The Feud That Formed New York City’s Skyline


The Feud that Formed The New York City Skyline The New York City skyline is one of the most
breathtaking views in the world. But did you know that two of the most notable
parts of the skyline were actually the result of an ego-filled
feud between two former good friends? William Van Alen was the architect responsible
for the Chrysler Building. He spent two years designing the structure
at 42nd Street but it was actually supposed to be done months
sooner. Van Alen’s goal was to build the tallest
building in the world. But he wasn’t the only one with that mission
in mind. Another architect was trying to break the
record himself. His name was H. Craig Severance, and he was tasked with building a tower for
the Manhattan Company at 40 Wall Street. The two buildings were just four miles apart. Here’s everything that built up to the feud. It started in the early 1920s, when H. Craig
Severance and William Van Alen were partners in an architecture firm called
Severance and Van Alen, Architects. The two worked closely- dividing up their
duties. Severance handled the sales end of things, while Van Alen was the designer. Together, they built iconic structures including the Vogar Building on 57th St and the Bar Building on 44th St. But ten years into their partnership, the
two best friends began butting heads. They were disagreeing about a lot, and their differences even cost them a few
job opportunities. Resentment grew to a point where Van Alen
eventually walked away from the firm in 1924. A few years later, Van Alen was enlisted by
Walter Chrysler to create an iconic structure what we now know as The Chrysler Building. Chrysler wanted it to be something different
something giant and record breaking something that would make a statement. Together, they settled on a 67-story, 809-foot
skyscraper that could fit 11,000 people. In Van Alen’s sketch, he drew patterns depicting
cars moving across the walls and massive gargoyles, shaped like the radiator
caps of a Chrysler vehicle, which would spread their wings at each corner
of the building. On the top, six overlapping steel arches would rise above each side of the tower to
form a large dome. One of Van Alen’s friends actually said
the idea for these arches came from a bottle of Bacardi. Shortly after, Van Alen began his work on
the building. Meanwhile, his design was released to the
public in 1929. And it caught the attention of his former
friend Severance. At the time, Severance was keeping busy himself. He was working on the tower for the Manhattan
Company at 40 Wall Street. One of the Manhattan Company building’s
investors insisted this should be the world’s tallest building. Catching the theme here? The height for the Manhattan Company’s tower
was projected to be 809 feet tall– which happened to be exactly the same height
as the Chrysler Building. But there was one issue: building tall is
expensive. So, to cut down on labor costs, The Manhattan Company wanted the tower completed
in just one year. And this wasn’t exactly feasible. Other skyscrapers- all of which were smaller
than the Manhattan Company Building– took two years to construct. Not to be deterred, Severance got to work. His building’s rendering was similar to
Van Alen’s: it included 67 stories. But, this design also featured a copper pyramid
and a mast at the summit… which brought it 48 feet higher than the Chrysler
building. News reports spread like wildfire that Severance
was going to be responsible for the tallest building in the world. Chrysler immediately met with Van Alen to
figure something out- they couldn’t bear the thought of losing
their chance at a world record. So, Van Alen scrambled to draft up a plan
to add hundreds of feet to the building. And this time around, every change in the
design was carefully kept under wraps. Even the building’s workers didn’t know
the full details. They couldn’t risk Severance finding out
about their new plan. Van Alen eventually got the green light to
make his skyscraper not just the tallest building in the world… but also the tallest manmade structure anyone
had ever seen. Yep, that includes the 984 foot tall Eiffel
Tower. He drew and re-drew the tower, which, by the
way, construction had already started on and was
already taking shape. The design jumped from 67 floors to 77 floors. The six arches increased to seven. And to top it all off… a giant spire would
grow out of the dome to scrape the sky and pierce the clouds. The spire was top secret. Since it had to be hidden from the public, and especially Severence, it needed to be assembled inside the building,
before being lifted up and out of the tower. Van Alen enlisted his cousin, who was an engineer, to do the math and confirm the addition was
doable. So his cousin did say it was possible… but he never said raising a 27-ton steel spire
860 feet above the Earth wouldn’t be dangerous. They did it anyway. In the 1920s, safety measures were… lacking,
to say the least. When it came to the Chrysler Building– workers
didn’t even wear hardhats! Add that to working in frigid, wet temperatures and there were no fences or boundaries
to prevent workers from falling. The Manhattan Company Building’s working
conditions were equally dangerous, if not worse. Everything was so rushed to meet the 1-year
construction deadline. And construction was running around the clock. Of course, as most secrets tend to do- rumors started to leak about Van Alen’s
plan. Severance caught wind of the fact that the
Chrysler Building would actually be much higher than originally
reported. But, he didn’t know exactly how much taller
it would be. So, Severance and his architect returned to
the drafting board. They determined the foundations were strong
enough to hold more height and more weight. They weren’t ready to lose this battle- they drafted up five more stories to bring
their building up to 900 feet. Severance was sure this would be tall enough. He couldn’t imagine the Chrysler building
would be any taller than 900 feet. At the time, construction had reached the
45th floor, and Severance figured it would be impossible
for Van Alen to make any other major changes from that point. Press caught wind of the race between the
Chrysler and Manhattan Company buildings. Which would rise faster? Which would rise higher? Chrysler finally made an announcement about
his building’s projected height. He claimed it would be somewhere between 840
and 850 feet. This was just to throw off his competition. Rumors circulated that the building might
feature an additional 60-foot flagpole, so Severance added his own flagpole to make
his building reach 925 feet. It seemed like the Manhattan Company’s building
was going to win this. Soon after, it became time to top the Chrysler
Building with its iconic spire. Workers slowly began to understand what was
happening as they assembled the pieces and realized the product was a 185 foot tall,
27-ton metal lattice. The next step was to raise it to the building’s
highest arch and rivet it into place. Van Alen stood nearby, watching as his vision
slowly came together. Thoughts that ran through his head were… What if the cables lowering it break, and
all 54 thousand pounds fall through the building. What if the crane can’t even lift that needle
high enough? What if the wind kicks in and tips the spire
over the edge of the building? That would cause it to fall down over 70 stories… crashing onto the streets below. but in just 90 minutes, the job was completed. The lattice stood sturdy at a whopping 1,046
feet. Still, Chrysler didn’t make any official
announcements on the building’s height. The Manhattan Company Building finished shortly
after and secured its place as the second tallest
building in the world. Severance just didn’t know it. One month after the buildings were done, news finally broke that the Chrysler Corporation
and Van Alen won the skyscraper race. A trade publication called The Daily Building
Report was the first to report the news. Severance was in disbelief. But the final measurements were in: The Chrysler Building stood at 1,046 feet
tall. The Manhattan Company reached just 927 feet. This competition singlehandedly fueled two
of the most outstanding features in New York City’s
skyline as we know it today. To date, the tallest building in New York City
is the Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center. It stands at 1,776 feet tall. The tallest building in the world is Burj
Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at a remarkable 2,722 feet… A height that Severance and Van Alen only
could have dreamed of.

1 thought on “The Feud That Formed New York City’s Skyline

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *