What inspired you to write about the skyscraper
grandfather was a photographer for the St. Louis Post
Dispatch and shot the construction of the Gateway
He used to marvel me with stories of its
how its shape was the same of a chain hanging down
its two ends. From an early age, architects seemed
gods to me, coming up with these ideas and figuring
how to see them realized. You can imagine my
then when I first stepped out of Grand Central
New York, twenty-one years old, having come from
of Midwestern town where people are more interested
seeing the sky than scraping it. The Chrysler
quite literally the first skyscraper I saw in the
steel and stone. I was won from the start.
Years later, I heard the story of hidden spires and
feud between architects at a dinner party, but it
so fantastic as to be urban myth. A little
the story true, but what drove these men to such
Could it be simply revenge played out in steel?
That’s what I
wanted to know.
Was it simply revenge that they built higher and
that’s what makes this story so compelling. It was
ego, hubris, fame, revenge, economics, and the
the stock market and the Roaring Twenties, all
one. Two architects bent on revenge—no matter how
impassioned—could never have justified the expense.
you add the egos of the men who were financing
skyscrapers, with the builders who wanted to make
mark with the world’s tallest, with the economics
to make the most money off a small plot of land,
time in America when anything and everything was
—and should be possible—then you have the
a skyscraper race.
Was this craze for height limited to New York
major city in the country wanted their own tallest.
Imagine being a business executive or real-estate
in the Roaring Twenties. Money is easy to come by
making a name for oneself of penultimate
What better way than putting a signboard hundreds
feet high, towering above every other structure for
as the eye can see. From coast to coast, the
experienced an eruption of steel and stone that is
Of course, the demand for height is not an American
invention. If you look to history’s great
pyramids, grand cathedrals, pagodas, ziggurats,
towers—height always played a role. Who they were
glorifying in these structures may have been
but building tall was always an expression of power
Are there parallels between this race and today?
Think of the Twenties for a moment. All-night
parties. Culture of extravagance. Limitless
boom in technology, advertising, industry, art.
flowing. Stock market soaring. Real-estate prices
and climbing. Nobody thought that the great times
ever end. Then think of the late 1990s. Sound
Lavish sums spent on skyscrapers and corporate
headquarters. Apartment buildings going up left and
And then the bubble burst. It’s amazing sometimes
blind we are to what has gone before, but then
wouldn’t have the Chrysler or Empire State Building
without a little unflagging optimism.
Why are skyscrapers important culturally?
is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Skyscrapers are an American invention. They
moxie, economic might, innovation, and
Other civilizations erected monolithic structures
their Gods or defend their lands, we built big to
American businesses. In other words, to make money.
Not to be cynical, but what could be more American
that, no matter where you live.
What suprised you during the research?
was shocked to learn the Chrysler Building was
universally panned by the critics at the time it
completed. I mean they couldn’t write enough
remarks about the spire and the steel-covered
the architect, William Van Alen, he never worked
Imagine, the designer of one of the most-loved
in the world, and it was his one and only
Second, I was intrigued to learn the degree with
the height race affected the buildings that now
our skyline. Without the race, the Chrysler
tiered arch tower would be more stunted and missing
the needle that pierces the sky. The Empire State
would be flat on top. The cap on top, which was
be a mooring mast for dirigibles, was actually
built to make
sure that Walter Chrysler wouldn’t jack up his
retake the height crown.
Third, and most significantly, I was surprised to
what backgrounds came the builders, architects, and
owners who saw these skyscrapers rise. Across the
they were from meager upbringings. Each was
to the fact that with hard work, determination, and
intelligence, anything was possible. It’s
incredible to think
that the skyline of America is defined by their
How was the experience of writing this story?
me is best brought to the page through the eyes
of the people who lived it. The individuals who
story were to a person both rich and complex, and
made the telling a wonderful experience. That said,
easy. Sadly, the skyscraper race of the 1920s,
which to my
mind is one of the most quintessential of American
was poorly documented at the time and few left much
terms of the events that transpired.
My research was a lesson in detective work, and
passing month, I pieced together more and more of
happened. It was an exciting jigsaw puzzle. Some
I found in archives and old newspaper and magazine
I tracked down the children and grandchildren of
players, which proved instrumental. And I also
some records of William Van Alen, the least known
fascinating of characters in this story. He has
truly been a
mystery in architectural history, and I hopefully
explain more of his motivations and thoughts while
the Chrysler Building.