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

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Book Rating. Remove From Cart. Once they cleared eight feet of a cylinder, it was jacked farther down. They were careful not to excavate too close to the cylinder bottom; otherwise quicksand could boil up. Steam siphons were used to extract water. Finally when they reached hardpan typically forty-nine feet below the street , which was packed tightly enough not to seep water, the cylinders were jacked down three feet to prevent any leakage. The foundation men then dug through the hardpan in open shafts down to bedrock. From street level, some of these shafts ran as deep as a hundred feet, though the average was sixty-four feet.


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The hard rock was benched so that it would have a level bearing, and then concrete was poured onto it. Once the shaft and cylinder was concreted, a steel billet was placed atop the caisson. This procedure had to be executed for the sixty tower and wall columns needed to carry the sixty-seven-story Manhattan Company Building.

On June 15, when the riveting gangs were scheduled to replace the wrecking crews, the foundations would be able to support the structure to that level. In comparison, the Chrysler Building crews began their demolitions in October and set their first columns nearly six months later. The structural steel had long since begun its journey to the shipyards of New Jersey, where it would then be brought across the river. This journey testified to the great economic machine that made skyscrapers possible in the first place.

Much of the iron ore mined to produce steel in America came from the Mesabi Range northwest of Lake Superior. Outside mining towns like Hibbing, Minnesota, men dug chasms in the earth, sometimes 4, feet in length and feet deep. Steam shovels scooped sixteen tons of iron ore at a time out of the open-pit mines and deposited them in fifty-foot rail cars. Then the ore made its thousand-mile journey by barge across the Great Lakes to the mills of western Pennsylvania and Gary, Indiana.

The captains of these barges logged forty thousand miles of lake-faring during the eight-month transport season, rarely coming to shore.

Meanwhile, coal miners, some as young as eight years old, labored deep into gassy tunnel recesses, suffering black lung and cave-ins, to retrieve bituminous coal that was then baked for forty-eight hours to produce coke, the less volatile fuel that powered the mill furnaces. The steel plants ran twenty-four hours a day.

Thousands of men worked twelve-hour shifts in the terrestrial equivalent of the seventh ring of hell. The heat—a rabid, penetrating, constant, insufferable heat—seared their faces. Orders from New York, Chicago, and across America called for more steel and the furnaces needed to be fed. First the iron ore was layered into the furnaces with coke, manganese, and limestone, and set afire. Blasts of air into the furnace raised the temperature to 3, degrees Fahrenheit, purifying the ore of excess carbon, sulphur, manganese, and other substances.


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  4. The resulting pig iron was then moved into the open-hearth furnaces, purified again, and then mixed by metallurgists with silica and other ingredients to produce steel with the right tensile strength. Blades cut off the ends, the metal cooled and was straightened, and then trains brought the finished steel to bridge shops. There, riveters put together the hundreds of girders and columns needed for the skyscraper, with holes already punched for their rivet connections.

    Builders sometimes boasted that their operations were so efficient that the steel was still hot when it arrived in Manhattan. As the Manhattan Company Building neared completion of its foundation and demolition plans at the end of May, the steelwork on the Chrysler Building had risen to the fourteenth floor.

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

    The first setback and the light court above the fifth floor on the western side were taking shape. A tall fence and covered walkway surrounded the site, as well as a constant stream of flatbed trucks. Derricks were perched atop the steel frame, ready to take the next column or beam to its connection. Wooden planks were laid over the frame to serve as floors. Later, concrete would be poured in their place. They worked in long rows, sometimes fourteen men at a time, their bricks stacked up behind them.

    The skyscraper was being constructed to the same design depicted in a large rendering by Van Alen that the Architectural League featured in a member exhibit at the Grand Central Palace. He was the star of the show.

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    Such problems are the especial joy of engineers and constructors. The sand in the hourglass ran quickly. He needed the solution before the steel work was finished. An architect of firsts, Van Alen was certain of his design solutions. Innovation required it. He was the first to design elliptical show windows, one for the Lucky Strike cigarette shop, and the other for the Delman shoe store where those on the sidewalk could watch the cobblers making shoes on the second floor.

    Some called him the Ziegfeld of his profession for these kinds of ideas. At the Standard Arcade, Van Alen was the first to introduce windows with shallow reveals. Before this, windows were always set back into the masonry wall just as they had been since the days when masonry actually carried the weight of the floors above.

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    For the Childs restaurant chain, he employed curved windows at the corners of the six-story building. It was the first time corner columns were discarded for the use of a cantilever. At the Albemarle Building, he designed the building without a heavy cornice; another novel idea. If other architects continued to clothe buildings as they had for centuries, that was their problem.

    I wish to do things original and not be misled by a lot of things that are being done by somebody else. This was the man Chrysler charged with his after-consideration decision to go higher than the original plans, the ones used by structural engineer Ralph Squire to figure the column loads, wind bracing, and positions for the steel that had already been ordered, rolled, and, in part, constructed. Inspiration was a reluctant mistress, and Van Alen had spent the last two years wooing her to envision how a skyscraper should rise over the street and terminate in the sky.

    It was not a question of cost because from the beginning Chrysler told Van Alen to spend what he needed. The architect obliged, hiring the noted painter Edward Trumbell to design a mural for the lobby ceiling; ordering expensive slabs of marble and black Shastone granite for the walls; creating elaborate brick friezes and gargoyles to honor the automobile giant; handcrafting the elevator cabs so that no two looked alike; and sheathing the dome with a new German steel, an alloy called Nirosta, consisting of eight percent nickel and eighteen percent chromium combined with iron.

    Finally, in the last days of May, Van Alen set upon the first element in his redesign to win the skyscraper race. He planned to add floors to the dome, bringing the building up to seventy-seven stories, ten more than originally announced. Rather than wedge floors into the middle of the tower, he added an arch to the six already drawn in the original design released in May More important, he stretched the crown to make the additional height about more than the number of feet it added to the total.

    Instead of six staid semicircular arches, the seven arches looked to almost point to the sky. The redesign spoke to the vertical movement of the skyscraper: its appearance of height, rather than height alone. From the first moment he brought pencil to paper for his design of a structure on Forty-second Street, the movement of the lines was everything to him.

    It was the first and only time Bonestell had ever witnessed another architect do so on a building of such scale. The sloping dome of seven arches covered in gleaming metal and punctured by triangular windows was completely original and it was a brave masterstroke.

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    Instead Van Alen toiled away at the detail work. They fine-tuned the contours and curves of the dome. They drew floor layouts for the additional stories above the sixty-seventh, including the observation room, and made changes to the steel and elevators on these upper floors as well. One had the sense from studying the schedule of plans drawn and delivered that Van Alen was approaching this element but had yet to reach it.

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    He needed that breakthrough moment. Architects, like any artists, found their inspiration in different ways. Some scoured old plates. Others crossed the Atlantic to walk among ruins—as Chrysler had urged Van Alen to do.