Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City

Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City

by Neal Bascomb


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The Roaring Twenties in New York was a time of exuberant ambition, free-flowing optimism, an explosion of artistic expression in the age of Prohibition. New York was the city that embodied the spirit and strength of a newly powerful America. 

In 1924, in the vibrant heart of Manhattan, a fierce rivalry was born.  Two architects, William Van Alen and Craig Severance (former friends and successful partners, but now bitter adversaries), set out to imprint their individual marks on the greatest canvas in the world—the rapidly evolving skyline of New York City.  Each man desired to build the city’s tallest building, or ‘skyscraper.’ Each would stop at nothing to outdo his rival.

Van Alen was a creative genius who envisioned a bold, contemporary building that would move beyond the tired architecture of the previous century.  By a stroke of good fortune he found a larger-than-life patron in automobile magnate Walter Chrysler, and they set out to build the legendary Chrysler building.  Severance, by comparison, was a brilliant businessman, and he tapped his circle of downtown, old-money investors to begin construction on the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street. 

From ground-breaking to bricklaying, Van Alen and Severance fought a cunning duel of wills. Each man was forced to revamp his architectural design in an attempt to push higher, to overcome his rival in mid-construction, as the structures rose, floor by floor, in record time.  Yet just as the battle was underway, a third party entered the arena and announced plans to build an even larger building.  This project would be overseen by one of Chrysler’s principal rivals—a representative of the General Motors group—and the building ultimately became known as The Empire State Building.

Infused with narrative thrills and perfectly rendered historical and engineering detail, Higher brings to life a sensational episode in American history. Author Neal Bascomb interweaves characters such as Al Smith and Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, leading up to an astonishing climax that illustrates one of the most ingenious (and secret) architectural achievements of all time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767912686
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 09/21/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 1,259,625
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Neal Bascomb is a former journalist and book editor. He recently participated in two documentaries on architectural history. A native of St. Louis, he now lives and writes in New York City. For more information about the author, please visit www.nealbascomb.com

Read an Excerpt


A Hunch, Then a Demand


The heart of all the world am I!

A city, great, and grim and grand!

Man's monument to mighty man!

Superb! Incomparable! Alone!

Greater than ancient Babylon,

The giant walled! Greater than Tyre,

Sea-Queen! Greater than Nineveh,

Pearl of the East! Greater than Rome,

Stupendous reared, Magnificent!

Greater than Paris, city fey!

Greater than London, fog-enmeshed!

Greater than Venice! Vienna!

Or Petrograd! Greater than these!

That I am! Mark my high towers!

—Arthur Crew Inman

The lobster shift returned home from a long night of pouring drinks, driving taxis, scrubbing floors, or walking the beat on the mad city streets. A few bands still shouted and hollered in Harlem speakeasies, their lawbreaking patrons eased back in their chairs, glad not to have gone to bed on the same day they got up—the Mayor Jimmy Walker way of living high in the era of Prohibition. Liner ships cut through the fog toward the island of Manhattan, arriving from Liverpool, Rotterdam, Genoa, and a dozen other cities. On the waterfront, dockworkers threw back their coffees and stamped out their Lucky Strikes, ready for the cargo hauls from North Africa, Sumatra, Capri, and Costa Rica.

Downtown, milkmen left crates of bottles for the army of office clerks to drink that day. In the gray of dawn, the clanking of ash cans echoed through the streets. A horse-drawn cart turned the corner. At the fish market, mongers spun and heaved three-hundred-pound barrels of flounder onto handtrucks and took them away. The morning chill bit their wet hands. Ferries and tugs shuttled across the harbor. Valets and maids prepared for their blueblood bosses to awake. The newsboys wiped the sleep from their eyes and shouted their first headlines: "Rothstein Shot . . . Hoover in a Landslide . . . Get your paper . . . Two cents . . . Just two cents." It was November 5, the day before the 1928 presidential election between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover, for most New Yorkers simply another day in a decade gone mad.

In Fifth Avenue suites and tenement apartments across the city, alarm clocks rang a thousand rings. Time to chase another buck. Trains, buses, and cars approached the city; their passengers—perhaps today an actor from Poughkeepsie, a playwright from Chicago, a bank teller looking to hit it rich on Wall Street—bounced up and down on their seats as the sun struck gold on the Metropolitan Life Tower. A second later they shot underneath the Hudson River, the towers of New York lost to the darkness. As the sun lifted into the sky, a crowd, one thick swell of dissonant voices, headed for work. They slipped nickels into turnstile slots and waited for the IRT or BMT to come down the elevated rails or screech through the tunnel. Some rushed from ferries once they docked and the gates were pulled aside. One man passed an old friend, tipped his hat, and said "Good Morning" before hurrying on his way. No time to stop for a chat and catch up. Got to move. Got to go. Hawkers hawked their wares. Dynamite blasted. The ground shook. The first rivet thundered. Reporter and raconteur Damon Runyon knew what he was talking about when he said, "The bravest thing in New York is a blade of grass. This is not prize grass, but it has moxie. You need plenty of moxie in this man's town, or you'll soon find yourself dispersed hither and yon."

The morning sun slanted through the Prospect Park West apartment of William Van Alen in Brooklyn. Out his window the white oaks surrounding the Long Meadow were shedding their last leaves. Cars rumbled around Grand Army Plaza, some speeding despite the big round sign that read "Slow Up . . . What's Your Hurry?" Bankers and lawyers rushed toward the subway, passing mothers heading into the park with their children. In the crisp late fall day a slight breeze blew in from the northwest. Van Alen put on a fine wool suit and cinched the knot on his tie. Leaving his wife, Elizabeth, he headed out the door. It was not just another day for Van Alen; it was a big day, perhaps the most important of his life.

An architect differed from other artists: a musician could jab out a few notes with his horn, hear the pitch and tempo; a painter could draw a brush stroke across the canvas and see what she had done; a writer could finish a page, pull it from the typewriter, and read his words. An architect needed more to realize his vision. Van Alen could sketch his designs, order his draftsmen to work out the elevation details in quarter-inch scale, and have blueprints of the same made on fine linen paper that would last for years. But without an owner to finance his plans, a builder to order the steel and brick, and workers to connect the columns and beams hundreds of feet in the air, Van Alen had little more than lines on a page. Without a patron, he was like a composer with a great score and no orchestra.

Over the past two years, Van Alen had drawn countless sketches for the site at Forty-second Street and Lexington Avenue, sketches for a grand skyscraper to tower over Grand Central Station and all of midtown. Three weeks before, William H. Reynolds, the real-estate speculator behind the project and the man to whom Van Alen was under contract, had sold the site to the automobile man Walter Chrysler. With the lease's assignment, Reynolds informed Van Alen that his services were no longer required, neither to draft any more proposals nor to oversee the construction of a new building on the site. The architect insisted that he remained "ready, able, and willing" to continue the job, but this was now a decision for Chrysler, who owned the plans—to do with them (or not do with them) as he pleased. Regardless, Reynolds assured Van Alen that the new owner would honor the balance remaining on the hundred thousand dollars in fees due the architect.

Van Alen pressed for a meeting with Chrysler, motivated by something far greater than securing the remainder of the balance due him. The architect wanted his plans to be built in steel and stone, and Chrysler agreed to meet with him. Today was that day.

Chrysler was the kind of client architects fought over. He was rich, willing to break with tradition, and obviously had a point to prove. He would want a different design, something that distinguished his skyscraper from all the others sprouting up across the city. Although it was still unclear what kind of building would rise at 405 Lexington Avenue, the site teemed with activity. The tenants had moved out; the United Cigar store on the corner had shuttered its doors; and the wreckers had erected a fence around the building. Already demolition crews were tearing down the walls of the five-story office building there.

Anyone exiting Grand Central would hear the din of pneumatic hammers and foremen shouting, "All right, boys!" It wasn't just 405 Lexington; all of Forty-second Street appeared to be under construction. Derricks lifted another tier of columns on the fifty-three-story Chanin Building going up across the street. Down the block, J. E. R. Carpenter, an architect Van Alen had promoted for membership in the Architectural League, had designs for his own skyscraper: great lumbering trucks threaded their way through traffic to deliver materials to the future Lincoln Building.

Two blocks from Chrysler's site, Van Alen made his way toward his office on Madison Avenue, the same office he had occupied since the split with Severance four years before. When he arrived, the two ex-

Vassar College shot-putters, as a visitor once described Van Alen's secretaries, knew to keep away most callers. Sitting in his office before his meeting with Chrysler, the architect must have worried about what questions his potential client would ask. Was Van Alen willing to make significant changes to his original designs? Were he and his firm up to the task? Why shouldn't a more established firm get this plum commission or at least serve in an advisory capacity? How long would the whole operation take? Or maybe he just wanted to meet Van Alen and get a feel for him. But what if Chrysler asked him if he drove one of his cars? Van Alen would have to tell him it was not a Chrysler. He drove a car built by E. L. Cord, even though he had trouble with the clutch and often ground the gears. Chrysler had to understand that Cord offered the latest in styling. Or maybe he wouldn't understand. There was a reason Severance pitched all the clients when they were partners. Van Alen was too introspective and made a weak first impression.

Reynolds first hired Van Alen in 1921 when he was still working with Severance. The developer wanted a penthouse designed for the five-story building at 405 Lexington Avenue. Reynolds promised many improvements to the site, but carried few of them to completion. Despite a lack of results, Reynolds hired Van Alen yet again in March 1927, and again asked him to design something for 405 Lexington: this time, a forty-story hotel. Van Alen hired Chesley Bonestell, an illustrator who freelanced with a number of firms around town, to collaborate with him on the preliminary studies for the hotel. He fired up his factory of draftsmen to prepare for the detailed, scaled drawings they would make from his sketches. Several months later, however, Reynolds scrapped the hotel plans. He wanted an office building instead—a skyscraper.

He called Van Alen, and the two revised their contract for the new structure. The skyscraper was not to exceed sixty stories and would contain "stores and other improvements as may be required, such as banking offices, cafeteria, grill room, subway connection and all the appurtenances that may be necessary." Van Alen was to prepare the plans and specifications and confer with architect Robert Lyons on the initial sketches. The dry legal jargon fails to convey the opportunity this skyscraper presented to Van Alen, who wrote:

In designing a skyscraper there is no precedent to follow for the reason that we are using a new structural material, steel, which has been developed in America and is different in every way from the masonry construction of the past.

Structurally, and in their purpose, our tall buildings are wholly unlike any buildings of an earlier day. To apply to our tall office buildings, apartment houses and hotels the familiar architectural features characteristic of the comparatively low palaces, temples and churches that were built before the advent of steel as a building material, is not economical or practical, and it is artistically wrong since it is not truthful.

This skyscraper, described by Reynolds as "a fire-proof office building similar to such buildings as are competitive in the City of New York" was to be for Van Alen a statement of the truth. More importantly, he needed the commission, one that could catapult him to the top of his profession, as the Woolworth Building had Cass Gilbert.

Since severing his partnership with Craig Severance, Van Alen had floundered. Without his partner to score the big commissions, his designs of critical note were limited to a chain of Childs restaurants and a pair of show windows for stores. Meanwhile New York underwent a building boom the likes of which had never before been seen. Many of the architects Van Alen had known as draftsmen and studied with in Paris now enjoyed flourishing practices. Although the New Yorker would first say it several years hence, most in the architectural community knew already that "leading the New York modernists [are] Ralph Walker, Ely Jacques Kahn, and Raymond Hood. They are three little men who build tall buildings, and who probably rake into their offices more business than any other architects in the city . . . They eat and drink and lunch and confer constantly . . . They plan great projects. They lead the Architectural League . . . They are constantly publicized, interviewed, quoted. They dash to Boston. They race to Chicago. They have a glorious time." It was these three that newspaper journalists visited when they needed a quote on the essentials of good architecture—not Van Alen.

Of course, Reynolds cared as much for Van Alen's statement of truth and place in the architectural community as he did about the color of the architect's tie. Reynolds was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of only one: the art of self-promotion. Employment as a real-estate developer was a good match. Born and raised in Brooklyn, his first job entailed clearing the plaster and debris from the houses his father worked on as a carpenter. Reynolds studied law, but left before finishing to make his initial investments in real estate. In his first year, he earned over forty thousand dollars, a king's sum at the time. By his twenty-fourth birthday, Reynolds found himself elected to the state senate, the youngest member in Brooklyn history. Despite serving only a few years, he maintained the "senator" imprimatur throughout his life. He also worked as an oil promoter, copper mine owner, racetrack developer, amusement park operator, theatrical promoter, and proprietor of a trolley line and water company. Known for crooked dealings, true or purported, he was twice indicted by the courts, but never served any time in jail. The last charge, grand larceny, was overturned on appeal in March 1927.

Nearly bald, with eyebrows arched so perfectly they could have been painted, Reynolds was a tireless showman. His most notable achievement in real estate remained the 1903 development of Coney Island's Dreamland Park, featuring a tower with a hundred thousand lights, the largest dancehall in the country, and spectacles with titles such as "Fire and Flames" and "Trip to the Moon." In 1911 a few of the lightbulbs exploded on the Hell Gate attraction and eighteen hours later Dreamland Park smoldered in ashes. That same year Reynolds maneuvered his way into acquiring the lease on Lexington Avenue and Forty-second Street, which was owned by Cooper Union and had the benefit of being tax-exempt. Originally Reynolds signed a twenty-one-year lease with an annual payment of fifty-four thousand dollars a year in rent. Cooper Union approved of Reynold's alterations to the building on the site, except to say that "the flourishes in the two gables" should be toned down and made simpler. After the construction in 1913 of Grand Central Terminal, Reynolds shrewdly returned to Cooper Union's trustees to ask for an extension. Over the next fifteen years, Reynolds finagled revaluations, extensions, and options on the lease by pledging multimillion-dollar developments on the site, yet the showman's promises for the site remained as empty as the air above the five-story building.

Regardless, Van Alen sketched, studied, and modeled a skyscraper. Reynolds helped pay his bills, and the opportunity was too big to pass on simply because of impatience. Early in 1928, Van Alen started a game of one-upmanship with the developer of the Lincoln Building and its architect, J. E. R. Carpenter. Carpenter announced he would build a fifty-five-story skyscraper at the old Lincoln warehouse site across from Grand Central. Fellow designer and critic Kenneth Murchison chronicled Van Alen's next move in a leading architectural journal: "In a rich baritone voice, [he] sang something to the effect that only a block away he proposed putting up a fifty-six-story building! This, of course, made the Lincoln people perfectly furious so they proclaimed that they would probably make theirs sixty-three stories high, to which Mr. Van Alen said, 'Hold, men, we will make ours SIXTY-FIVE stories high!' " Carpenter backed down and Van Alen finished plans for a skyscraper one story less than he boasted.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Soaring Twenties1
Part 1
Chapter 1A Hunch, Then a Demand17
Chapter 2The Architect-Artist32
Chapter 3A Proud and Soaring Thing46
Chapter 4The Organization Man59
Chapter 5Make the Land Pay72
Chapter 6An American Invention91
Chapter 7The Poet in Overalls101
Chapter 8To Scrape the Sky116
Chapter 9Equivalent to War130
Chapter 10A Three-way Race139
Interlude: Oxygen to the Fire155
Part 2
Chapter 11Call It a "Vertex"163
Chapter 12A Monument to the Future178
Chapter 13The Prize of the Race190
Chapter 14The Butterfly and Its Cocoon199
Chapter 15Crash213
Chapter 16Pharaoh Against Pharaoh228
Chapter 17Aladdin's Genii and Paper Fights241
Chapter 18The Chase into the Sky254
Chapter 19Excelsior263
Epilogue: Spirit--Not Steel and Stone273

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