Higher and Higher

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

[background music]

Speaker 1: The greatness of New York is perhaps most spectacularly seen in its buildings. While other cities are spread outward, New York has been forced to build upward.

Roman: Like the best of these stories. The two bitter rivals started out as best friends. William Van Alen–

Neal Bascomb: Van Alen was kind of the archetype of architect as artist. He looked at buildings as art and he wanted it revolutionized in that way.

Roman: And Craig Severance.

Neal: Craig Severance was very much architect as businessman. He looked at buildings as a way to make the land pay.

Roman: They were business partners.

Neal: And as partners they were incredible together because you have Van Alen as the architect as artist, and you have Severance as the businessman making everything run on time, making things work efficiently. And together they were able to do quite a bit.

Roman: But they were not just business partners.

Neal: They stood up at each other’s weddings. Van Alen was the godfather to Severance’s daughter.

Roman: But years of working together had taken its toll.

Neal: Sadly, we don’t know exactly what the sort of precipitating factor was other than the fact that there were some records that are discovered just about Van Alen wanting to change plans sort of continuously running over budget, and to someone like Severance that wasn’t going to stand. And so they were late on plans and they weren’t delivering and I think that Severance at a certain point said, “I could do this better on my own.”

Roman: Telling our story today is Neal Bascomb.

Neal: My name is Neal Bascomb.

Roman: He wrote a great book about this called “Higher. A Historic Race To The Sky and The Making of The City.”

Neal: I’m the author of Higher and a number of other books.

Roman: At the time of the Van Alen and Severance breakup, New York city was undergoing a boom like nothing has ever seen before. Massive wealth concentrated on this tiny island, turned Manhattan into the most valuable property in human history. And when property gets valuable, we build up.

Neal: The Roaring 20’s, the stock market is going crazy. Real estate prices are going through the roof.

Roman: A skyscraper is a machine designed to turn land into money, at least that’s how Severance viewed skyscrapers.

Neal: There were talks of skyscrapers 1,200 feet, 1,500 feet. I mean, off the charts. It was a symbol both of the economics and also of the times. I mean, the culture was: we want everything faster, higher, better and so it sort of all came together into the skyscraper race.

At this point in late 1928, Van Alen’s career is basically in the basement. I mean, he’s not getting many commissions. Meanwhile, Severance is going crazy. I mean, he’s getting commission after commission on big building after big building.

Roman: So in late 1928, Walter Chrysler, founder of the Chrysler car company came to New York City and bought a plot of land and wanted to build what he referred to as “a monument to me.” Van Alen had already been working on plans for the previous owner of that plot and Chrysler decided to hire him to develop that plan into what would become the Chrysler building.

Neal: Chrysler I think, was in his own way a revolutionary was very committed to art and design and I think saw a very real way a kindred spirit in Van Alen.

Roman: Meanwhile downtown at 40 Wall Street, Van Alen’s ex-partner Craig Severance was building the Manhattan Company Building.

Neal: And Severance’s building was very different. Keyed exactly to his personality, the Manhattan Company Building was downtown. The Chrysler building was uptown. Severance was an investor in this building. It was being funded primarily by a man named George Ohrstrom who was considered the boy wonder of wall street. He was 34. He was incredibly rich, incredibly quickly. And their building was in a very real way was to make money while the Chrysler building was to sort of make a monument to what Chrysler had achieved but also to sort of break new ground in architecture.

Roman: At the time Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building towered over everything.

Neal: 792 feet tall, it’s the tallest building in New York.

Roman: And in true “monument to me” fashion, Chrysler set his sights on his building being taller than the Woolworth building, the tallest in the city. And even though the Manhattan Company Building didn’t quite have the same motivation to be the tallest to celebrate one man’s greatness, the team decided that they wanted to take the ground from Woolworth and be the tallest.

Neal: I think the motivation initially for the Wall Street Building, for the Manhattan Company Building is one; because of the cost of land downtown in Wall Street, you have to build high. They got their spreadsheets out and decided exactly how high that would be, and then they decided to go a little bit higher to have the imprimatur of the world’s tallest building which when you’re selling office base it’s something that as a real estate agent you can sort of hand out a card that says, “Do you want to work in the world’s tallest building?” So it was a sales tactic as well as an economic decision.

Roman: And so the race was on. Two ex-partners, Van Alen with the Chrysler Building, and Severance with the Manhattan Company Building were going to battle it out for supremacy on the skyline.

Neal: Initially the Chrysler Building was the first to announce its height. Chrysler and Van Alen were a little bit further along and so they announce in early 1929 that they’re going to roughly 820 feet which is taller than the Woolworth at 792. Well, a couple of months after that, Craig Severance comes out and says, “Well, we’re building to 840 feet.” And then you have this over the course of that year, particularly that summer, even as the buildings are going up, even as they’re setting the foundation, even as they’re ordering steel, Van Alen and Severance are both changing their plans. Both not knowing what the other person is doing but sure that their respective bosses want to go higher, and I think at this point they very much want to beat each other.

Roman: But it wasn’t just a height race. It was also a speed race.

Neal: At the point in the summer of 1929 when both these buildings are going up very fast, it’s very much who can beat the Woolworth Building first, who can release that first statement saying “World’s Tallest Building.”

Roman: And the public was into it.

Neal: It was a race almost weekly. There were newspaper articles about this building is going higher. Chrysler is going to be 900 feet, Manhattan Company Building is going to be 950 feet. Severance wins. Van Alen wins. I mean, all these sort of premature statements and it was very much covered in the press and all of the New York newspapers at that time which were many big front page photographs. It was pretty incredible.

Roman: But both Chrysler and Van Alen were not content just being the fastest and the tallest.

Neal: Van Alen remembers a time going into Chrysler’s office when Chrysler was on the floor with plans spread out on the carpet, looking at how the lobby is going to be set up.

Roman: Walter Chrysler was very interested in art and architecture.

Neal: And so he wanted a beautiful building, a building like none other in the world.

Roman: Meanwhile at the Manhattan Company Building….

Neal: Basically what’s happening on the Manhattan Company Building is they’re just adding floors. They’re saying, well, the foundation will be able to do this if we add 4 floors, if we add 10 floors, if we add this little flag at the top we can go higher. So it was almost incremental movements on the Manhattan Company Building.

Roman: On the Chrysler Building, they were achieving last minute height advantages in two ways.

Neal: One, originally, the dome of the Chrysler Building, that arch dome was much more compact. As you see it now, it’s almost like it’s stretched out. And that happened because of the height race. They wanted to find more floors, they wanted to get some more height.

Roman: And that so elegant, elongated dome that we love on the Chrysler Building was the result of this silly height race. But the sneaky master stroke that ultimately led the Chrysler Building to surpass the Manhattan Company Building for good was the gleaming spire called The Vertex.

Neal: And that was 185-foot triangular spire that was built inside the stairwell basically, the fire stairwell inside the building, at the top of the building. So the Manhattan Company Building had no idea what was going on. They brought up each piece separately up the side of the building by Derricks, constructed it inside the fire tower.

Roman: And one day, after the Manhattan Company Building was finished, topped out, no chance to add any more floors, suddenly this concealed vertex is brought up from inside the building.

Neal: And as Van Alen said, it’s sort of like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. They put this thing on top of the building. It was a 185-foot tall and it made the Chrysler Building 1,046 feet high and the tallest structure in the world, now surpassing the Eiffel Tower.

Roman: And if you’re thinking this is a stunt of secretly riveting a giant metal spire 900 feet in the air sounds ridiculously dangerous, you are right.

Neal: It was extremely dangerous. I can imagine today it not getting approval. Everybody basically thinking from Chrysler to Van Alen, is this thing going to fall? And if it does, you’re going to impale half the street or more. And you can imagine the damage that would have done.

Roman: Now, you probably know and can clearly picture the now classic Art Deco style of the Chrysler Building. The steel-clad arches, the sunburst triangular windows, not to mention the hood ornament style eagles and the hubcap friezes. It was made for a car guy, after all. But it’s doubtful that you even heard of the Manhattan Company Building. First, because now it’s called 40 Wall Street or The Trump Building. But also ’cause it just never took hold in the public consciousness even though I actually really dig its green roof.

Neal: Curiously, the Manhattan Company Building 40 Wall Street got all the accolades. It won awards. The design was mostly by this Japanese architect, Yasuo Matsui, so it did wonderful in the trades and it was this basically, a fairly bland looking building at the time. And then you have the Chrysler Building with this new dome, this new vertex, something that really New York or the world had never seen and was pretty remarkable stuff and it was almost universally panned. It was considered a stunt design….

Roman: What?

Neal: Some people called it a monstrosity.

Roman: No.

Neal: It was largely reviled by architectural critics…

Roman: What do they know?

Neal: And it was only over time that the Chrysler Building became the sort of treasured landmark that it is.

Roman: And if the story stopped there you might think Van Alen, the artistic maverick, won the day. The Chrysler Building was the tallest structure in the world and even though the design was panned originally, we all now that it eventually got its due. But the story does not end there. After all this hubbub of partner against partner fighting for who would be the tallest, a mere 11 months later, the great Empire State Building was completed and it became the tallest building in the world for nearly 40 years. Frankly, I don’t care about that so much. What happened next was the real tragedy. The lack of business acumen that probably contributed to Van Alen and Severance parting ways really came back to bite William Van Alen. He never actually had a contract with Walter Chrysler to design the Chrysler Building.

Neal: Chrysler, at the end of the day, said, “Well, I’m not going to pay you your fee because we didn’t have a signed contract.” It was widely sort of considered normal at the time for the architect to be paid roughly 6% of the cost of the building. That sum of money is what Van Alen expected it’s what Chrysler was willing to pay.

Roman: Van Alen ended up suing Chrysler.

Neal: It hit the newspapers and at the end of the day, Cass Gilbert, who did Woolworth came and said, yes, that percentage is the typical rate. That’s what Van Alen should be paid and Van Alen was paid that.

Roman: But Van Alen was never given a major commission again.

Neal: I think both because the Great Depression had hit and also because he had now sued his patron and that was something that I think others shied away from.

Roman: Van Alen spent most of the rest of his life teaching sculpture at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, but Severance, on the other hand, continued to succeed.

Neal: The Manhattan Company Building did terribly, like every other office building in New York at the time. But Severance went into the depression and got a bunch of government work, actually built a bunch of hangars for balloons and such. So he did quite well and lived nicely and died in luxury.

Roman: So that’s at least one happy ending for you.

Neal: But we do have the happy ending in the fact that the Chrysler Building is this sort of hallowed structured now.

Roman: And Van Alen really did get the commission of a lifetime.

Neal: There was no expense spared by Chrysler. If you ever go into the Chrysler Building, from the lobby all the way to the top, I mean, it’s just expense and expense and expense and it’s just beautiful Art Deco, interior work, wood paneling, Art Deco, murals. It’s just an incredible building top to bottom, inside and out. And very rarely do you have a commission where money is no object. And so Van Alen was given one shot and I think he came through.

Roman: If Craig Severance was standing in front of me, I think I’d say, I wish you worked it out with Van Alen. You did well. You deserved it but I think you would have been greater together. And if I could talk to Van Alen, I’d say I’m sorry you didn’t get to build more great structures but know that you created the building that can stop the most architecturally blind, and generally disinterested person dead in their tracks and they will marvel at your accomplishment. Know that. And to Walter Chrysler, I’d say, [bleep] you. Pay your bills, you [bleep] deadbeat. We could have had an another Chrysler Building or something as good if you hadn’t ruined Van Alen’s life. I mean probably not because of the Great Depression and all but we’ll never know, will we? You [bleep] bum. Geez.

[background music playing]

Roman: I’m going to need a minute. 99% Invisible is Sam [inaudible] Avery Trufelman and me Roman Mars. We are Project 91.7 local public radio, KALW in San Francisco and produced out of the offices of [inaudible] a brilliant architectural firm in beautiful Downtown Oakland California.

Credits

Music

“Les Metamorphoses du vide” — Chapelier Fou
“The Hula Hoop” — Carter Burwell
“Entendre la foret qui pousse” — Chapelier Fou
“Xingu River” — Uakti & Philip Glass
“Untitled 09” — Melodium
“Untitled 87” — Melodium
“Kamogawa” — Hauschka
“Heights” — OK Ikumi

Comments (9)

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  1. Ed Baker

    Great episode! What’s the music at the beginning when you are talking about the partnership?

  2. Great info on the awesome buildings in NYC. Who knew? I agree that it would have been better if the partners had kissed and made up. One can only imagine what buildings would have been built if this had happened. I also agree on your feelings about the, now, Trump building. Like Chrysler, Trump is way too full of himself, and what he sees as his legacy. His money could be used for far greater good than yet another building with his name on it. Just think of all the people who could be fed or housed, or could be employed a living wage. I can’t wait for the next episode. I have listened to each episode as many as 4 times. I learn something new every time. Thank you to all of you for sharing with your audience. Thanks also for Radiotopia, a great way to find the best of the best on public radio today.

  3. Tom

    That was a great episode. I did hear the shudder in your voice at the name Trump. It’s interesting, I took and architectural tour around Grand Central Terminal last year and when we got to the Hyatt Hotel, the tour guide asked our opinion of the building and no one was too excited about it. He pointed out that it was Donald Trump that took the bankrupt Commodore Hotel next to the train terminal and rebuilt it into the Hyatt. In a time when no one wanted to be in the neighborhood around Grand Central, Trump’s construction project was a turning point for the neighborhood; it was the first new construction in the area in decades and won many awards when it opened. He took over the Wollman Skating Rink renovation from the city of New York and finished in three months a project that was four years behind schedule. His impact grew from there.

    The tour guide, a historic preservationist, told us that you may not like Trump’s politics, but in 30 years there will be tours of Trump architecture in New York, he had that much of an impact on the city.

  4. “And if you’re thinking, ‘this stunt of secretly riveting a giant metal spire nine hundred feet in the air sounds ridiculously dangerous’… You are right.”

    Brilliant touch, Roman. I could hear you smiling, and I did too.

  5. Raffy

    It’s difficult to compare “success” between two people who where so different. Between an Architect and a Businessman. So teaching at a beaux art school with enough money to live comfortably and pretty much happily for the rest of your life (because that 6% is by no means a small fee) can never be topped by a life pursuing a life of wealth in the misled belief that enough money will bring you happiness. So from my perspective Van Alen wins hands down in both categories, because the ultimate success in life is having lived a happy one.

  6. Wes

    It seems like this story relates A LOT of the story behind Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead — specifically how VanRyan went out of business and the other Architect went on to do government projects etc.

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