I am perhaps a little quick to run and open the valve. That is about it—a door opener.
In March 1929, Craig Severance waited in his twelfth-floor Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking the vast stretch of Central Park. He was dressed in English riding clothes and handmade leather boots. A few months shy of his fiftieth birthday, Severance had the powerful build of a younger man. He had a lean jaw and a full shock of dark brown hair; if one were to qualify him in a word, “vigorous” would fit the bill. His father squandered the family fortune while Severance was in his teens, and he had long struggled to build the life he now led as a wealthy man of business—and yes, architecture as well.
Severance went horseback riding in Central Park every weekday, short of a morning thunderstorm or blizzard. On weekends he rode in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, where he had a large Victorian house. When possible, he brought his only daughter, Faith, along with him. Usually they trotted along, talking about school, the horses, or the latest adventures of his Pekinese dog, who was so small, he joked, that she carried a straw instead of a stick. It was just good to spend some time with Faith now that she was married and away more often. Although he had separated from her mother years before and remarried, Severance and his daughter were still close. She shared his love for riding and the outdoors. Even from a young age, Faith was a crack shot and every bit her father’s daughter.
As light began to fill the streets, the buzzer rang. It was the boy from the stable on Fifty-fifth Street with the horses: Severance’s beloved Colonel and a big Irish, Hennessy, for Faith. Once Faith arrived as well, he met her downstairs. They eased onto their mounts and took the reins from the groom. Fifth Avenue was quiet, and the construction crews tearing down the old mansions along Carnegie Hill to make way for yet another fourteen-story apartment building had still not arrived for work. As they waited to cross into the park, Severance calmed his horse and then turned to his daughter. He rarely spoke of his work with her, but this occasion warranted an exception, at least a brief one.
“I’m going to build the tallest skyscraper in the world,” he said.
Most daughters would have been shocked to hear this news, and at the least excited—but Faith knew her father too well. Nothing he did surprised her. This was a man who kept a loaded gun by his bedside in the country, and when squirrels or mice rattled around the attic, he fired into the ceiling. He had a huge appetite for life. He settled only for the best. And everyone thought it was inevitable that he would achieve great things. Once, he built a residence for a prominent New York businessman and the completed design came out wrong. Instead of arguing this merit or that, Severance had the walls torn down at his own cost and started again.
“Oh, how wonderful,” she finally answered. She was not surprised.
That was the end of the conversation. Severance urged Colonel across the street, and Hennessy followed. After their hour-long circuit through the park, they shared a breakfast of coffee, grapefruit, ham, eggs, and finnan haddie cooked by his Japanese chef, Matsi. The stable boy returned the horses, and the chauffeur delivered Severance on time for the day’s first meeting at his office on Forty-fourth Street. This was the kind of life Faith’s father’s will and energy had brought him. An architectural journal said that he was “the only architect who owns a Rolls-Royce and rides in it,” but the barb rolled off his wide shoulders.
Very few people knew how high Severance’s skyscraper was going to be, or of the late arrivals to the deal. The sole public announcement detailed a forty-seven-story office building on a Wall Street site, next to the old United States Sub-Treasury where George Washington had been inaugurated president.
Talking to his daughter, Severance left out the fact that Walter Chrysler, who had attended her large St. Bartholomew Church wedding in January, was also trying to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. But he didn’t have to; she read the papers. As for Van Alen, Severance never spoke of his former partner to Faith, and she had yet to forgive the “Beaux-Arts architect” for sitting on a lemon pie she had baked at a weekend in the country. She offered few kind words about Van Alen, who of course hadn’t been invited to the wedding. To her, he was a world apart from her father in every way. Van Alen deserved the praise he won as an architect, but regardless he was “an unpleasant, tall funny man and not very distinguished. There was nothing likeable about him.” It was obvious to her that their partnership had only prospered because her father had brought in the business.
As for her father, she may have doted on him but there was a frankness in her understanding of his character. She described his thinking as “I want. I get.” This business of the tallest skyscraper was simply more of the same.
Early in his career, Severance recognized an opportunity to get ahead by shouldering the responsibility many of his colleagues shunned: the business side of architecture. To him, the architect as lonely malcontent, sitting before his drawing board and sketching plans that catered to his needs rather than the clients’, was an archaic image. That may have played when architects like Christopher Wren enjoyed the patronage of kings, but this was New York. Here clients sang a different tune: “Make Me Money.”
Severance came from a well-established family in Chazy, New York, near Lake Champlain, only miles from the Canadian border. The town was built by pioneers who first trapped and sold furs, then cleared a spot of land with an ax, firebrand, and a pair of oxen. If they needed a fence, they often used the charred stumps remaining from the fire. The calls of wolves pierced the night, and black bears roamed the edges of the woods. Families lived in log cabins and bark huts. They spun their own cloth and made their own shoes. In the winter, the cold set deep into the bones of the town’s residents. The grit of a pioneer was in the bones of Craig Severance.
By the time Severance was born on July 1, 1879, the packs of wolves had thinned and the town was coming into its own, thanks in part to the Severance family. His grandfather, George Severance, started as a farmer, but went on to run a general mercantile store that prospered in the Civil War by sending furs and wheat to Union soldiers. He owned great swaths of land and was one of Chazy’s leading residents. He financed the Presbyterian Church whose steeple rose over the town, one of his many works. At his death in 1875, his five children inherited his fortune, but not the store, which he had passed on to a clerk who had worked for him for years.
When Craig Severance was a child, his father had yet to lose his inheritance and those of his younger brothers and sisters. They lived somewhat fashionably, with a governess, fine carriage, and a stable of beautiful stallions. Severance rode horses from an early age and scrambled around one of the town’s most prominent homes, Slate House. Over the years, though, his father, bitter at not having been given the family store, invested in and ran a number of questionable businesses, including a peanut butter manufacturer, and managed to steadily drain all of the family’s money. He was hard on those who worked for him. One time a laborer carrying a wooden plank across their yard asked what they were to do that day. His father answered, “Stand there and hold that plank until I get home.” As devout Presbyterians, the family practiced the stricter, rather than the more loving side of the denomination.
After a failed attempt at college, Craig Severance moved to New York. Since his father no longer had the means to support him, Severance took a job with his cousin, Charles Rich, who ran a busy architect’s practice. In his first years, Severance had to borrow fifty dollars here and there to get through the lean times, but was always diligent in honoring his debts, writing to his mother about how much he had paid down that month. He lived on West Seventy-ninth Street, and with a twenty-two-dollar-a-week salary, had little money to spare. Like Van Alen, Severance toiled away in a draftsmen factory, learning the trade. Charles Rich and his partner Hugh Lamb never attained the stature of a McKim, Mead & White, but they always had clients coming in the door, everyone from established families like the Colgates and Armours to Broadway theater owners, immigrant bankers, universities, and churches. Among their projects in New York was the fifteen-story Syndicate Building in the financial district, where they had their offices, as well as the Bryant Park Studios and a row of houses on Riverside Drive. They drew praise, but also harsh comments for their designs, particularly from Montgomery Schuyler, the leading critic of the time, who wrote that some of their work called for “the intervention of an architectural police. It is not much of a hazard to say that they are the most thoroughly discreditable buildings ever erected in New York.” Regardless of complaints about the quality of their designs, their practice prospered. Rich had the connections, and they managed to juggle a number of commissions at once through good management.
Asked once why he wanted to be an architect, Severance answered: “It wouldn’t have mattered what I decided to do—doctor or lawyer. I would have done them all as well.” He drove himself hard, and though he had no great passion for architecture as art, he meant to get ahead. Through his cousin, Severance learned the business of architecture and cultivated relationships with those who later won him commissions. He understood better than most H. H. Richardson’s three rules for an architect’s practice, “Get the job! Get the job! Get the job!” For Severance, the real classroom for an architect was to be found in the client’s boardroom. There an architect pitched his services, closed the deal, budgeted the cost of the building, finalized deadlines, and settled on design and floor plans. Rich set him on the path that the best way to plan a building was through a committee of owner, banker, real-estate agent, architect, engineer, builder, subcontractors, and suppliers. The architect-artist could wait outside. As Richardson also said, “I’ll plan anything a man wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop. That’s the way I make my living.”
After several years with Lamb & Rich, Severance took a job with the architectural firm Carrère & Hastings—the perfect name to have on his resume before leaving to start his own practice. Thomas Hastings and John Carrère first worked at McKim, Mead & White before setting out on their own. Hastings was the designer of the firm. During the day he sketched out the plans for their latest commissions and ran about the team of draftsmen, offering suggestions, criticizing lines, and then quickly stepping away, sometimes with the praise “I like your architecture. Bully for you! Chouette!” Carrère reined in his partner and handled the business end of the practice. As his friend Harold Magonigle said, “There was always Carrère to depend upon or to cancel or mitigate mistakes . . . Hastings was as helpless as a shedder crab when anything practical was in question . . . He was very, very lucky to be able to be relieved of the tedious side of architecture and be enabled to live in the world of his dreams.” With this kind of partnership, the firm won the commission for the New York Public Library and distinguished themselves as one of the leaders of the Beaux-Arts movement in architecture.
Severance had scarce patience for the life of an office draftsman, neither the studying of old plates to get the right lines for the Ionic Order’s Scamozzi variation, nor suffering the pranks of being sent out by the senior men to bring back a vanishing point since they had loaned theirs out to another office. Severance had other skills, and Carrère & Hastings recognized that he made a fine clerk-of-the-works. The job of superintending the construction site on behalf of the architect was a task he welcomed. He made sure the contractors followed the firm’s plans and specifications; he audited the cost figures supplied by the contractors and verified the quality of the materials and workmanship. Severance enjoyed seeing how a building was put together by the sweat and experience of the men on the site. Although liked by the workers, he pushed his weight around when needed. One time while overseeing a man making concrete, Severance told the worker to put more sand in the mixture. It was important to get these things right. Severance walked away and then came back a few minutes later to see the man continuing to do the same as he was before. Severance told him again, but the worker ignored him. Finally, he lifted the worker up by the back of his pants and threw him into a bed of unhardened concrete. From that point forward, the construction men listened to Severance.
During his time with Carrère & Hastings, Severance learned how to manage men and came to understand that more went into a building than some designs and a nice rendering for the papers. It was a business to be mastered. An architect who understood finance and industry, one who recognized the importance of maximizing profit, would go far. Every year since the end of the Civil War, the pump was being primed to enable this kind of architect—one Severance was training to become—to succeed.
The transcontinental railroad brought the economic might of America into one fold, thereby giving rise to great fortunes and corporate giants. Increasingly industrial juggernauts ruled business, and cities like New York and Chicago held sway over the countryside. In 1907 when Severance went out on his own, he had an intuitive understanding of this modern world and its potential. He was a disciple of Daniel Burnham, even if he was not privy to his words. In his career “Uncle Dan” Burnham advised presidents, designed noted buildings including the Monadnock and Flatiron, ran the American Institute of Architects, city-planned Chicago, San Francisco, and Manila, and earned a fortune in architect’s fees on grand projects like Washington D.C.’s Union Station. One day Burnham discovered his partner John Root drawing a minor detail for one of their commissions. Obviously Root didn’t yet understand that in this new age one could only harness this “mad and willful humanity” through organization and specialization. Burnham scolded his partner, “John, you ought to delegate that sort of thing. The only way to handle a big business is to delegate, delegate, delegate.” Later he told an unimpressed Louis Sullivan, who had witnessed the scene, “My idea is to work up a big business, to handle big things, deal with big businessmen, and to build up a big organization, for you can’t handle big things unless you have an organization.”
The entrepreneur in Severance had a vision like Burnham’s, and it forced him out of Carrère & Hastings. Few architects made their names coming up through the ranks of a practice. It took a decade before architects Richmond Shreve and William Lamb became partners in Carrère & Hastings—and that partnership quickly soured. Most had to strike out on their own, as Severance did. First he needed the commissions. As every architect who ever struggled to pay the electricity bill knew, connections were the key to commissions. Those with access to New York society had a great advantage, and in that respect, Severance had married well. His wife, Faith Griswold Thompson, was from an established Connecticut family and her brother had wedded the granddaughter of the Miss Astor. Although Severance’s marriage in 1905 may not have brought a dowry of any great note, the door to society and its wealthy inhabitants was open. He also had the pedigree of Carrère & Hastings, plus the contacts he developed in his time with Charles Rich.
Initially Severance worked out of a spare office across from the New York Public Library, taking on minor projects to stay afloat, the kind that didn’t warrant mention in architectural journals. Most noteworthy were a string of houses he designed in Locust Valley, New York. In 1911 he partnered with W. Schamm and won praise for the design of a Fifth Avenue shop front that critic Matlack Price said illustrated “the idea of refinement thrice refined in its every member.” He was relentless in pitching those with means and influence. He lunched. He dined, entertained, and joined the right clubs, the ones businessmen haunted. “I don’t know any architects,” Severance said. “They don’t get me the jobs.” Just as his web of connections began to catch the first of his big clients, he left Schamm to partner with William Van Alen. It was a brilliant move.
Severance and Van Alen first met in the trenches during their draftsmen days. After all, it was a small world. Severance knew the value of having a Beaux-Arts man, and particularly a Paris Prize winner, as a partner. Unlike most of his classmates, when Van Alen returned from France, he chose not to join one of the larger firms. Instead he joined up with a partner and worked on designing cooperative apartment houses—actually introducing the idea of the “garden apartment” with its small patch of a garden in the back—but he was not making any great strides. Thirty-one years old and not yet married, he lived with his mother, her new husband, and his sister in a Brooklyn house on Putnam Avenue. Severance and Van Alen discussed joining forces and a partnership was struck in 1914.
That year they won a commission for a two-story string of shops, the Standard Arcade on Broadway. It won notice for its wide expanse of glass between two Doric columns. As architectural critic Christopher Gray said, it was “unusual for its openness.” Next came the Albemarle on Twenty-fourth Street, with which Van Alen proved that an office building didn’t need a heavy cornice at its crown. Since ancient Greece, these ornamental slabs had extended out over roofs, and its removal on the Albemarle drew praise for the firm. Soon more commissions for office buildings, banks, hotels, restaurants, stores, and country residences came their way—including the J. M. Gidding Building in midtown, a Fifth Avenue shop front said to have the same breathless inventiveness as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry, and a Long Island estate praised for its simplicity. In letters to potential clients, after detailing their list of services and expected charges, Severance & Van Alen would proudly conclude: “Our office is entirely organized, having the Departments to furnish all of the services as outlined; and we have had a wide experience . . . of considerable magnitude with various clients [to] whom . . . we take pleasure in referring you for any outside information regarding our qualification for this work.”
The next decade brought Severance the kind of life he had known as a child. When he traveled to Europe, he brought his Rolls-Royce and chauffeur along with him. He owned a yacht and would have belonged to the New York Yacht Club if not for the time when he blocked out Vanderbilt’s boat on the Hudson River and was blackballed. Such was society. Anyway, he preferred his hunting trips to Canada. In a private car, he took an overnight train to Montreal, showered and ate breakfast at the Ritz, then went on to Quebec to the Trident Club, a five-hundred-square-mile hunting reserve. Sometimes he took his daughter, sometimes friends. If it was not the Trident Club, it was salmon fishing in Newfoundland. At the Metropolitan Club, he counted among his friends some of the most powerful men in the city. Frank Bailey, the president of the Prudence Company, which financed many of the buildings in New York, was one of his closest and helped him win a number of commissions.
When Van Alen began missing deadlines, earning sole credit for the firm’s success, and drawing too much attention to his unconventional designs, Severance put an end to the partnership. Ill feelings or not, this was business. He brought in the clients and deserved to run (and exclusively profit from) his firm.
While fighting through the lawsuit with his former partner, Severance never missed a step. In 1925, he hired two architects, Langfour and Lazinsk, as his head designers. He managed a legion of draftsmen, specification writers, and assistants. He delegated. He invested in real estate, served on corporate boards, and most of all, he brought in ever bigger clients to design ever bigger buildings. If by separating from Van Alen he won the freedom to run his business solo and choose the designs for his buildings, it came at a price, at least in terms of critical praise. The press hammered him. In his first “Sky Line” column in the New Yorker, George Chappell (a.k.a. T-Square) reviewed the Delmonico Building on Forty-fourth Street, writing, “Every proportion appears to be unfortunate. The central tower . . . has the grace of an overgrown grain elevator. Of the detail one of the profession said: ‘Isn’t it curious how a simple element like a band-course or a molding can produce a feeling of nausea? . . . Really, can’t the Fifth Avenue Association do something about all this?’” T-Square noted that the older gentlemen architects on their way to lunch at the Century Club found the building so hideous that it caused them to spontaneously “burst into tears. They do not look at the building itself. They can’t.” Severance sued the magazine on the grounds that it hurt the owner’s chances of finding tenants. Architectural snobbery was fine, but not when it hurt his business. Sixteen months too late, he won a meager apology from Chappell, who wrote, “We wish to clear our conscience by saying that we didn’t intend to be personal nor to cast any reflection upon the professional attainments of Mr. Severance whom, although we have not had the pleasure of his acquaintance, we know to be one of the leading architects in the city.”
It was much more than an isolated case though. Severance was struggling with his firm’s designs. His clients may have wanted a familiar, traditional look to their buildings—and that fit nicely with his more conservative bent—but, the demands of height, not to mention the forward-looking critics, urged a more modern look. His 1,250-room Manger Hotel in Times Square, owned by another close friend, came off as cheerless—with the look of a square, cardboard box with holes punched into it for windows. His 50 Broadway skyscraper, which stood on the site of New York’s earliest steel-frame structure, the eleven-story Tower Building, served as a lesson on how not to set a tower on a wide lower base. The tower was off-center and set back from the street in such a way that one could hardly see it from Broadway.
What the critics couldn’t assail was the great practice he had created. The architect as businessman, someone who knew how to run an orderly, efficient shop, was here to stay. Building in New York City was like running an assembly line, and there was a great deal of money to be made in the process. As for his designs, Severance cared little for skyscrapers and other buildings as practice ground for wild new ideas. His clients paid for him to deliver a “machine that makes the land pay,” as Cass Gilbert said of skyscrapers. And the clients continued to knock on his door, with a $2 million building here, and a $4 million headquarters there. At an average fee of six percent of the construction costs of these buildings (a percentage fixed by the American Institute of Architects), Severance reaped a small fortune in commissions every year. With the meteoric rise in construction enjoyed by architects and builders in the twenties, there seemed no end to the possibilities.
If there ever was a time to crown one’s career in the twenties, 1929 was the year. Van Alen predicted, “History will record this age as the greatest of all so far as building is concerned.” When Severance was approached on the 40 Wall Street development, he must have sensed the chance to live up to Burnham’s words: “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing.” These were men of money and business, men he understood. The initial plans drawn for the parcels of land at Wall Street and Pine showed a building of forty-seven stories. That kind of building would earn a tidy sum, but the developers and Severance had bigger plans: the taller the building, the more money to be earned. Uptown, Van Alen and Chrysler could raise their fantastic, steel-sheathed tower and drink in the praise of T-Square and others. Downtown, Severance meant to build a skyscraper taller than any in the world and make a good business of it all. That was the legacy he promised to leave.