railing; the couple who asked to have the key for the room they enjoyed on their honeymoon; and the calls for stained glass windows, flagpoles, and brass lighting fixtures. The sentiment ended there.

With seventeen oxyacetylene torches and five derricks, the workers brought down the 12,097 tons of structural steel of the hotel and Astor Court buildings. The demolition crew chipped away at the sidewalls and floors with Ingersoll-Rand pneumatic rotary jackhammers and concrete breakers. Five-ton Mack trucks were driven within the buildings and carried away 16,508 loads of debris. One story was demolished at a time and markers (like a circle of sticks placed on the floor or some trim nailed to a door) alerted workers where they risked having the ceiling crash onto them. Water was sprayed throughout the site to keep dust clouds from overwhelming neighboring tenants and pedestrians. At the peak of demolition, 719 men worked on the site. Two shifts working six days a week for fifty days completed the operation of drilling, blasting, and carting away the roots of a New York landmark reduced to figures in a “load of material” column: 6,246 loads of debris, 56 loads of firewood, and 298 loads of structural steel and miscellaneous scrap iron.

Simultaneous with this activity, the Starretts began the pier holes excavation and the pouring of concrete to support the steel columns. Over twenty-six thousand cubic yards of earth and stone were scooped out from the site for the basement floors. The City Inspector tested the depth to where the pier holes hit and surpassed hard rock—roughly thirty to forty feet below the sub-basement floor. Six weeks later, on March 29, 1930, the 210 piers had been excavated and concrete poured into their holes. On April 1, the first grillages were placed on top of these piers; on April 7, a crane lifted the first steel column. Post & McCord were going to outdo their Manhattan Company Building speed record. In total, the Empire State required 57,480 tons of structural steel, as compared with 17,000 tons for the Manhattan Company Building and 21,000 tons for the Chrysler Building. In relative scale, the Starretts were erecting two Manhattan Company Buildings and one Chrysler Building in the span of six months on a site 197 feet long and 425 feet wide. It was an awesome task.

Shreve, Lamb & Harmon planned out the entire skyscraper before the first story was raised. They knew the number of beams and columns, their lengths, and the amount of bolts and rivets needed to put them together. Usually the firm invested little emotion in its architectural commissions, big or small. Once charged with designing the mausoleum for Adolph Ochs of the New York Times, the unfinished drawing on a draftsman’s board was labeled “In this Box Lies Adolph Ochs.” They got the job, they finished the job, they were paid for the job, and they moved to the next one. But the Empire State was no ordinary assignment; this time, the firm was swept up in the mission. Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon knew the skyscraper would be their most amazing achievement, and Shreve wrote of harnessing “the powers of Aladdin’s genii” to manage this “miracle of a modern skyscraper.”

In reality, Shreve worked with more mundane tools. He developed what he called his “bug diagrams,” a graphical system of events that needed to occur simultaneously (like a truck driver arriving at the docks to carry the steel brought by a ferry crossing the Hudson River, while the engineer on the site had the structural plans in hand and the derrick crew in the right position once the trucks returned) in order to avoid losing one hour, let alone one day, from the schedule. The system predated by decades “critical path” techniques that now require more technology than penciled drawings on a large board—but Shreve’s method was no less efficient. Andrew Eken said of the firm’s superhuman focus on the Empire State, “They knew when we would need the electrical layout or the plumbing blueprints, for example, and we didn’t even have to ask. We’d just send a messenger to their office, and the right number of the right prints would be packed and ready for us.”

A month before the steel work began, the New York Sun reported on the plans filed for the Empire State at the Manhattan Bureau of Buildings. There was nothing secret about their delivery, nor any reason for there to be. Although the plans listed the skyscraper’s height at 1,044 feet (and 111⁄2 inches), Lamb explained to reporters that the mooring mast would bring the skyscraper to its full height of 1,250 feet. The mast was both feasible from an engineering standpoint, he said, and more important, it was decided upon by the board. The architect reserved most of his comments for the skyscraper’s design. He spoke of its clean, modern lines and the vertical rise of the tower. He described the silver panels running parallel to the windows and how they would reflect brilliantly in the sunlight. He told the press that despite the extra expense, his firm had chosen large slabs of Indiana buff limestone instead of small bricks for the façade. “Stone of this size will be used all the way to the top of the building, in keeping with its massiveness.” He had considered every piece of the building, down to the last detail. It was a passion that his partners shared.

For all the grand speeches, plaster models towering beside Al Smith, press interviews, and releases of architectural plans, none did better justice to the enormity of the Empire State and the challenges ahead than the sight of four massive central columns set on their concrete piers. They would soon carry a load of 10 million pounds, requiring the reinforced plates riveted to their sides. Those peering into the site from Fifth Avenue on April 11 witnessed the placing of column #115, which weighed 72,795 pounds. The derrick gang set it next to column #105, the heaviest of the bunch at 102,830 pounds and stretching nearly twenty-seven feet high. The workers in the excavated pit looked like ants in a forest of steel, but with the sum total of their commitment and labor, and that of architects, owners, and builders, they were creating something bigger than themselves, something that the New York Sun suggested would “produce a blaze of light in the clouds” higher than any other structure in the skyline.

Walter Chrysler made as much noise as he could in the time he held the title of world’s tallest skyscraper. Throughout the first half of 1930, in anticipation of the Chrysler Building’s opening, he placed ads in scores of newspapers, promoting his skyscraper as the highest structure in the world. It was as if through repetition he hoped to negate the existence of the Empire State. One ad, entitled “On Everyone’s Tongue,” displayed a photograph of the building over the expression “Tallest in the World” translated into thirteen languages. Another promoted the high tower floors as “so far above the earth as to be literally in the clouds—so near the sky the sun shines there an hour longer every day . . . You will find here the inspiration and isolation of an eagle’s nest on a towering crag—an atmosphere of such peace, of such quiet and seclusion that you seem miles removed from the bustling city below.”

His press flak Ivy Lee released a drawing of the Chrysler tower next to distortedly scaled-down images of the Eiffel Tower, Manhattan Company Building, and Woolworth Building (again the Empire State was absent). Time and again Chrysler laced his speeches with references to the height crown. At a simple craftsmanship award ceremony, he found several ways to reaffirm his victory, saying “It is the first time that any structure in the world has reached such a height” and “You men are responsible for this building. You built it as a monument to yourselves and to me—the highest structure of its kind in the whole world.” He also mentioned that “erecting the tallest building in the world” won out as the most thrilling event in his life. In press statements, the skyscraper’s 1,046 feet took center stage. It reached higher than the natural elevation of five states. It caused the Eiffel Tower to supplicate in its presence. It provided the longest vertical run for its elevators in the world.

Despite the Empire State’s imminent rise, the 40 Wall Street team couldn’t help but strike back. They insisted the Manhattan Company Building was taller; the automobile giant was simply misguided. In March 1930, Yasuo Matsui published a long article reprinted in several newspapers that offered an explanation (graphical depictions and scorn included) about why this was so:

Generally speaking, one thinks of Cleopatra’s Needle as an obelisk in Central Park, but William Van Alen’s skyline project is truly a sharp steel needle. We have been told that this has been done by a patented method and secret plan . . . The legitimate height of skyscrapers should be considered of the building only, in accordance with the Building Code, and shouldn’t include the flagpole or the radio needle, so the Eiffel Tower still holds the crown for the highest structure, its observatory being 905 feet, 11 inches above grade.

The Bank of The Manhattan Company’s tower on Wall Street ranks second, its observatory being 836 feet, 5 inches above the Wall Street grade. A good third is the Chrysler Building, its observatory being 783 feet, 11⁄2 inches above Lexington avenue grade, or 53 feet below that of the Bank of the Manhattan Building . . . the growth of skyscrapers is only by public demand and economic necessity. Therefore purely ornamental towers, such as the Metropolitan and the Woolworth of today, have no particular significance from a commercial standpoint.

Unfortunately for Severance and the owners of the Manhattan Company Building, they were part of a small minority who saw it this way. For most, tallest was tallest. Having made this argument, however, they boxed themselves out of raising a spire of their own. It was senseless to go higher when they were already highest. On March 12, they ended speculation that they planned to out-top the Chrysler Building. “No, the rumor is baseless,” said Andrew Eken’s secretary to an Evening Post reporter. “True, we did discuss putting up an additional spire to top the Chrysler Building, but that’s all off. The original plans still hold. She’s as high as she’ll go.” The scaffolding over the pyramid crown didn’t hide a flagpole; it was there to place the silver ball atop the skyscraper, as earlier planned. In advertisements, they were forced to claim their skyscraper “as the tallest, with one exception.”

Severance continued to shun the press or any attention whatsoever, now ranking his fondness for the Manhattan Company Building somewhere below that of his Pekinese. He refused to participate in an American architectural exhibit of skyscrapers held in Sweden and Budapest that year. Van Alen participated, of course, sending a large plaster model of his design labeled “Tallest Building in the World—Exceeding 1,000 feet in height and having 78 stories.” There was no room in the spotlight for second place.

In late May, the Chrysler Building and the Manhattan Company Building officially opened. Their openings—only a day apart from each other—gave the press and public another chance to focus on the height controversy. The Manhattan Company Building managed to woo Mayor Jimmy Walker to speak at its opening. The Mayor was scheduled to attend the Chrysler ceremony the next day, but neglected to show. Perhaps this was a final jab that Ohrstrom or Severance—or one of the Starrett brothers—had arranged. Regardless, neither event made much of a splash. The spotlight on these two buildings had grown dimmer each day as the steel rose on Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue. Guests down at 40 Wall Street enjoyed some tedious speeches about the history of the bank, the event feeling more like an annual board meeting than a celebration. One bank executive commented that “there wasn’t going to be any celebration; we’re all going to work like hell to pay for all this.”

Indeed, they spared no expense on their new quarters. Over the Wall Street entrance was a ten-foot-long bronze statue of Oceanus, the Greek god of the waters, by the noted sculptor Elie Nadelman. Through the sliding bronze doors was a space as luxurious as a French palace. Ornamental bronze fixtures hung from the ceiling. A wide marble staircase with balustrades of black and gold led into the two-story main banking room whose floor and tall columns were also of rich marble. Along the walls Ezra Winter had painted six murals, each depicting a historical Wall Street scene. The executive offices had marble-framed doorways, wood-paneled rooms, and working fireplaces. On the fourth floor, the bank’s boardroom was a reproduction—down to the furniture, carpets, and mantelpieces—of the Signers’ Room in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The private executive luncheon clubs on the upper floors, including the one on the fifty-fourth floor that was used for the opening ceremony, were designed in early Colonial Farmhouse style, fitted with wood beam ceilings and French wallpaper. If the interiors were not enough to impress, guests could climb a wrought-iron staircase from the sixty-ninth floor to the small glass-enclosed, tubular chamber on the seventieth floor, the city’s highest observation point at 836 feet, fifty-three feet higher than Chrysler’s. But as one reporter noted, other than a worker who had penciled the message, “What hath Starrett Brothers wrought!” on the windowsill, most seemed indifferent to the tower’s height achievement or the building’s lavish quarters.

Chrysler tried to make his opening more newsworthy, gathering five hundred guests into the building’s fan-shaped lobby, a masterpiece of Art Deco design in its own right. A silver line in the Siena travertine floor led people from its entrance to the elevators. Nickel chrome steel in geometric shapes decorated storefront grills and staircase railings. Neon tubes surrounded by stainless steel reflectors provided the lobby a soft amber glow that seemed to emanate from the Rouge Flamme marble walls. Bringing everything together was the Edward Trumbull mural overhead, an awe-inspiring set of images: a Herculean figure mastering the elements; fifty construction workers laboring at their tasks; symbols of fire, water, and lightning giving way to electricity, heat, steam; ocean liners, trains, airplanes, and dirigibles defeating “time and space by energy”; and through the center of it all a portrait of the Chrysler Building rising into a blue sky.

Dressed in a checkered business suit and colorful necktie, Chrysler posed for photographers, officially accepted the mural from Trumbull (making sure to mention it was the largest one in the world), and received a bronze tablet from the 42nd Street Association in honor of his civic contribution to the skyline. He then ushered his guests into the elevators for a tour of his skyscraper. Each elevator cab was unique, including each set of doors. The steel was overlaid with a veneer of rare woods—Japanese ash, oriental walnut, satinwood, American walnut, maple, Cuban plum-pudding wood, and English gray harewood—and handcrafted into various designs. The elevator cabs were only outdone by the observation floor, a chamber with a vaulted ceiling of deep blue, painted with stars, the moon, and other celestial motifs. Light streamed through the triangular windows and the fixtures overhead looked altogether like glass Saturns.

In contrast to the wholesale reproductions of past architectural styles executed by Severance for the Manhattan Company Building, Van Alen offered designs in the lobby and throughout the skyscraper that were unlike anything the guests had ever seen, yet few reports of the event mentioned the building’s architectural details. Nor did journalists recount to any great degree what Chrysler spoke about at the luncheon afterward. Al Smith unexpectedly stopped by during the meal and offered some impromptu remarks about how he recalled the days when this land was famous for its bleating goats, and if “Mr. Chrysler and I could get together and form a little corporation, we could own the whole city.” As always, he attracted a great deal of attention and a good bit of the newspaper-column space devoted to the ceremony. For the opening of the tallest building in the world, one surpassing the Woolworth Building and the Eiffel Tower after so many years and featuring some of the most original design work seen in the city, it was a decidedly uneventful event. “The king for a day,” as the New York World called the Chrysler Building, was soon to be topped, and that was all that mattered.

As for Smith, his appearance was likely as much of a coincidence as the first release of Empire State ads at the time when tenants began moving into Chrysler’s tower. The footsteps of the approaching giant were deafening.

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