Skyscraper Hubris - Pride Before A Fall
By - Catherine Cashmore
"Bill, how high can you make it so that it won't fall down?" reportedly asked financier John J. Raskob, as he pulled out a thick pencil from his drawer, and held it up to William F. Lamb, the architect he had employed to design and construct The Empire State Building.
It was the ‘race to the sky’ and it marked the peak of the roaring Twenties. Capturing what is perhaps one of the most exciting periods in New York’s history.
"Never before have such fortunes been made overnight by so many people," said American journalist and Statesman Edwin LeFevre (1871–1943)
While areas of the economy such as agriculture and farming, were still struggling to gain ground from the post WWI depression, and a large proportion of the population continued to live in relative poverty. Advances in technology, rapid urbanisation and mass advertising accelerating consumer demand, produced an era of such sustained economic prosperity, it led Irving Fischer one of America’s ‘greatest mathematical economists’ to famously conclude that:
"Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."
“Only the hardiest spoilsports rose to protest that the wild and unchecked speculative fever might be bad for the country." Wrote historian Paul Sann, in his publication, 'The Lawless decade.'
“The money lay in stacks in Wall Street, waiting to be picked up. You had to be an awful deadhead not to go get some.”
Land values of course captured the gains, and between 1921 and 1929 lending on real estate increased by 179%, and urban prices more than doubled.
According to research collated by Professor Tom Nicholas and Anna Scherbina at the Harvard Business School in Boston, by 1930 values in Manhattan, including the total value of building plans, contained “only slightly less than 10% of the total for 310 United States cities (Manhattan included) during the same period.”
A staggering figure considering Manhattan at the time, contained only 1.5% of the US population.
Few raised concerns however.
It was believed the Federal Reserve Act, created in 1913 “to furnish an elastic currency” would tame the business cycle and - as the First Chairman of the Federal Reserve Charles S Hamlin put it:
“..relegate to its proper place, the museum of antiquities - the panic generated by distrust in our banking system..”
The National bank runs of the past had been exacerbated because there was ‘no stretch’ in times of crisis, or moderation in the rates of interest.
However, the bulk of lending against real estate over this period was not limited to New York, or to institutions that were members of the Federal Reserve.
Thousands of new banks were setting themselves up in outlying areas and as noted by Elmus Wicker, author of ‘The Banking Panics of the Great Depression’
“..(they) were either operated by real estate promoters or exhibited excess enthusiasm to finance a local real estate boom”
It brought with it a period of high inflation, and coupled with speculation in real estate securities, produced an explosion in the value of construction that would not be equalled until the boom and bust era of the late 1980s.
(Tom Nicholas and Anna Scherbina - Real Estate Prices During the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression)
By 1925 real estate bond issues accounted for almost one quarter of all the corporate debt supplied - and between 1925 and 1929 alone, a quarter of New York’s financial district was rebuilt and 17,000,000 square feet of new office-space added.
This, prompted the owners of the grand Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue to sell.
Arising from a family feud between two competing cousins, the iconic guesthouse had been built at the top of a preceding boom and bust land cycle in the early 1890’s, and as ‘the most luxurious hotel in the world’ stood 17 stories high towering above the surrounding residences.
By the late 1920s however, the décor had become dated and the social elite had centred themselves much further north.
The owner’s decision to upgrade into the Park Avenue district, and build what was then, ‘the tallest hotel in the world’ allowed John J. Raskob to acquire the site for The Empire State Building for the not so small sum of $16 million.
Raskob needed a further $50 million for construction, which he achieved by way of a $27.5 million dollar mortgage, as well as engaging with a limited number of substantial backers.
“If the amounts seem considerable the backers knew that this was a money maker. The building would be the greatest showcase in the city filled with them. And tenants would line up to print “Empire State Building” on their letterhead….” wrote Robert A. Slayton author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith
The location was later criticised for being too far from public transport, but no such concerns were raised at the time.
New York office leases began on May 1st - the sooner the building was completed, the sooner it would bring in an income and notwithstanding, Raskob’s two main competitors also in the race for height supremacy - auto industry giant Walter Chrysler and investment banker George Ohrstrom - had already commenced.
Chrysler had seized his opportunity when gratuitous plans for an opulent office block designed by architect William Van Alen had fallen through due to financing.
He took over the project with clear intentions.
Adjusting the tower’s ascetics to reflect the company’s triumphs, with gargoyles, eagles and corner ornaments made to look like the brand’s 1929 radiator caps. Chrysler instructed the builders to make sure his toilet was ‘the highest in Manhattan’ so he could look down and as one observer put it, "shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world."
Around the same time, George Ohrstrom, also determined to set the record, purchased the site that was to become the headquarters of The Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall St (now the Trump Tower.)
Ohrstrom’s architect was H. Craig Severance, former partner and competitor to Walter Chrysler’s designer, Van Alen - and the bitter rivalry between the two added considerably to the dynamic.
Construction for 40 Wall St start started in May 1929 and no less than one month later, in April of the same year, fearing the competition Chrysler reportedly called his architect in frustration exclaiming:
"Van, you’ve just got to get up and do something. It looks as if we’re not going to be the highest after all. Think up something! Your valves need grinding. There's a knock in you somewhere. Speed up your carburettor. Go to it!" Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City Neal Bascomb
Van Alen subsequently increased the height of the Chrysler tower to 925-feet and added more stories - 72 in total.
Not to be outdone however, Severance added 4 extra floors to his own design, extending the building’s height to 927-feet – only marginally taller than Van Alen’s efforts, but by this stage the steel frame for the Chrysler building had already been completed and in Ohrstrom’s mind, he had already won.
The Bank of Manhattan was finished at record speed, taking just 93 days in total - meeting the May 1st deadline and setting the record for skyscraper construction.
It opened with great celebration – with Ohrstrom boastfully laying claim to the title of "the world’s tallest," while in blissful ignorance of the final trick Chrysler had yet to pull from his sleeve.
Replacing the original plans of a dome shaped roof, Van Alen enhanced the design with the addition of a 186 foot iconic spire, which was hoisted to the top of the structure in secret and assembled in a mere 90 minutes.
This raised the building’s height to 1,046 feet, a total of 77 floors - allowing Chrysler, less than one month later to trump Ohrstrom’s record.
The battle continued long after both blocks were completed, with the consulting architects of 40 Wall Street, Shreve & Lamb, writing a newspaper article claiming that their building contained the highest useable floor and was therefore more deserving of the title.
The Empire State Building however, was to settle the matter.
Hamilton Weber the original rental manager, takes up the story.
“We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet taller than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Walter Chrysler would pull a trick - like hiding a rod in the spire and then sticking it up at the last minute” The Empire State Building Book by Jonathan Goldman
The solution to Raskob’s worries was to add what he quaintly termed “a hat!" - marketed as a mooring mast for dirigibles - although never utilised due to the strong winds and updrafts that circulated at the top.
This raised the building’s height to 1,250 feet, easily outstripping both Chrysler’s and Ohrstrom’s efforts, allowing Raskob to scoop the title.
Taking just 13 months to complete, 58 tons of steel, 60 miles of water pipe, 17 million feet of telephone cable and appliances to burn enough electricity to power the New York city of Albany. The Empire State building with 2.1 million square feet of rentable space opened on May 1st 1931 empty - just as the country was entering one of the worst economic depressions in recorded history.
Dubbed ‘The Empty State Building’ – it did not turn over a profit until 1950 putting Raskob who, in 1929 had penned the famous article ‘Everybody Ought to be Rich‘ by investing in “America’s booming corporate economy,” deep in the red.
The history of this era is a fascinating study. However as entertaining as the story is, it does not stand in isolation.
From long before the Empire State Building was completed, to the most recent example - the Burj Khalifa in Dubai - mankind’s quest to reach the heavens and demonstrate power through the imposing dominance of boasting ‘the world’s tallest’ structure has - with no notable exception - commenced at the peak of each real estate cycle and opened its doors during the bust.
The pattern is easy to follow:
Improvements in the economy are first reflected in rents, which adjust quicker to market conditions than associated expenses - insurance and utility rates for example – which are subject to contract and therefore typically rise out of step.
This in turn attracts speculative investment, pushing prices upwards beyond the cost of replacement, fuelling a cyclical rise in construction - usually for the purpose of speculation, rather than genuine homebuyer demand.
The steeper land values become, the higher the building must be in order to achieve a profitable return, this in turn increases demand to concentrate both labour and capital around what is usually a centralised core.
There is however a lag in the time it takes for high-density construction to reach the market – usually a number of years – before the extra supply can drive down both rents and values, resulting in the building boom outlasting the boom in prices, and an overhang of vacancies when the fervour dissipates.
Notwithstanding, there are limits to how high you can extend before the whole project becomes unprofitable.
William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, makes the following point in his 2005 publication ‘Placing Words Symbols, Space, and the City.'
“… floor and wind loads, people, water and supplies must be transferred to and from the ground, so the higher you go, the more of the floor area must be occupied by structural supports, elevators and service ducts. At some point it becomes uneconomical to add additional floors, the diminishing increment of useable floor area, does not justify the additional cost.”
In a subsequent publication he goes one-step further.
“I suspect you would find that going for the title of ‘tallest’ is a pretty good indicator of CEO and corporate hubris. I would look not only at ‘tallest in the world,’ but also more locally—tallest in the nation, the state, or the city. And I’d also watch out for conspicuously tall buildings in locations where the densities and land values do not justify it” ‘Practical Speculation' By Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel, Kenner
Mitchell’s warning to look for the “tallest” is not to be taken lightly.
The New York Tribune Building for example, one of the world’s first skyscrapers boasting to be "the highest building on Manhattan Island" – opened in 1874 and coincided with the 1873 financial crisis in both Europe and North America