The Chase into the Sky

Never before in the history of building had there been, and probably never again will there be an architectural design so magnificently adapted to speed in construction.

—Paul Starrett

The Chrysler and Manhattan Company buildings had pushed as high as they would go. The construction gangs had packed their equipment and left. Suits now crowded the hallways and elevators. Instead of bells and whistles, phones rang. Instead of talk about steel deliveries and hoisting machines, people spoke of sales projections and client meetings. The race was over for Chrysler and Ohrstrom, Van Alen and Severance. The remaining question was whether or not the Empire State would complete its rise. As the months unfolded, as the media campaign staged by Raskob and Smith was only outdone by the roar of construction and impending celebration for the Empire State’s opening, the answer became all too clear.

From the skyscraper’s first announcement, Raskob and Smith launched a media blitz that left every other skyscraper in the city fighting for attention. The two men followed dictates from the political arena: always stay on message and in the public eye. With Smith, the press guaranteed the latter, and their message was simple: the Empire State was the largest and tallest skyscraper in the world. There was no comparison. On April 29, 1930, they started the advertising campaign, buying space for ads re-creating the 1799 listing posted by John Thompson for the sale of twenty acres “situated in the heart of New York Island.” The next day, a rendering of the Empire State rising over the Waldorf-Astoria and Thompson’s farm appeared in place of the 1799 listing. The ad was their opening salvo, invoking the epic proportions of the skyscraper and its place in the city’s history.

To compete with Margaret Bourke-White’s dramatic shots of the Chrysler Building, Raskob and the board commissioned the famed photographer Lewis Hine to record the feats of the “poet builders” and “sky boys” constructing the Empire State. The portraits were remarkable for their aerie backdrops, but more so for capturing the ease with which the steelworkers scaled cables, rode the derrick ball, and sprinted across beams. By mid-construction, Hine’s photographs must have seemed ubiquitous to Chrysler, showing up in hundreds of newspapers and magazines and even in Manhattan store display windows. Making it more difficult for Chrysler to escape the assault, Josef Israels II, the Empire State’s publicist, had manufacturers involved in the building’s construction—Corbin Locks, Otis Elevators, and Campbell Metal Windows—pay for promotional pamphlets and full-page advertisements boasting of their role in this “magnificent Colossus in the making.”

Not yet satisfied, the major players involved in the Empire State’s construction also wrote articles heralding the skyscraper’s enormity and what went into creating it, many of which were syndicated nationwide in 1930. Even the mechanical engineer and renting agent had the opportunity to expound on their role and the challenges involved in building this tallest of tall skyscrapers. The Happy Warrior led the charge, writing articles of his own about how the Empire State would realign the power center of New York. Raskob had chosen his spokesman well, as newspapers printed nearly every sentence Smith penned, and every word he uttered in public, whether about the building’s nickel façade, observation gallery, or the terrace reserved exclusively for women. A photograph of the Governor standing next to a plaster model of the skyscraper was published so many times that it was easier to count the number of newspapers that didn’t carry it than did. Most titled the photograph: “Al Smith Shows His Skyscraper—World’s Tallest!” When he revealed on July 21 that the new plans filed for the Empire State officially extended its height to 1,248 feet (for the equivalent of one hundred and two stories) and that they had officially adopted plans for landing dirigibles, he captured headlines again: “Tallest Building to Have Tower Quarter Mile Up” and “Rivalry in Skyscrapers Still Advancing in New York.” It was a merciless barrage.

Chrysler tried to counter in the only way he could, by sending out a series of statements right after Smith’s announcement: on July 24, “The prestige of having the tallest structure in the world has sunk so deeply into the Parisian mind that recent press dispatches from Paris indicate that the French are considering adding sufficient height to the Eiffel Tower to make it surpass the 1,046 feet of the Chrysler Building”; on July 26, “The world’s tallest structure which tops Manhattan’s skyline with its 1,046 feet . . . is really five buildings one on top of the other”; on July 31, “During the daytime the sun turns the tip of the building into a blazing beacon, and at night it is distinguishable by the reflection of the light from the hundreds of buildings surround it.” Smith only had to lead journalists over to the “steel giant” rising on Thirty-fourth Street to show Chrysler that his press releases couldn’t outmuscle the efforts of thousands of men backed by fortunes won from his greatest competitor, General Motors. “Temporarily is the tallest in the world” was the description associated now with his skyscraper.

The Empire State rose four and one-half stories a week, a rate without equal in building history, especially given the size of each floor and the amount of steel and stone needed for each. Some related its construction to that of the Tower of Babel, but there was no confusion of tongues on a Starrett Brothers site. They organized the construction around four elements in the schedule (the “pacemakers”): structural steel erection, concrete floor construction, exterior metal trim placement, and limestone setting. They scheduled material deliveries and the direction of the men around these four pacemakers and checked their progress by them. They averaged ten thousand tons of steel erected per month, and by the end of July, eighty percent of the total structural steel to be used was already in place. The workers kept to the schedule of the other three pacemakers as well. Neither the crowds choking on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk, nor the mounted police keeping them at bay, knew of these pacemakers or their precision. Nonetheless, by simply watching this leviathan rise at such a rate, particularly amidst the creep of the Depression, many understood they were witnessing one of man’s greatest achievements.

August 14 marked the busiest day in the skyscraper’s construction. Starrett Brothers oversaw the labor of 3,439 men on the kind of mild day that workers pray for during the summer months. In the morning the steel arrived at Thirty-third Street. Eighty hours before it was being rolled in a Pittsburgh mill. To reach the site on time, the steel had been rushed by freight train to a New Jersey supply yard, brought across the Hudson, and taken by truck through Manhattan’s streets. After the derrickmen lifted the steel from the truck beds to the sixtieth floor, the bolter-ups rode the beams on the last leg of their journey before jockeying them into position. The steel was still warm to the touch. Meanwhile, eighteen riveting gangs climbed about the narrow spans of steel on the fifty-sixth floor, securing beams to their column connections. Rivets flew through the air and plinked against the catcher’s can before the pneumatic gun roared. Steelworkers cut half-ton girders with torches, sending sparks cascading down the sides of the building before using these same torches to light their cigarettes. It was a typical day on an atypical job.

On the fifty-fifth floor, mechanics set brackets for the elevators and plumbers laid fire lines. Laborers poured the cinder concrete arches for the fifty-third floor and stripped the wooden forms from the arches that had set. Within calling distance, men from C. E. Halback & Company set the ten-inch wide exterior metal trim on the north side of the building, while the W. H. Jackson Company handled this task on the south side. Men from each of these companies were also placing spandrels between the windows. Stone setters on the thirty-ninth floor set the exterior limestone walls and bricklayers followed to back these up. Half a dozen floors below them, a foreman directed a team of five men as they caulked the space between the stone and steel and the window frames. “Mopping up” gangs moved throughout, removing the dirt and debris to prevent mishaps.

Legions of workers installed the guts and nerves of the building on the lower floors, everything from wiring the elevators, placing the under-floor ducts, and installing radiators. Others raised scaffolding, fireproofed wind braces, repaired concrete buckets, laid out terra-cotta partitions, repainted the street bridge, answered job telephones on the twentieth, thirtieth, and fortieth floors, and stenciled “E. S.” on the windows. It was a scene of constant movement—a great vertical assembly line of floor added upon floor. Civil and mechanical engineers visiting the site—some of whom came from as far as China, Russia, South Africa, New Zealand, and South America—were stunned at how fast and efficiently the building rose.

The weekly payroll for all these construction workers, including those hired by the subcontractors, averaged $250,000. The Starretts eked out every dollar’s worth of labor from them by employing 104 men to supervise the construction. Throughout the day they moved in and out of the office shanties above the Fifth Avenue sidewalk bridge to check on the men and ensure the prompt delivery of supplies. To expedite the movement of materials, railway tracks were laid on each floor and flat cars carried tons of brick, terra-cotta, and other material to their needed positions. It was the first time this kind of railway system had ever been used. So the men never had to venture too far from their day’s task, the Starretts installed a restaurant on the third floor and spaced lunch stands throughout the building to distribute sandwiches, hot coffee, near beer, and cigarettes. Temporary toilets were constructed every six stories above the twenty-third floor.

When Richmond Shreve was not charting ways to shave off minutes or expenses in his small office, he walked down to Thirty-fourth Street to check on the building’s progress. Shreve was a generous man, one who had a standing agreement with Schrafft’s restaurant to feed any man who entered bearing his business card, which he often gave out to those asking for money on the street. However, he didn’t tolerate idleness or waste in the Empire State’s construction. One time, finding a water faucet running, he called the plumber over, ordered him to shut off the faucet, then fired him on the spot. The skyscraper was designed with the same merciless attention to detail. Lamb explained that the “Windows, spandrels, steel mullions and limestone, all fabricated in various parts of the country, were designed so that they could be duplicated in tremendous quantity with almost perfect accuracy and brought to the building and put together almost like an automobile.” They limited the size of the limestone placed on the exterior in order that the material hoists operating inside the building could bring the stone to its needed floor. When a marble supplier balked at the schedule the builders required for delivery, the architects chose another type and the Starretts bought an entire German quarry to meet their needs.

The pace on the Empire State rarely slackened. Five hundred trucks a day delivered material to the site. In an eight-hour day, that meant one truck a minute. Journalist C. G. Poore wrote of the extraordinary “chase up into the sky” that he witnessed in midsummer: “Following one of the trucks, an observer finds himself in a forest of concrete covered piers. Here there is an infinity of operations. Truckloads of brick are being unloaded with a roar as the truck chassis tips up and the load goes thundering down through the floor into a basement hopper. Truckloads of tile are unloaded more gingerly, by hand. Sheet-iron, metal parts, bales of wire and coils of cable, sand and cinders and lumber and pipe arrive. Each is unloaded in a special corner of the block-wide floor, presently to go shooting up in elevators to the floor where each is needed.”

The Starretts calculated every brick used and yard of wire mesh cut. They had to track costs, but these figures served a higher purpose: grist for statements like “If all the materials which came to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street for the construction of Empire State had come in one shipment, a train fifty-seven miles in length would have been needed. When the locomotive of such a train would have entered New York, the caboose on the rear end would have come to a halt in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Ten million bricks were used in building Empire State. A single workman, had he continued at it every day, would have had to work for 25 years before he could have finished mortaring these bricks.” Lengths of wire were expressed in miles; marble by the hundreds of thousands of square feet; and plaster by how far a three-foot-wide sidewalk could be surfaced with the amount of the material used on the Empire State (according to the Starrett brothers, a sidewalk stretching from Manhattan to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.). Not only was the skyscraper tall, but it was also gargantuan in proportion, bigger than any other building in New York, and it went up like a rocket ship.

By the first week of August 1930, Chrysler and Van Alen had only a short time left to enjoy their victory in the height race. The observation deck opened on August 3 and ticket sales were brisk. The tower stood distinctly in the skyline, its seven-tiered dome reflecting the sun. Of the many elements of the Chrysler Building, the tower was the most revealing element of the collaboration between architect and client. Van Alen had used steel in an original design and shown what was possible outside of classical decorative details. Chrysler had selected the particular type of steel, knowing Nirosta’s metallurgical qualities and how, as the New York Sun reported, “it will automatically keep glittering, so long as nature provides rain and snow.”

But for Van Alen this ideal collaboration—as had happened with Severance six years before—was about to end badly. With the skyscraper complete, Van Alen called on Chrysler to receive the fee he thought he deserved. He wanted to be paid the six percent of the building’s $14 million cost that the American Institute of Architects suggested as the standard fee for services. Chrysler balked; he had no intention of paying Van Alen $840,000, particularly since the two had never signed an agreement specifying that amount. In fact they had never signed any agreement, and Chrysler argued that since he had been paying him $8,000 a month on top of the buyout of his $100,000 contract with Reynolds, he owed Van Alen nothing more.

Lawyers entered the fray, and a flurry of meetings and phone conversations ensued, attempting to settle the matter privately. Neither side would give. There is no way to know how much of this bitterness was due to Chrysler’s impending loss of the height crown, but there was no doubt he hated being beaten and was unwilling to part with another dollar on an affair that had already cost him many millions.

With negotiations stalled, Van Alen decided to file a mechanic’s lien, which meant that he was claiming an interest in the building and property until he was paid the balance due him. Theoretically, if Van Alen won a judgment in court that the lien was valid, he could have the skyscraper put up for auction. Once the lien was filed, the dispute between Chrysler and Van Alen hit the newspapers. Each side made public statements to defend their position in what was becoming an embarrassing affair, particularly for Van Alen, whose case was presented in the American Architect as “a lesson to other architects who are inclined to depend on their artistic rather than on their business ability.”

The lawsuit promised to be expensive. Depositions would have to be taken, and Chrysler had a team of lawyers who would want evidence of an employment agreement that was never made, not to mention details of every drawing Van Alen completed, who he had presented it to, why it had been created, and when it had been approved. Expert witnesses would have to be called, complaints answered, and calls for dismissal refuted. Throughout, the acrimony between Chrysler and Van Alen was bound to deepen and the bad press widen. Yet Van Alen pursued the suit, as he had no other recourse to be paid adequately.

The project that had once been all about Van Alen seeing his vision of the skyscraper stand above every other was reduced to a battle over money. Neither he nor Chrysler could have expected their relationship to end this way. Then again, the Empire State had changed everything.

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