To Scrape the Sky

Let’s speed—speed—speed!

Out to where the whistles plead,

Wailing at their toiling mob,

Laughing at the lives they rob,

Sneering at the biggest job,

There’s work to do. Let’s GO!

—Excerpt from “Whistles” by C. D. Chamberlain,

the favorite poem of William Starrett

The idea is my own and I have copied from nothing.

—Frank Lloyd Wright

When settlers crossed the Atlantic into New York’s harbor, they discovered an island of rolling meadows and dense forests. Porpoises and seals frolicked in the harbor and birds sang from nearly every tree. The Lenape Indians moved from camp to camp, following the seasons. The retreat of the glaciers thousands of years before had carved out the surrounding rivers, peninsulas, and tidal marshes. Ponds fed by underground springs dotted the island, and streams trailed throughout the land. A hill in what is now called Staten Island claimed the highest point in the area at 410 feet.

Severance faced a much more hectic island than the one inhabited by the first Dutch settlers. By 1929, half a million commuters a day stepped into the Wall Street district alone to work at one of the eighty banks, nineteen trust companies, one hundred railroad corporations, four hundred insurance companies, twelve safe deposit companies, fourteen cable and telegraph companies, and the hundreds of coal, iron, steel, copper, and steamship companies—among many others. Exchanges traded everything from stocks and bonds to sugar, coffee, rubber, and leather. The rattle of ticker tapes and elevated trains had long since replaced the blackbird’s song. Shoeshine boys lined the corners and chauffeurs and taxicab drivers crowded the streets waiting for their customers. It was a long way from the whipping posts that once populated the area and the old Buttonwood Tree underneath which merchants traded the first stocks.

Severance and the Starrett Brothers entered this melee, charged with the job of demolishing buildings of heavy masonry, setting foundations seventy feet deep into bedrock, delivering seventeen thousand tons of steel, and managing the legions to do the work. It was May 1929. They had less than a year and the shoeshine boys, taxi drivers, and bank clerks couldn’t exactly be told to take a holiday until the building reached hundreds of feet in the air. To reduce the carrying charges of the land, speed was important, but another reason to move quickly hung in the minds of the architects and builders as well as the bank’s directors, which they revealed in their monthly magazine: “The proposed building may later be exceeded in height, for two are projected in Chicago of loftier measure, and a 100-story building has been planned for New York, but none of these buildings seems possible of completion before the time estimated to finish the Manhattan Company Building. Until any of them or some other not now projected skyscraper outstrips the Wall Street structure, its preeminence among skyscrapers must go unchallenged.” They already considered trumping the Chrysler tower a foregone conclusion and were more concerned with the seventy-five-story Chicago Apparel Mart, the 1,022-foot Crane Tower, and the Larkin tower in New York, none of which ultimately proved competitors.

On April 11, 1929, Severance filed the finished plans for the skyscraper with the Manhattan Bureau of Buildings. The steel erectors, Levering & Garrigues, were already making schedules with the bridge shops, having received preliminary sketches from Severance before the official filing. Severance had also added to his “board” the architectural firm Shreve & Lamb, who were known for their efficient, precise approach to their work. Lamb designed. Shreve operated the gears of their architectural practice, perfecting schedules, setting out work-flow diagrams, and trimming the fat from the construction process. He equated the building of a skyscraper to “a parade in which each marcher kept pace and the parade marched out of the top of the building, still in perfect step.” Lamb studied architecture at Columbia, then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; Shreve started his career with an architect for New York State, left to earn a degree at Cornell, and was hired by Carrère & Hastings after he supervised their construction of Goldwin Smith Hall on Cornell’s campus. There he met Lamb as well as Severance. Shreve and Severance shared an understanding of architecture as business, not to mention a passion for fishing, which made their involvement as consulting architects a welcome addition to the board. Their experience in designing office buildings for Standard Oil, Reynolds Tobacco, and General Motors was a factor as well.

Of the May 1, 1930, completion date, some said they were dreaming. It was an impossible deadline and useful only as a publicity stunt. Nonetheless, the 40 Wall Street team meant to finish first. Under Severance’s direction, the engineers Spencer, White & Prentis investigated how to save time with the demolition and foundation work, which often took as many days as the raising of the structural steel. They decided to raze and excavate at the same time. The idea was to finish the foundation work just as the demolition and removal of the buildings overhead were completed—a tricky proposition that had never been attempted on a building so large. The first steel was scheduled to arrive on June 24, giving them only a month and a half to get everything done. First, the tenants in the buildings on the site needed to be relocated. Arrangements were made for the bank to move to 27–29 Pine Street, which was not incorporated into the skyscraper site until much later. The new owners promised the building’s other tenants that they had a spot in the new skyscraper, but needed to vacate immediately.

On most jobs, the demolition crew arrived with the buildings already clear of people. They posted a sign, “Building Coming Down,” before knocking the glass out of the first window. Only after the razing was completed would excavators with their steam shovels dig for the foundations. At 40 Wall Street, while clerks continued to type and file in their offices above, foundation workers streamed into the fourteen- story Manhattan Company Building basement and chipped at the floor, the first step on their journey to bedrock. After two and a half weeks, the last of the bankers and other tenants moved out, and the razing of the buildings moved into high gear. Totaling twelve hundred men working three shifts, seven days a week, the separate demolition and foundation teams hurried to finish at the same time. The demolition crew needed eleven thousand truckloads to carry away the seventy thousand cubic yards of old building. It was a filthy job and dangerous as well, but the foundation men must have envied them for it. While the buildings above them were being demolished, they had to work under cramped, low basement ceilings and slog through boiling quicksand in half-darkness. Hydraulic jacks boomed like cannon fire as they struck the steel cylinders. Sweat soaked their shirts and overalls, and half the time they sloshed around in ankle-deep water.

A skyscraper depends on the soundness of the foundations placed underneath the steel. If weakened, the building might shift under the crushing weight of steel and stone, and possibly topple. The engineers on 40 Wall Street first consulted the Viele Map that showed the positions of the streams and ponds that once existed when the Lenapes ruled the land. Then they drilled holes into the ground underneath the site to see how many layers of clay, gravel, dry sand, loose rock, and quicksand they needed to go through before reaching bedrock. The column foundations stood on Manhattan schist, the key to New York’s skyscrapers. The rock was 450 million years old, rough textured and very solid. In some spots of Manhattan, one had to dig a mere five feet to hit bedrock, in others as much as two hundred feet; but its strength was consistent throughout the island. The bedrock surfaced from fifty-eight to one hundred feet below Ohrstrom’s site. Given the height of the building, the foundation engineers needed to sink seventy-six tower and exterior caissons to carry the tower columns, the heaviest of which had a load of 2,300 tons. Plus, they had to underpin the surrounding buildings lest they settle.

With minimal space, a tight schedule, and round-the-clock destruction overhead, the Starretts had to use the open-caisson method to carry the caissons to bedrock. Pits were dug underneath the basements and excavated to water level. The walls, footings, and piers of the old buildings interfered at every turn, and the foundation engineers often simply went underneath them. Using the weight of the buildings above for bracing, hydraulic rams jacked down steel cylinders—ranging from forty-four to fifty-two inches in diameter—into the ground.

Men excavated these cylinders by hand, scooping up the soil of clay and fine sand and then placing it into buckets that were hoisted out by electric winches. Once they cleared eight feet of a cylinder, it was jacked farther down. They were careful not to excavate too close to the cylinder bottom; otherwise quicksand could boil up. Steam siphons were used to extract water. Finally when they reached hardpan (typically forty-nine feet below the street), which was packed tightly enough not to seep water, the cylinders were jacked down three feet to prevent any leakage. The foundation men then dug through the hardpan in open shafts down to bedrock. From street level, some of these shafts ran as deep as a hundred feet, though the average was sixty-four feet. The hard rock was benched so that it would have a level bearing, and then concrete was poured onto it. Once the shaft and cylinder was concreted, a steel billet was placed atop the caisson. This procedure had to be executed for the sixty tower and wall columns needed to carry the sixty-seven-story Manhattan Company Building.

The true ingeniousness of the foundation plan—whose purpose was to shave off construction time to what Severance called the “irreducible minimum”—centered on its use of lighter footings to bear the weight of the first twenty stories of the skyscraper. On June 15, when the riveting gangs were scheduled to replace the wrecking crews, the foundations would be able to support the structure to that level. As steel erectors went about their work, the foundation men would sink additional steel-sheeted caissons around the “temporary” lighter footings to bear the full weight of the 857-foot skyscraper. In comparison, the Chrysler Building crews began their demolitions in October 1928 and set their first columns nearly six months later. If Severance managed the same in a remarkable seven weeks, 40 Wall Street would only need to make up two months of steel erection to catch the Chrysler Building and ensure that its claim on the title of world’s tallest was short-lived at best.

The structural steel had long since begun its journey to the shipyards of New Jersey, where it would then be brought across the river. This journey testified to the great economic machine that made skyscrapers possible in the first place. Much of the iron ore mined to produce steel in America came from the Mesabi Range northwest of Lake Superior. Outside mining towns like Hibbing, Minnesota, men dug chasms in the earth, sometimes 4,000 feet in length and 320 feet deep. Steam shovels scooped sixteen tons of iron ore at a time out of the open-pit mines and deposited them in fifty-foot rail cars. Then the ore made its thousand-mile journey by barge across the Great Lakes to the mills of western Pennsylvania and Gary, Indiana. The captains of these barges logged forty thousand miles of lake-faring during the eight-month transport season, rarely coming to shore. Meanwhile, coal miners, some as young as eight years old, labored deep into gassy tunnel recesses, suffering black lung and cave-ins, to retrieve bituminous coal that was then baked for forty-eight hours to produce coke, the less volatile fuel that powered the mill furnaces. The steel plants ran twenty-four hours a day. Thousands of men worked twelve-hour shifts in the terrestrial equivalent of the seventh ring of hell. The heat—a rabid, penetrating, constant, insufferable heat—seared their faces. Mill men bore their scars from “bad heats” with silent resignation.

Orders from New York, Chicago, and across America called for more steel and the furnaces needed to be fed. First the iron ore was layered into the furnaces with coke, manganese, and limestone, and set afire. Blasts of air into the furnace raised the temperature to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, purifying the ore of excess carbon, sulphur, manganese, and other substances. The resulting pig iron was then moved into the open-hearth furnaces, purified again, and then mixed by metallurgists with silica and other ingredients to produce steel with the right tensile strength. A spout channeled the metal from the furnace into a ladle; the ladle poured the molten metal into ingot molds; these molds then soaked in gas-flamed pits and then repeatedly passed through rolls that stretched the metal like baker’s dough until it formed the shape specified by the structural engineers. Blades cut off the ends, the metal cooled and was straightened, and then trains brought the finished steel to bridge shops. There, riveters put together the hundreds of girders and columns needed for the skyscraper, with holes already punched for their rivet connections. Builders sometimes boasted that their operations were so efficient that the steel was still hot when it arrived in Manhattan.

Severance and the Starretts needed every such economy of motion to meet their schedule.

As the Manhattan Company Building neared completion of its foundation and demolition plans at the end of May, the steelwork on the Chrysler Building had risen to the fourteenth floor. The first setback and the light court above the fifth floor on the western side were taking shape. A tall fence and covered walkway surrounded the site, as well as a constant stream of flatbed trucks. Derricks were perched atop the steel frame, ready to take the next column or beam to its connection. Wooden planks were laid over the frame to serve as floors. Later, concrete would be poured in their place. Along the lower floors, bricklayers feverishly set the façade while standing upon scaffolding. They worked in long rows, sometimes fourteen men at a time, their bricks stacked up behind them.

The skyscraper was being constructed to the same design depicted in a large rendering by Van Alen that the Architectural League featured in a member exhibit at the Grand Central Palace. The papers prominently reported on the exhibit, carrying Van Alen’s rendering, not those of Ely Jacques Kahn, Ralph Walker, or Raymond Hood. He was the star of the show. This rendering, however, didn’t reflect the final design, for Van Alen hadn’t yet drawn it. He wrote: “When it was decided that the topmost part of this building should out-top every other existing structure, it was necessary to resort to the unusual because of its after-consideration nature. Such problems are the especial joy of engineers and constructors.” And architects, Van Alen should have added, because it was his revised design they would ultimately erect. It was less an issue of whether he would find the right solution to Chrysler’s late demand to be the tallest, as much as when the design would come to him. The sand in the hourglass ran quickly. He needed the solution before the steel work was finished.

An architect of firsts, Van Alen was certain of his design solutions. Innovation required it. He was the first to design elliptical show windows, one for the Lucky Strike cigarette shop, and the other for the Delman shoe store where those on the sidewalk could watch the cobblers making shoes on the second floor. Some called him the Ziegfeld of his profession for these kinds of ideas.

At the Standard Arcade, Van Alen was the first to introduce windows with shallow reveals. Before this, windows were always set back into the masonry wall just as they had been since the days when masonry actually carried the weight of the floors above. For the Childs restaurant chain, he employed curved windows at the corners of the six-story building. It was the first time corner columns were discarded for the use of a cantilever. At the Albemarle Building, he designed the building without a heavy cornice; another novel idea. If other architects continued to clothe buildings as they had for centuries, that was their problem.

Once asked if he read many of the popular architectural magazines, Van Alen replied, “I am not particularly interested in what my fellow men are doing. I wish to do things original and not be misled by a lot of things that are being done by somebody else.”

“And you don’t pay attention to anybody’s work but your own?”

“That is my general policy.”

This was the man Chrysler charged with his after-consideration decision to go higher than the original plans, the ones used by structural engineer Ralph Squire to figure the column loads, wind bracing, and positions for the steel that had already been ordered, rolled, and, in part, constructed. Inspiration was a reluctant mistress, and Van Alen had spent the last two years wooing her to envision how a skyscraper should rise over the street and terminate in the sky.

It was not a question of cost because from the beginning Chrysler told Van Alen to spend what he needed. The architect obliged, hiring the noted painter Edward Trumbell to design a mural for the lobby ceiling; ordering expensive slabs of marble and black Shastone granite for the walls; creating elaborate brick friezes and gargoyles to honor the automobile giant; handcrafting the elevator cabs so that no two looked alike; and sheathing the dome with a new German steel, an alloy called Nirosta, consisting of eight percent nickel and eighteen percent chromium combined with iron. It gave the appearance of steel suffused with starlight, and Chrysler experimented with the alloy in his laboratories to make certain its silverlike finish wouldn’t dull from exposure.

The question was how to be faithful to the building’s expression of height. Finally, in the last days of May, Van Alen set upon the first element in his redesign to win the skyscraper race. He planned to add floors to the dome, bringing the building up to seventy-seven stories, ten more than originally announced. Rather than wedge floors into the middle of the tower, he added an arch to the six already drawn in the original design released in May 1929. More important, he stretched the crown to make the additional height about more than the number of feet it added to the total. Instead of six staid semicircular arches, the seven arches looked to almost point to the sky. The redesign spoke to the vertical movement of the skyscraper: its appearance of height, rather than height alone. From the first moment he brought pencil to paper for his design of a structure on Forty-second Street, the movement of the lines was everything to him.

Chesley Bonestell, who before assisting Van Alen had worked for many of New York’s finest architects, including Cass Gilbert and Thomas Hastings, said “To my mind, Van Alen was the best of the modern architects of the period, and the Chrysler Building expresses New York of the time better than any other building.” He was there when Van Alen retrieved a pencil, straightened out his paper, and drew the tower that would rise over Forty-second Street, creating the design as it came to him. It was the first and only time Bonestell had ever witnessed another architect do so on a building of such scale. The sloping dome of seven arches covered in gleaming metal and punctured by triangular windows was completely original and it was a brave masterstroke.

Despite these breakthroughs and many hours since spent at the drafting table, by the first of June, Van Alen hadn’t yet lived up to Chrysler’s demand to design a structure taller than any ever built by man. The changes to the dome brought the skyscraper a few feet above Severance’s design of 857 feet, but the French landmark topped out at 984 feet, still a long way to go.

Instead Van Alen toiled away at the detail work. He and his draftsmen made some minor alterations to the façade between the seventeenth and thirty-third floors, primarily dealing with the windows. They fine-tuned the contours and curves of the dome. They drew floor layouts for the additional stories above the sixty-seventh, including the observation room, and made changes to the steel and elevators on these upper floors as well. The focus was most definitely upon the skyscraper’s crown, but the daily stacks of plans sent off for approval from Frank Roger, or Chrysler himself, didn’t reveal the bold architectural element that would carry the building higher still. One had the sense from studying the schedule of plans drawn and delivered that Van Alen was approaching this element but had yet to reach it. He needed that breakthrough moment.

Architects, like any artists, found their inspiration in different ways. Some scoured old plates. Others crossed the Atlantic to walk among ruins—as Chrysler had urged Van Alen to do. A few copied everyday objects, realizing their design by the straightness of a pencil. Frank Lloyd Wright drew the plans for his famous house Fallingwater in the time it took his client Edgar Kaufman to drive the 140 miles to see the designs. Regardless of not yet having drawn them, Wright replied, “Your house is finished,” when Kaufman called and welcomed him to come. The next thing his assistants knew, “He’s in the studio,” then “He’s sitting down!” As one assistant recounted, they scrambled to find Wright at ease, working out the plans that he had up to then only envisioned in his head. Wright “took three sheets of tracing paper in different colors, one for the basement, another for the first floor, and a third for the second floor and sketched it to a scale of one-eighth inch equals one foot. We were all standing around him. I’d say it took two hours.” Pencils ran dull and snapped. Wright drew the elevation and details, talking all the time: “The rock on which E.J. sits will be the hearth, coming right out of the floor, the fire burning just behind it. The warming kettle will fit into the wall here . . . Steam will permeate the atmosphere. You’ll hear the hiss . . .” Pressure from his client helped spur on his work.

After visiting the site for the famous Wainwright Building, architect Louis Sullivan came back to Chicago still unable to sketch his solution. He was stuck. Leaving the office, he took a stroll up Michigan Avenue, “far away from paper and pencil,” to ruminate. Not long after, he sprinted back to his office, and the lines of his design poured out of him in less than five minutes. “This was Louis Sullivan’s greatest moment—his greatest effort,” recalled Wright who was working for him at the time. “The ‘skyscraper’ as a new thing under the sun, an entity with . . . beauty all its own, was born.”

When Van Alen left his office, he had many opportunities—some voyeuristic, others cultural—to draw his inspiration. The modern, topsy-turvy world came at him from every corner. New hotels and restaurants appeared by the day. Two avenues west the latest in theater, musicals, comedies, moving pictures, and dance drew a quarter of a million revelers to the Great White Way every night. The lights burned bright and the action was never so loud as on Forty-second Street and Broadway, acclaimed the “liveliest spot on Earth.” Electric signs above Times Square competed against one another in size and brightness. On the roofs of the Astor and Commodore Hotels, eleven-piece bands played underneath the stars. Revues hosted sharp wits, gags, and scantily clad dancers. Odette Keun described the scene: “As soon as the dusk falls, Broadway bursts into a scintillation which has no equal in the world. [It] is the apotheosis of electricity. It makes your head reel; it flares, flows, writhes, rolls, blinks, winks, flickers, changes color, vanishes and sparkles again. Red, white, green, yellow, blue, orange, purple, they urge, solicit, press, command you to go somewhere and buy something . . . Mountains, towns, lamaseries, men with top hats, nude women with teeth, spring into existence and are wiped off into oblivion.”

“Culture follows money,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, and with all the fortunes being made in New York, it abounded. The Architectural League hosted studios for members to work on their new designs, experiment with textures, glass, and lighting, and display photographs from their latest sojourns abroad—North Africa, the Far East, wherever. Science fiction, like H. G. Wells’s book Men Like Gods, and Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, stirred thoughts of the future to come. Art galleries now featured those modern artists who first took New York by storm at the Armory Show—Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, among others. “Fuck Literature,” said a young Hemingway, disdaining the past, as he and his fellow writers—William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, W. E. B. Du Bois, Eugene O’Neill, and Maxwell Anderson—gave new strength to books and plays. Broadway shows and the dawn of moving pictures revolutionized the draw of entertainment. And of course there was jazz. From the moment George Gershwin played Rhapsody in Blue at Aeolian Hall, sound was never the same. Musicians came together to mingle, riff off one another, and popularize the first true American music. The Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn drew thousands to Harlem to listen to the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The loose beat, ragged rhythm, and lone thrust of a single note gave voice to the voiceless.

Van Alen’s designs of the Chrysler Building—its theaterlike lighting, zigzag metal work, soaring gargoyles, and parabolic dome, evoked all of this spirit. But the inspiration of how to win the height crown for Chrysler came from the very word used to describe the building he was designing: “If this is to be a skyscraper,” Van Alen decided, “why not make it scrape the sky.” He set to design a great spire, one to pierce the clouds above as never before. He called on his engineers and builder to help him devise the plan, for it was no easy task to erect such a structure in secret. On June 5, Chrysler received the plans. They were as hot and expressive as the jazz playing on the streets.

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