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"They seem to be springing up like asparagus tips..."
on November 21, 2003
About a month ago I read "Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center" by Daniel Okrent. If you are like me and can't get enough of NYC history, Neal Bascomb's "Higher" makes a wonderful companion piece. The subject is similar (massive construction projects), as is the timeframe (1920's-1930's). Mr. Bascomb's book goes into detail concerning the construction of 3 skyscrapers - the Chrysler Building, the Manhattan Company Building, and the Empire State Building. Mr. Bascomb's book works on several levels: as a straight narrative detailing the complexities of putting up super-large buildings; as a collection of mini-biographies of people integral to the story -including Walter Chrysler, and the architects William Van Alen and Craig Severance (former partners who had had a falling out); and as a cultural/social history of NYC as the Roaring Twenties end and the Great Depression begins. The author drives home the point that form and function follow personality and willpower. The beauty of the Chrysler Building is that it is not just another skyscraper. It reflects the vision of William Van Alen (and Walter Chrysler, who took an active interest in the project - looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of Van Alen's drawings and giving his input). Similarly, a man by the name of John Jakob Raskob ( with ties to General Motors, interestingly enough), by sheer force of will, managed to get the financiers to pony-up the money to put-up the Empire State Building even though the Depression had hit. Another "big theme" is that ego can sometimes overcome cool and calculated financial considerations. When Van Alen and Severance (Manhattan Company Building) realized they were in a "shooting for the stars-war" to build the tallest building, they did some things that made the number-crunchers quiver - adding on extra stories (which increases the need for elevator banks, services, etc. and decreases the percentage of rentable space) or adding on geegaws like the spire of the Chrysler Building, with its totally non-rentable area. Likewise, Raskob soldiered on with the Empire State Building even though many people told him he wouldn't be able to rent all that space during a financial downturn. (They were right. It opened with a 23% occupancy rate and was called the "Empty State Building." It didn't turn a profit until 1948.) The public relations war surrounding the 3 buildings provides an entertaining thread that runs throughout the book - when Severance realized that the spire of the Chrysler Building made it tallest, he countered with the argument that you should only count rentable space - which made the Manhattan Company Building higher. (The public didn't buy it. Taller is taller.) When Chrysler's people realized that within a year or so the Empire State Building would become a reality and would be the new number one, they went into "physical denial." They advertised their building as the biggest and the brightest, and pretended that rapidly growing structure on 34th street didn't exist. Sadly, Walter Chrysler didn't know, from an aesthetic standpoint, what he had. Once the Empire State Building was built, Chrysler lost interest in his own building. In his autobiography he only devoted 2 pages to the topic, and he nowhere mentioned Van Alen by name. He called him "the architect." Mr. Bascomb doesn't let the architectural critics of the time off the hook. Most critics yawned at the Chrysler Building - they didn't think much of it, and thought the spire was a useless frill. Poor Van Alen never got another major commission and had to hustle around trying to get minor building jobs from friends and relatives. Another fascinating part of this book is when Mr. Bascomb goes into detail concerning the actual construction process - how many workers were needed for the various projects, the types and amounts of materials, etc. The Empire State Building, whose construction was organized like clockwork by the Starrett brothers, was put-up at the incredible rate of 4 1/2 floors per week. 500 trucks a day delivered materials to the building site, and the steel beams being put into place had been manufactured at the Pennsylvania mills a mere 3 days before. (The beams were still warm when they got to 34th street.) Despite the speed of construction, safety was emphasized. 6 men died (their names are given, by the way) during construction of the Empire State Building, which was amazingly few considering the scale of the project. Finally, the book has 8 pages of interesting black-and-white photos of the time, including one of the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White perched atop the eagle gargoyle on the Chrysler Building, getting ready to snap a shot. If you suffer from vertigo you may want to skip that photo, as well as the one of the photographer Jack Reilly hanging from the 72nd story steelwork of the Manhattan Company Building.....