NO ocean voyager, however wide his experience, ever forgets his first sight of New York from the sea. As the skyscrapers come over the horizon, he obtains a glimpse of fairyland -
Except for the Eiffel Tower, Paris -
FIFTH AVENUE, one of the main thoroughfares of New York, appears almost to be a trench, so dwarfed is it by the huge buildings. The Empire State Building, dominating the scene, towers to a height of 1,250 feet. It is built on the site of the old Waldorf-
Their history, however, goes back little more than fifty years. The first skyscraper was built in 1884 and was demolished in 1931 to make room for a much larger building. Such, too, has been the fate of many of its successors, mere dwarfs of 400 feet or so, but yet topping the cross on the lofty dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is hard for the Londoner to imagine St. Paul’s lying in a deep man-
The skyscraper is an American product. But the construction of these huge buildings has not been brought about by mere megalomania or by the desire to go one better than the next man. They represent the simplest and the most logical solution of the problem of economizing space in the heart of great commercial cities. Nowhere in the world has that problem pressed more insistently for solution than in New York proper, with a huge daytime population and a small, seagirt territory incapable of lateral expansion. That is why New York is the home, though not the original home, of the skyscraper.
The first skyscraper was erected in Chicago, and for some time that city enjoyed a monopoly of them. This is sufficiently indicated by the earliest extant definition of the word “skyscraper” -
The basic principle on which all skyscrapers from first to last have been designed is not American at all. It was first enunciated by a French architect, Eugene Viollet-
No doubt the idea of a metal-
There are two well defined limits to the height of any building -
ON THE TWENTY-
For example, the tallest masonry building ever erected for commercial purposes, the Monadnock Building at Chicago, was only sixteen stories high. To reach this height the basement walls had to be made no less than 15 feet thick. The tallest structure of stone ever raised by man, the Washington Monument (Washington, D.C.), a built-
The building of skyscrapers, then, and of large numbers of modern buildings all over the world, is not so much a matter of architecture as of engineering. The engineer is the maker of the modem giant hotel, the mammoth cinema, the vast block of flats; and he goes about the job as if he were building a bridge or a battleship. He designs and builds a huge frame of steel, immensely stronger and more efficient than any structure of brick or stone could ever be. An alternative, reinforced concrete, is used in many instances, but so far no reinforced concrete building has reached, or seems likely ever to reach, the dimensions of many of the American giants.
The First Skyscraper
In 1880 a young architect of Minneapolis, named L. S. Buffington, came across Viollet-
FOUNDATIONS for the Rockefeller Center, a group of buildings occupying an area of 12 acres between 48th and 51st Streets and between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, New York. Excavation on the site was started in July 1931, building began at various points between September 1931 and September 1934, and the greater part of the scheme had been completed by May 1935.
He was William Le Baron Jenney, a Chicago architect. He hailed from New Bedford (Mass.) and had studied architecture in Paris. In 1884 he designed the ten-
This practice was discontinued after the collapse of the thirteen-
In 1887 the Home Insurance Building was joined by a second Chicago skyscraper, the Tacoma Building. Here for the first time the outer masonry walls were purely ornamental -
Two years later another Chicago skyscraper, the Rand McNally Building, set a fashion in framework which all succeeding skyscrapers have followed. Its skeleton was composed of rolled-
SKELETONS OF STEEL for a huge block of flats in the slum area on the East Side of New York. In the background on the left is the Woolworth Building, 792 feet high, built in 1913. The completed structure in the centre is the Municipal Building.
The designers of the early Chicago skyscrapers found themselves considerably handicapped by the fact that it was no easy matter, in that city, to get a firm foundation for a tall building. Chicago floats on a bed of soft sand and mud, and its skyscrapers were supported upon what were, in effect, great rafts of reinforced concrete. Even with the most careful calculation and distribution of the load, it was impossible to ensure that such rafts would not tilt slightly. If this happened, the superimposed building would tilt as well.
The fact first attracted public attention more or less by accident. A Chicago newspaper man was calling on a friend who lived opposite one of the latest skyscrapers. His friend had tied a weight to the cord of his window blind -
of being coincident, or parallel, they diverged considerably. There was no draught in the room. The cord was quite flexible and the weight heavy. The plumb line must be vertical, unless something had gone wrong with the law of gravitation. It followed, therefore, that the skyscraper must have tilted to one side. So it had, as careful measurement revealed, the maximum deviation from the vertical being about 9 in.
This, although perceptible, was not enough to matter seriously. The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is 14 feet out of plumb, has stood for six centuries. The discovery of the deviation, however, led to provision being made, in later skyscrapers, for truing them bodily, by hydraulic jacks, should they tilt more than a fraction of an inch.
Without the elevator the modern skyscraper would never have come into being. No one can seriously visualize business men habitually doing what some of the unfortunate New Yorkers have to do during a strike of elevator attendants -
Only two elevators of this design were built. The centre of the lift shaft was occupied by a vertical shaft with a fine screw thread cut on it, and a nut built into the floor of the lift engaged with this thread. The shaft was rotated by steam power, and this screwed the lift up or down. Later came the hydraulic lift, and ultimately the high-
IRONWORKERS have extremely dangerous jobs perched on the steel frame of a skyscraper perhaps 1,000 feet above ground level. The cranes swing the huge beams and girders into position and the ironworkers fix all the steel framework into place.
As exemplified by those fitted in the Empire State Building, they are apt to give the neophyte the same uneasy feeling which one gets when tossed in a blanket. The expresses, “not stopping below the twentieth floor”, can be shot upwards at the rate of 1,000 feet a minute, and could, if required, be accelerated downwards more rapidly than gravity performs this, so that passengers in them would leave the floor and be overtaken by the ceiling.
The successful building of the first two Chicago skyscrapers directed the attention of New York architects to this form of construction. Not only was the need for economizing space much more pressing in New York, but also that city, being based upon rock, had a perfect foundation for skyscrapers.
The year 1889 saw the first New York skyscraper, the Tower Building on Broadway. This building was demolished in 1914. It was not much more than 200 feet high and gave little promise of the enormous structures which were to follow. A more notable building, however, took shape in 1893. This was the Manhattan Life Insurance Building, 344 feet high, with seventeen stories and a tower. For fifty-
Until 1916 the height of buildings in New York was not governed by any special regulations or ordinances. Some American cities -
Not only are the skyscrapers built after 1916 higher than their forerunners, but they are also much more graceful. Before the introduction of the zoning laws, a building of any height whatever might be of exactly the same section throughout. To get the maximum possible value for acreage, it often was built in this way and thus looked ugly.
SCAFFOLDING at the top of the Empire State Building. The main tower of this structure is 1,045 feet high. Above this is the secondary tower, 205 feet high to the top of the airship mooring mast. Above this is a small mast equipped with anemometers and other instruments.
In 1916, however, New York passed the series of zoning laws governing the construction of future skyscrapers. Broadly speaking, these laws provide that, as to three-
New York skyscrapers dating after 1916, therefore, are bound to assume the form of a tapering base-
Work on the Empire State Building began in October 1929. It was erected on the site of the old Waldorf-
But for the modern oxy-
As in all modern New York skyscrapers, the foundations were dug out to bedrock. This process is generally estimated to entail removing an amount of earth and broken rock almost equal in weight to the building which takes its place -
Excavated with Dynamite
These huge concrete pillars went down to bedrock, 30 feet to 40 feet below the basement level of the new building. While excavating the pits for them the engineers found themselves compelled to use dynamite. They managed to smother the “blasts” under enormous woven-
The work of erecting the steel framing of the huge building began in April 1930. The amount of steel used would have provided a complete double railway line between London and Manchester.
The first outward indication that the foundations were ready was the arrival and prompt erection of various giant steel derricks, electrically operated and controlled by a web of steel cables. Without these derricks, the material could never have been got into place by any amount of labour. With them at work, columns and beams were put together at an amazing pace. The columns and beams had been sent, all ready drilled, from many different firms scattered over the United States. As the frame rose the derricks rose with it.
THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING in course of construction. On April 7, 1930, the first of the steel columns of the frame was set up. By the middle of October the frame was complete and 60,000 tons of steel had been used. On May 1, 1931, the building was opened. There are eighty-
The framing had to be planted on a comparatively small base. The total area available was only two acres, to three-
The contractors (Starrett Brothers and Eken) employed a staff of about one hundred foremen and from 2,500 to 4,000 workmen. Pride of place must go to the “ironworkers”, that band of steeplejacks who are always to the fore when any big iron structure is going up, and who spend their usually short lives in cheerfully accepting, as part of the day’s work, the most appalling risks.
The ironworker is the pioneer, and without him a skyscraper could never take shape. Whenever a big beam goes into place, swinging between heaven and earth hundreds of feet from the ground at the end of a wire cable, you will find some ironworkers hanging on to a bare framing at the beam’s destination, ready to guide it into place and bolt it roughly down. Often one or two of them will be cheerfully “taking passage” on the beam itself. Since the disappearance of most of the full-
He may be 1,000 feet up instead of a hundred or so. He has no footrope on which to put his weight, and no rigging to grab if he loses hold. He must guide and handle weights compared with which a ship’s mainyard is a toothpick. And yet, wherever there is work of this kind to be done, there you will find ironworkers in large numbers. Statistics available for the last twenty years indicate an average number of 15,000 ironworkers employed in the United States. During that period there have been some 2,000 fatal accidents. The proportion of serious, but not fatal accidents is much larger. Although the work is available all the year round, no ironworker is known to have had more than 207 days’ work in a full year. The ironworkers who ran up the frame of the Empire State Building were a typically mixed assembly. Americans, mostly from the Southern States, predominated. Then there were Irishmen, French-
10,000 Tons of Steel a Month
All possible safety devices were supplied and used, but the very nature of the ironworker’s job is such that it can never be made particularly safe. All possible pains were taken to protect the public. A wooden “catch-
The speed at which the ironworkers ran the main frame together can be judged by comparison of a few dates. On April 7, 1930, the first of the steel columns were set upright in place. These were one story in height and rose out of the concrete and steel “footing”, 35 feet below ground level, set into the rock of Manhattan Island. By the middle of April all the 200 columns had been built up as far as the second floor, and the construction was well under way, material going in at the rate of 10,000 tons of steel a month.
RIVETERS in a perilous position at the top of the Empire State Building. In the background is the Chrysler Building, 1,046 feet high. This was the first structure to exceed the height of the Eiffel Tower, Paris.
Early in May the derricks had been planted on the eighth floor; by the middle of June they were on the twentieth, and the top of the frame was two stories farther up still, rising more rapidly than ever and swarming with half-
After the ironworkers followed the plumbers -
Following the plumbers upwards as the huge building rose into shape came the carpenters and the masons. The work of the carpenters was almost wholly temporary. There is little permanent woodwork in a modern skyscraper and the carpenters devoted their energy to such things as chutes, stagings and moulds for concrete. The masons found their stone (Indiana stone
was used in the Empire State Building) all ready raised for them by the cranes, and distributed by the temporary light railway system installed on every floor. This system worked to a timetable which was published daily, so that it was possible, at any moment, to determine exactly where, and in what quantity, supplies of material were being delivered. In the Empire State Building the stonework was begun, not at ground level, but at the seventh floor, the men working downwards as well as upwards. In a skyscraper there is no need to build the stonework up from the ground, as the masonry walls of each floor are carried on the corresponding steel spandrel beams of the frame.
After the masons had got the outer stonework in place, the building began to look more or less complete externally. Almost all the internal work, however, was still to be done. The floors formed, as in all modern steel-
The Empire State Building was opened to the public on May 1, 1931, less than two years from the start of the demolition of the old Waldorf-
The extreme skyscraper, a commercial building exceeding, say, 500 feet in height, is not to be found outside the United States. On the other hand skyscrapers are not exclusively confined to New York. For example, Detroit has the Greater Penobscot Building (565 feet high); Cleveland, its Terminal Tower (708 feet); Columbus, the American Insurance Union Building (555 feet); Cincinnati, the Carew Tower (574 feet); and Pittsburgh, its “Cathedral of Learning” (510 feet).
Plans have already been prepared for more than one New York skyscraper that will dwarf the Empire State Building. The difficulties which have hitherto prevented the execution of these plans have been financial, not constructional. The RCA Building (in the Rockefeller Center), the only important New York giant of later date than the Empire State Building, is considerably smaller -
In a rapidly changing world it is unsafe to assert that anything is assured of a permanent future. But the method of construction suggested by Viollet-
STEEL GRILLAGES, set above the reinforced pillars of the foundations of the Rockefeller Center Buildings distribute evenly the weight of the steel frame. These grillages weighed 13 tons to 31 tons each.
[From part 17, published 22 June 1937]
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