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Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City Paperback – September 21, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
The 1920s "race" to build the world's tallest building has been extensively chronicled. A former literary agent and former St. Martin's editor, Bascomb centers his narrative on two architects, William Van Alen and Craig Severance, who schemed to outdo each other in the race to pierce New York City's skies with, respectively, the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building on East 42nd Street-only to be beaten by a third team hired to construct the Empire State Building (at Fifth Avenue and 34th). While this story is most often told as a sentimental paean to "progress" rather than a bitter corporate feud, Bascomb gives his tale a fresh sense of capitalist drama in his evocation of the nascent worlds of skyscraper engineering, architecture and construction-and real estate speculation with returns projected at 10%. He imbues the former three with some terrific detail (including a 22-item list of how many trades, including mail chute installers and asbestos insulators, it took to build a skyscraper) that gives context to the players and incidental characters, including the five Starrett brothers (builders raised in Lawrence, Kans., who built 40 Wall Street), General Motors' financier John Jacob Raskob (the man behind the ESB), Walter Chrysler, New Yorker reviewer "T-Square," former governor Al Smith and many others. The occasionally intrusive cliches (the Starrett brothers "had building in their blood"), hyperbole (the '20s were "a decade gone mad") and familiar generalizations (the U.S. "finally came into its own" in that same decade) are excusable in a debut book, especially one chronicling an obsession with height and speed.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Though the desire to spike the landscape with ever-higher structures dates back millennia, skyscraper one-upmanship accelerated in the twentieth century. And while it continues today, never was the race so neck-and-neck as at the end of the Roaring Twenties in New York. Architect William Van Alen, commissioned by Walter Chrysler, found himself in direct competition with partner-turned-rival Craig Severance, architect for the Manhattan Company Building (now the Trump Building). Though the Chrysler was begun first, the Manhattan moved faster, and both groups soon were secretly revising plans--with construction underway. With its cloud-piercing spire, the Chrysler won the height race (although the Manhattan claimed the highest usable floor). The real winner was a late entrant: the Empire State Building. Bascomb's book is nicely rounded, exploring the finances and logistics of skyscraper building, from acquiring the land to riveting the steel; the benefits and drawbacks of height; and the personalities of the builders--all as he ratchets up the tension of the race. Keir Graff
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top Customer Reviews
Bascomb does an excellent job mixing incredible architectural detail with a fresh narrative. Everything comes in context so you understand why the choice of materials matters, why the pace was so impressive, why the height was so important, and how the competition came to be. It was also a very nostalgic read in some ways--I read the book as the American auto manufacturers were in their bailout phase, and it was a bit odd at times to read about the grandeur and stature of the Chrysler building and then check the day's headlines.
The photographs by Margaret Bourke-White in the book were also breathtaking, particularly "the gargoyle shot" (you'll know it when you see it).
Incidentally, if you've ever seen the movie Two Weeks Notice, when Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant are taking a helicopter ride over the Manhattan skyline and Grant asks about the two partner architects that turned on each other to compete for the highest skyscraper in New York...that's this story.
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.