Dan Rattiner's Stories

Skyscraper Wars: Trump Wants America’s Tallest Building

I saw Donald Trump on TV the other day, the media filming him standing in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. “This is my wheelhouse,” he said, referring to the tall building behind him. Yup. Way up on one of the top floors is his personal office. It is from up there that he commands his real estate empire.

People belittle Donald Trump by saying that in fact as a real estate developer he is no longer a big player. Of the numerous buildings that say “Trump” on them, a minority are actually owned by him. The rest of the buildings are owned by others who paid a licensing fee to have the Trump name on them.

This may be so, but there is little doubt that Trump hopes that one day he can build the tallest building in the world, and that it would be in New York City as a return to the days when all the tall buildings in the world WERE in New York City rather than in Dubai or Taipei or Kuala Lumpur. “America doesn’t WIN anymore,” he has famously said.

He announced he intended to build the tallest building in the world in Chicago in 2001. But he backed off from that, though he did build the Trump International Hotel and Tower, which is the second-tallest building in Chicago, anyway.

A few years later, he announced he would build the tallest building in the world in Manhattan, over the railroad yards on the West Side. But he didn’t do that either. I think it’s in his head still to this day. In fact, in 1995, before his most recent attempts, he attained the leasehold for the building at 40 Wall Street, which at 927 feet in height WAS the tallest building in the world for a brief time when it was topped off in 1930. He calls it the Trump Building today. I suppose every once in a while he might go down there and rub the side of it for luck. You never know.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, America established itself as the most prosperous country in the world, and New York City, and to a lesser degree Chicago, became the only cities in the world where there were skyscrapers. The builders of them were called tycoons back then (not billionaires), but the battle to try to build the tallest of them began to heat up around 1928. This was during the Roaring ‘20s. Money was plentiful. There were many skyscrapers in Manhattan by that time, and the tallest was the Woolworth Building, rising 792 feet over Manhattan.

In 1928, two tycoons, separately and in different parts of Manhattan, decided they would build a skyscraper taller than that. Their first, announced in September of that year, was by Walter Chrysler, the Chairman of the automobile company that bore his name. His building, to be constructed from a design by William Van Allen, would top off at 807 feet. Only a short time later, the owners of the Bank of Manhattan announced they would build a skyscraper to a height of 840 feet. With that, Chrysler announced that the plan for his building would be redone. The design was expensive and wouldn’t work well. In two weeks, it was revised. It was better. Now it was 925 feet in height.

The Chrysler Building broke ground in midtown on September 19, 1928. The Bank of Manhattan Trust Building broke ground downtown in May of 1929. The race was on.

As it turned out, both buildings came to completion within 30 days of each other in 1930. But as they went up and up, the bankers downtown plotted and schemed to surprise Walter Chrysler just before everything opened by adding a steel crown on top. As the year 1929 turned into 1930, all of a sudden the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building, with its crown ending with a decorative copper point, now suddenly stood at 927 feet, exactly 2 feet taller than the Chrysler Building.

But Walter Chrysler had a surprise of his own. The Chrysler Building, at 925 feet, ended with a flat roof just above where the gargoyles can be seen up there today. (Actually, they are enormous replicas of hood ornaments for Chryslers and Plymouths of that day.) Suddenly, just one week after the bank building opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 10, 1930, an additional crown, which had been secretly been constructed inside the Chrysler Building on the upper floors, was pushed up to raise the height of the structure to 1,046 feet. There was nothing that the bankers downtown could do. They had claimed the title of tallest building in the world at the grand opening. Now that title had flown, just 58 days later, on May 28, 1930 with the ribbon-cutting uptown.

All during these final months, however, there was excavation being done on what was to be come the Empire State Building on 34th Street at Fifth Avenue. The CEO of that project was a former Governor of New York, Al Smith (who would later run for president). He had not known how tall the Chrysler Building would be when he had started work on the Empire State.
His original plan was for it to be 1,050 feet, which he thought would be tall enough to wrest the title away from the other two, no matter what they did. In the end, Chrysler’s tower came up to 1,046 feet—he would win by 4 feet. And this made Smith very uncomfortable. Chrysler could, for example, win the title back with a 6-foot-tall aerial atop the Chrysler Building.

And so, Smith decided to do to the Chrysler Building what Walter Chrysler had done to the bank building. Built it taller by an amount that could not be matched.

Smith thus held a press conference at which he announced that his building would be still taller. “We are measuring its rise by principles of economic investment rather than spectacular standards,” he told The New York Times at the time. He would build a dirigible mast atop the Empire State Building, rising another 200 feet above the planned 1,050 feet. There would be a metal staircase inside this new addition, and it would go up to a small platform at the very top where a giant steel loop would be built at which dirigibles would tie up. Dirigibles, in those days, were considered a legitimate way to travel across the Atlantic from Europe to America or the other way. The Germans were building dirigibles. Dirigibles were the way of the future.

Thus did the Empire State Building, at its ribbon cutting on May 1, 1931 (cut by Smith’s grandchildren), become the tallest building in the world for the next 42 years.

Attempts to dock dirigibles at that mast—a gangplank would lead the passengers to the building and then down the stairs to the elevators and to the street in 7 minutes—never succeeded. It was too windy to keep dirigibles in place. Attempts succeeded in getting dirigibles to hover around the mast. One attempt succeeded in dropping some bundles of one of the New York City daily papers down from a dirigible on a rope to the top of the building, where a workmen cut them down, but that was it. A famous photo of the dirigible Los Angeles docked to the top of the building was, in fact, a fake. No passengers ever made that gangplank exit.

The World Trade Center towers broke the height record in 1973 when the North Tower topped off at 1,368 feet. And then the Sears Tower in Chicago topped it by a few feet, coming in at 1,451 later that same year. After that, the record fled to high towers around the world. Currently, the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at 2,717 feet.

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