Bridge to the Sky

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[Strange, isn’ it. But from the point of view of physics, it will seem a little less strange.]

Roman Mars:
Finding new ways to create new buildings with new technology has been the bread and butter of the leading edge architects since there have been leading edge architects. And today my friend, Nate Dimeo-

Roman Mars:
Hey, Nate.

Nate Dimeo:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Has the story of one of those men. A man whose time on the leading edge was brief but dramatic. Nate is the creator of “The Memory Palace,” a history podcast that is all about being brief and dramatic. This is the story of visionary daredevil architect Bradford Gilbert.

Nate Dimeo:
Take it away?

Roman Mars:
Take it away.

Nate Dimeo:
Bradford Gilbert had spent his career close to the ground. At 23, he took a job as the architect for the New York Lake Erie and Western Railroad. It was 1878. As an older man, he would re-design Grand Central Station. But his early 20s saw him designing less grand stations in less central locations. The places you waited to get places where things actually happened. But buy a ticket for Manhattan or St. Louis or Chicago and you could find other architects building more impressive things. Six and eight and ten-story structures. Mammoth blocks of stone and brick and wrought iron made for the kings of the modern American insurance industry. The emperors of imports and exports.

John Noble Stearns made a lot of money importing silk. And he was looking to make a lot more in real estate. He bought some land in a prime location. At 50 Broadway. But there was a problem. The lot was only 21 and a half feet wide. There are rules that dictate what you can build and how. Rules of physics and rules of men who sit on various bureaucratic boards and bodies. And those rules dictated that, if Stearns wanted to build one of those ten-story towers that were all the rage in 1888, he would need to build walls of stone and brick that were five feet thick. And that left room for an interior that was only eleven feet wide. Slice off a few feet for a hallway, a few for a bathroom, a couple for a coat closet, another for some filing cabinets and an umbrella stand. And he would be asking the quintessential modern titan of American industry to work in a dark cell better suited for a dark ages monk. Stearns asked all the best architects for a solution, and they all told him it couldn’t be done. Everyone except Bradford Gilbert.

The in-house architect for Lake Erie and Western Railroad had a theory. Hundreds of tons of cargo were hurdling over tiny train tressels every day. What if he turned one of those bridges on its head? What if he built a bridge up instead of out? He told Stearns that if he did this, the walls wouldn’t have to be five feet thick. They could be just nine inches each. And in the twenty-foot-wide office spaces that that would create, the quintessential modern American titan of industry would have room to stretch out his legs. While he made his rent check out to John Noble Stearns.

Architects came in from all over the country to watch the tower building rise. To pour over Gilbert’s blueprints. And they all pretty much agreed: Gilbert and Stearns were idiots. Stearns begged Gilbert to change the plans. But he refused. He said he was so confident in his design that he would move his office to the top two floors of the building. If the building blew down, he would have the farthest to fall.

The first stiff winds of a hurricane blew into Manhattan on a Sunday morning in 1889. The tower building stood, nearly complete, and people lined the streets to watch it tumble. A man pushed through the crowd and began to climb.

When Bradford Gilbert reached the top of his tower, the wind was whipping through its skeleton frame at more than 80 miles an hour. But he crawled out to the center of the building and pulled from a bag, a rope with a lead weight attached to one end. He tied the other to a girder and tossed the weight down through the open floors below. When he crawled his way back down, he found the lead weight hanging in the air, stock-still. Held up by a building that wasn’t going anywhere.

For years after, Gilbert could sit in his penthouse office, in the still-standing tower building, and stretch out his legs. And watch a whole city stretch ever higher — taking his idea and building on it.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Nate Dimeo. I’m your host, Roman Mars. This program is made possible with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. To find out more and get a link to Nate Dimeo’s brilliant “Memory Palace” podcast, go to

  1. Loved listening to this story, though I do feel inclined to point out something that came off as just a bit misleading. The story made it sound as though the skeletal frame was an invention of Bradford Gilbert in 1888. When in fact the first building that was designed fully with a skeletal frame was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago completed in 1885. It was designed by William Le Barron Jenney, likewise formally an engineer who designed bridges in the Civil War. When it was completed it made headlines. It’s hard to believe that the most forward thinking architects of the east hadn’t heard of the Chicago building and its revolutionary frame. While it is believable that they wouldn’t trust this construction method — they certainly would have heard of it.

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