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

HigherSuggested by Brad Nelson • A tale of three buildings — the Chrysler Building, the Manhattan Company Building, and the Empire State Building — and the mad rivalry between the architects and builders that even the stock market crash of 1929 couldn’t cool. The sky was literally the limit in this high-roller vision of America.
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6 Responses to Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 61% in the Kindle edition of this book. This is more about personalities than the nitty gritty of how to construct skyscrapers, although you do get some of that. Perhaps it would have benefited with the inclusion of more of the kind of construction details that are contained in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.

    As it is, you tend to get bogged down every so often in mini-biographies of this player or that player as they are introduced. And they all sound like the same story. These endless diversions tend to take away from a sense of an overall narrative. The book would have benefited by being a little more focused. You may also be disappointed that regarding a story as visual as this one, there are few photos. This is not such a huge fault since any photos in the Kindle editions tend to be small and near useless. I therefore found myself constantly referring to the web. What an innovation it would be, particularly in an electronic version of a book, to include embedded links to external photos that can be more easily viewed, and at a larger size.

    Still, as you pick through the various textual portraits, a picture does come together. I’m right at the point in the book where the erection of the needle of the Chrysler building has just gained the building the status of “world’s tallest” over the Eiffel Tower and the competing Manhattan Company Building — both of which will be soon overtaken by the Empire State Building. The raising of this spire was one of the best parts of the book yet. You gain a sense of thrilling danger in the heights these fellows were working at (including the chick photography, Margaret Bourke-White, who literally risked life and limb as she hung over the edges of the Chrysler Building to get the best shot…all in the service of Mr. Chryslers publicity machine).

    This author, and these men, also elicit the iconic and stereotypical (a stereotype that was very real) vision of the industrial-minded man with money and big dreams who wishes to push mankind where he had never before been. And had the book had a better sense of purpose from the beginning in this regard, it would have made a grand movie (and book). As it is, you get glimpsed of this marvelous theme here and there. The book is therefore a bit spotty but worth wading through.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      The Chrysler Building is my favorite NYC skyscraper. It was one of the first, perhaps THE first, building to make extensive use of the relatively new material-stainless steel. The result is wonderful.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        We visited NYC in 1961 on the way to Greece, but all I remember of our touring is a show at Hayden Planetarium and a baseball game at Yankee Stadium (and I don’t remember any details of either one). In 2964, on the way back, we spent a few days in NYC — all of it visiting the World’s Fair. I wouldn’t be surprised if we went to the Empire State Building (in 1964, we did see the new Verrazano Narrows Bridge, but that was because we were staying near it).

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          In 2964, on the way back

          I’d like to vacation with you. Time travel is the only way to do it.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            As Rick Perry would say, “Oops.” Of course, most of the time travel books I have look at the past (such as a travel guide for 14th century England).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        As I thought, when I was at “60%” in the book, I was nearly done because of the extensive end notes. I finished it last night.

        The last two-fifths is definitely the best part. And I would say that this is a conservative-friendly book in that the author has no axe to grind. Unlike some of the snide Marxist comments I found in the comments at Amazon.com, the author was in awe of the works of these men — most who had pulled themselves up from very humble beginnings — while obviously highlighting some of their hubris. These men are not portrayed as automatically evil because they are rich.

        I, too, Mr. Kung, have a fondness for The Chrysler Building. It is one of the few skyscrapers that has real personality. I can respect the Empire State Building for being a sort of grand monster — quite suitable for inclusion in the King Kong films. But the Chrysler Building has panache. Not to mention that I love art deco (Beaux-Arts).

        Oddly, the critics at the time didn’t give it high marks. But you get a real sense for the herd mentality of the press, even back then. At one point his old partner, H. Craig Severance (architect of the rival 40 Wall Street building), had sued the press over criticism of one of his buildings. The author speculated (surely a good hunch indeed) that this had a hold-over effect and blunted criticism of Severance and let it run more freely toward Van Alen.

        Even then, according the author, grand praise was heaped on the Empire State Building (and, to my mind, too much praise for Severance’s 40 Wall Street building, aka Manhattan Company Building later to become The Trump Building) for its design. Objectively speaking, the various fine details of the Chrysler Building were easily superior to either. The reason for the disdain for the Chrysler Building by the critics and press isn’t made clear in the book, but it would seem that the love for the Empire State Building had to do with it simply being higher, being connected with Al Smith, and being a grand project that helped people believe in something higher (no pun intended) after the awful stock market crash.

        Even more incredibly, Van Alen never went on to build any other large buildings. Contributing to that was the bad press he got from a contract dispute with Chrysler (his old partner, Severance, was the business-minded architect with Van Alen being the opposite — he never did sign a contract with Chrysler although he was eventually awarded the industry-standard 6% of construction costs). That’s really the poignant part of this whole episode. The Chrysler Building was the world’s tallest building for only 10 months, and even then it was clear it was going to be soon eclipsed by the Empire State Building. The author notes that in Chrysler’s autobiography he dedicated only two pages to the building.

        The Chrysler Building then fell into disrepair for a number of decades. More recently it has been recognized as the work of art that it is. The author notes that Van Alen’s plans for lighting the dome of the building were found a few years ago and the lighting implemented. And, of course, it looks grand.

        There’s some kind of object lesson in all this. Both Chrysler and Van Alen collaborated in a wondrous thrust of their own wills and imaginations. Something like this is rare. Basic Van Alen had a blank check and both were very enthusiastic about the building. But in the end, it did not bring Alen glory in his own lifetime, and Chrysler all but disowned it. I would say there is a hint of “be careful what you wish for.” And yet I’m grateful they made the wish. It’s just too bad that a great job wasn’t its own reward. But then probably 90% of the thrust of the very idea of the skyscraper (at least in this era) was to be the tallest. And without that it would seem nothing else mattered. Yes, there was more than a little egotism involved.

        But the author notes that the Chrysler Building faired better after the crash of 1929 in terms of occupancy, although by 1954 or 55, the Empire State Building was full and finally making a hefty profit. And I believe the only time (correct me if I’m wrong) that a dirigible ever docked at its tower was in the movies.

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