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4.6 out of 5 stars
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2003
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
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.....
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I came across this book over the weekend and picked it up for my dad's birthday. I started reading through it on the subway on the way home from the bookstore and could not put it down! I should admit that I don't normally read these kinds of books, but Bascomb does an amazing job of drawing you in with colorful descriptions of the times and characters involved in this truly incredible story of the skyscraper races during the 1920s. Yes, there was literally a race to be the tallest building in the world -- complete with a photo finish just in time for the stock market to crash! If you have any interest in New York, history, engineering, architecture, or just love a great story -- check it out. One of the best things I've picked up in a long time.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Although it's focus is specifically on the construction of three major buildings of the New York skyline, Higher is deep down a very fond remembrance of a time when fortunes were literally falling and yet the city of New York grew exponentially toward becoming the epitome of the modern metropolis.
Neal Bascomb meticulously chronicles the events and characters who were responsible for this fertile period, but in doing so he very successfully manages to avoid bogging down in details and figures that might hinder a similarly-themed and more scholarly approach. This isn't to say that Bascomb didn't do his homework, but that he has been able to make a comprehensive narrative that's riveting (excuse the pun) and fast-paced. Indeed, the buildings themselves were all constructed with remarkable speed considering the scope of the projects and the technology of the day.
It was a great pleasure to not only follow along in what was a true rat race for the tallest building but to also gain significant insight into what is my personal favorite of the skyline, the Chrysler Building - a structure that has lived all but one year of it's life in the shadow of the Empire State.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
As a NYC resident I love this city and its unique history, and this book is perfect for people like me. Bascomb makes 1929 come to life and the intriguing little-known tales he tells about the city's most famous buildings are terrific. I read it in just a couple of days, I was that into it. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes New York, is fascinated by skyscrapers, or just loves a ripping good yarn.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2006
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
`Higher' is the story about the race for the `highest building in the world', set in New York City in the late 1920's and early 1930's. It portrays the race between the Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building (aka 40 Wall Street, current The Trump Building), and when that is settled and done the Empire State Building moves in to beat them all. The book focuses on the architects and their commissioners, who are often self made man not shy of showing their success (which is in fact an American success) powered by the economic boom at the time. The story shows that these kind of skyscrapers really are the product of ego driven characters and economic acceleration. But there really isn't anything wrong with that for as such they are just a symbol of achievement over a rational product of urbanism.

The book is full of quotes and it links the relations between the actors which give the book a lively edge, yet it reads as easily as a novel. There plenty of `gee, I didn't know that' facts and details in it, all adding up to the excitement of the story (for example, the famous Chrysler Building spire was topped out one day before the infamous Wall Street crash). By focussing on a few main characters and the topic of height, the book doesn't dwell in all directions which it could have done so easily for it really is a fascinating story to tell. I wouldn't be surprised if this story will be made into a movie or tv series one day for this story and the way it's being told really deserves that.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The 1920's was all about reaching new heights in America - the roaring 20's emphasized a fast-paced lifestyle where there were no limits. It was this "anything goes" attitude that led to the construction of skyscrapers in New York City that were just as much a symbol of the times as they were practical business investments. In this book that chronicles the race to be the tallest between 3 New York landmarks - the Chrysler Building, 40 Wall Street, and The Empire State Building - egos collide, markets tumble, and relationship are broken. The author weaves a very readable tale that focuses on both the financial and architectural icons who led to the construction of these buildings. If bricks and mortar also interest you, then this will do the trick as well. Throughout the book you are taken to the construction sites and learn what its like to catch a burning hot rivet a quarter mile up in the air, all while balancing on a single beam and bracing against high winds and frigid temperatures. Overall, a very good book that manages to tell the "story" of these now prominent buildings. I would give it 4.5 stars if I could.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book is a must-read for fans of NYC architecture and, as importantly, devotees of the Roaring 20s. Bascomb does his best when painting a picture of the business and cultural forces which created an unprecedented interest in "one-upsmanship.'

A review labels Walter Chrysler "a head case" without specifying why Chrysler would be seen any worse than John D. Rockefeller or John J. Raskob. All these men, to varying degrees, designed, financed and built their monuments out of a belief that the moneyed success they achieved conferred an obligation to an inspirational gesture. The "World's Tallest Building" affirmed that our country was the greatest in the world. More, though, these men were case histories of the potential we have all around us. Abandoning a bloodlined aristocracy enabled anyone, it seemed, to become godlike.

Does that make a guy a "head case?"

Oh, OK, I suppose so, but man, those gorgeous, arrogant, aspirations in steel and granite. This was when we became who we are as a country, and these things were built to last.

....Until the next guy tears them down and goes even higher.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I found the book very interesting without mind numbing detail you can encounter which such books. Anyone involved or interested in property development should certainly purchase this book for an insight into the common and fateful wrong motivation to develop monuments to oneself. It might be fun but it does come at a price. The book brings the conclusion of Raskob as the winner of the height race but does not take it to it's conclusion with enough details of the Empire State Building becoming a financial burdern during Raskob's life and therefore the call into question of a real success or win.

The one dissappointment with the book is the exclusion of details of other challenges during the same time - specifically the City Services Building, City Bank Farmers Trust Building and 1 Wall Street and possibly the soon to follow Rockefella Center. Great recommended reading.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Ask most tourists--or New Yorkers for that matter--to list the five biggest or most impressive skyscrapers in Manhattan, and they will inevitably choose from: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, the MetLife (formerly, Pan Am) Building, the Citicorp Building, the Woolworth Building, the United Nations, or, until they were taken from us, the World Trade Center. Why it is that the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall is neglected is beyond me. It's not like you can't see it: it's visible from Brooklyn, New Jersey, and the Staten Island Ferry. It's not like it's ugly: it's very beautiful. Finally, Neal Bascomb has given The Manhattan Company Building the attention it deserves, as he describes its rise along with the construction of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. "Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City" is a wonderfully engaging book that tells the stories of the buildings, and the cranks, egos, geniuses, and muscles that went into their respective constructions. (I never realized what a egotistical head-case Walter Chrysler appears to have been!) Lively and well-paced, "Higher" will be of great interest to those who love New York history, architecture, or tales from the Roaring 20s.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I certainly enjoyed _Higher_, but it could have been a better book. Bascomb needs an editor: usages are awkward, some of the passages read as though they were padding added to a slimmer first version, and when the author steps back to sketch the bigger picture the prose, all too often, turns purple. Not altogether his fault: too many authors today try to write a movie rather than a book. Oddly, for a book about architecture and the construction of specific buildings, there are surprisingly few photos -- not that I expected or wanted a coffee table book, but the very visual story here could have been better illustrated. Those of us who like this sort of book, and I do, despite the quibbling and caviling above, should also read Daniel Okrent's _Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center_, which is every bit as interesting and a better-written book, all in all.
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