The story is told of a Brahmin philosopher, sitting with a friend in his walled garden, and jesting over the smallness of the enclosure. It was not very long nor yet again very wide; but how deep down it was, and what wonderful height it had! The depth beneath and the space overhead were unavailable possessions to him. He smiled at what he owned yet could not grasp or utilize.
But land values have radically changed in modern days, especially in America. Any one who owns a small plot of ground in a large American city need not smile over its height and depth, for those are now very valuable dimensions. They can both be turned to profit, turned into very tangible assets. The clever modern has found a way of not only digging in the earth, but of rising into the air on pinions of steel and sustaining his altitude almost indefinitely in time and in space.
It is a very cramped and limited region of New York that lies below the City Hall. It has always lacked elbow-room; it has always been crowded. The mere surface dimensions of it were exhausted years ago. That, however, did not stop the influx of people seeking office room there. To accommodate the continued and increased inrush from year to year various expedients were put forth. At first the land-owners began burrowing in the ground, fitting up quarters below the curb line, quarters where business was carried on only by artificial light at noonday. That proved, however, scarcely a temporary relief. It was wholly inadequate. Following this expedient, or perhaps contemporary with it, there was an adding of stories upon the old foundations an increase from, say, four to six and eight floors. But there were limitations to that. People would not climb flights of stairs; and, again, brick could not be laid upon brick indefinitely. The first objection was, in a measure, done away with by the invention of the passenger elevator. From 1860 to 1880 steam and hydraulic elevators were used, but it was not until about 1888 that electric elevators came into vogue.
With the coming of the elevator the eight-story buildings began to pay better in their top floors than in their middle or lower ones. “High livers,” so called, preferred the light and air up aloft. Everything began to rise with the elevator buildings, prices, ambitions, expectations; but still the right planning of the modern office building had not been reached. The eight-story or ten-story structure of marble or brick was too heavy, too bulky in the walls. As the height increased the foundation walls had to be thickened proportionately. To spread out at the bottom in walls was to lose the advantage gained in offices at the top. Again, the additional number of elevators required by the increased number of occupants began to fill up space and lessen the available floor area. Iron came into the construction and was used for beams; iron pillars superseded stone pillars; the bulk in the lower walls was thus slightly cut down. Shortly thereafter an iron core to carry the floors was used on the inside of masonry walls, and a double construction was brought about. Both shell and core were self-sustaining.
And yet this new plan added only a few more stories, and left the larger problem still unsolved. The walls that had to bear merely their own weight soon began to thicken again at the base as the building grew in height. Brick, granite, marble, and even iron, alone or in combination, were found wanting. After a certain weight was put upon them, a certain height was gained, there came a danger line. What stronger, more durable, less bulky material could be used to carry into the region of twenty stories? The answer came back in plans for a structure of steel something following the general design of a bridge truss standing on end with the strain so adjusted by brace and girder, that the whole weight of the walls and floors would be finally conducted downward by post and beam until brought to bear upon the rock foundations. The result of the plans was the modern sky-scraper.
It must not be forgotten that necessity was the mother that invented and brought forth the sky-scraper. It was a device at first to utilize small plots of valuable, heavily taxed ground, to make these plots not only more valuable, but more remunerative in rents. The steel construction is now used on large plots of ground because it has been found a cheap and profitable mode of building; but that came about as a growth from the original idea. In its inception it was designed to meet a more positive need, to make ten rooms where only one was before, and thus to increase revenue and render tax assessments less appalling. The story of the conception and the building of the first sky-scraper in New York will illustrate this.
The Tower Building on lower Broadway was the initial steel skeleton building erected in the city, and its architect was Bradford Lee Gilbert. It was put up in 188889 on a plot of ground twenty-one and a half feet in width. There was a frontage on Broadway of that width, leading back to a larger space on New Street. Using the Broad-way frontage as a mere entrance to the larger premises at the back was an extravagance which the Tower Building was designed to do away with. 1r. Gilbert’s plans called for a structure of thirteen stories (about one hundred and sixty feet in height) to stand upon this space of twenty-one feet. The enclosing walls were to be twelve inches in width and to bear no weight. The weight of the walls and the floors was to be transmitted to the steel columns, and thus passed on down to the cement footings of the foundation. Of course there was objection to the building at once. Architects declared it unsafe and impracticable, and the newspapers said the plan was “idiotic.” The space saved by these walls alone, so much thinner than the previous stone construction, afterward amounted to $10,000 a year in rentals.
“When the actual construction of the building began,” says Mr. Gilbert in a New York Times interview, “my troubles increased tenfold. The mere suggestion of a building 212 feet wide, rising to the height of 160 feet above its footings, filled everybody who had no particular concern in the matter, with alarm. Finally an engineer with whom I had worked for many years came to me with a protest. When I paid no attention to him, he wrote to the owner. The owner came to me with the letter. He was afraid the building would blow over and that he would be subject to heavy damages. My personal position in the matter and that of the Building Department that had given me the permit, never seemed to strike him at all. Finally I drew out my strain sheets, showing the wind bracings from cellar to roof, and demonstrated by analysis that the harder the wind blew the safer the building would be; as under one hundred tons, under hurricane pressure, while the wind was blowing seventy miles an hour, the structure was cared for by its footings and was safest.
“This seemed to satisfy him and we went ahead. One Sunday morning, when the walls of the building were ready for the roof, I awoke to find the wind blowing a hurricane. That gale is a matter of record in the Weather Bureau. With a friend, who had implicit faith in my plans, I went down town to the sky-scraper. A crowd of persons who expected it to blow over stood at a respectful distance to watch the crash. Janitors and watchmen in adjoining buildings and structures across the street moved out. They were afraid of being crushed to death, and said unpleasant things about my steel building. I secured a plumb-line and began to climb the ladders that the workmen had left in place when they quit work the previous evening. My friend went with me as far as the tenth story. The persons who looked at us from below called us fools. When I reached the thirteenth story, the gale was so fierce I could not stand upright. I crawled on my hands and knees along the scaffolding and dropped the plumb-line. There was not the slightest vibration. The building stood as steady as a rock in the sea. . . .”
Since 1889 many steel buildings have towered into the air, and many improvements have been made upon the original design. To-day the sky-scraper is still regarded as the best means of making heavily taxed land profitable, though that idea has become somewhat merged in the general value of the building principle. The New Trinity Building on Broadway, though not the largest nor the highest in the city, is a good modern instance of the financial side of the sky-scraper, and may be used here in illustration. The plot of ground upon which it stands is two hundred and sixty feet long, with forty feet of frontage on Broadway and forty-seven feet at the rear on Church Street. This land alone, before the erection of the new building, was valued at $2,000,000. What is more to the point, it was taxed at that valuation. Under our system of taxation, taxes are not levied upon the income of a property, but upon the assessed valuation whether there is any income attached or not. In London, for instance, it is quite the reverse of this. A man owning ground on Piccadilly could turn it into a cow-pasture if he would, and pay taxes on its income as a cow-pasture; but if he held the same amount of property in lower New York, he would have to pay in taxes something like two per cent on several millions of dollars. This turn of the tax would bring him face to face with one of, say, three propositions.. He would have to put the land to a more profitable use than pasturing cows, or sell it to someone who could so employ it, or pay a hundred thousand dollars or more a year for the privilege of defying the inevitable.
This was in 1889, and ten years later, so universal was the acceptance of the steel-constructed building, that the original model, the Tower Building, had become ancient history. That it might not be wholly forgotten, the Society of Architectural Iron Manufacturers of New York placed a tablet upon the building to commemorate its erection, giving the names of both the architect and the construction company that built it. It is worthy of note in passing, because it is suggestive of the swift transitions taking place in this new world, that the marvelous sky-scraper of 1889 is already doomed to be torn down to make room for a greater building, a greater marvel.
Our foreign friends, who greatly wonder why we cannot be content with five- or six – story buildings in the lower city, as our grandfathers were, fail to understand our system of taxation, fail to understand that the tax bill keeps mounting higher with increased valuations, and that the income must increase to meet it. The tax on the ground alone of the Trinity property had become so enormous that the income of the old structure could not meet it. Hence the old came down and the new went up went up three hundred feet, until one could, from its upper stories, look down on the spire of Trinity Church, that for so many years had been the high point of the city’s sky line. The necessity for more room, the necessity for a better utilization of the ground space, the necessity for more rent money to pay increased tax bills, all combined to bring the new structure into existence.
Between two and three millions of dollars were spent in the construction of the New Trinity Building. This, with its land valued at two millions, raised the gross valuation to about five millions of dollars. To meet the taxes and the interest charges upon this sum there are now some twenty-one stories that pay, on an average, twenty-three thousand dollars annual rental for each story. The ground floor alone rents for seventy-five thousand dollars a year. A pencil and the back of an envelope will enable anyone, in a few minutes, to figure out the business success of the enterprise. Everything sooner or later resolves itself into a matter of finance, especially in New York; and things must “pay,” otherwise they will not last for long.
The cost of these huge structures makes rapidity in construction something of a necessity. Five millions of dollars drawing interest at five per cent means a quarter of a million dollars a year; and the sooner the building begins earning rentals, the better for those who have the financial end of the enterprise to carry. Hence the speed with which the average sky-scraper is erected. A few months at the most is often sufficient to see it in place, fully equipped, and occupied. This speed in construction is greatly facilitated by the peculiar nature of the building. Once the foundations are laid the erection of the steel frame is merely a matter of bolting and riveting so many beams, girders, cantilevers, and brackets. This work can usually be carried on in many places at the same time, and large forces of men can be employed in day and night shifts. So it is that there is some truth in the common exaggeration that sky-scrapers are put up overnight. One can actually see the steel platforms grow from hour to hour as they lift higher and higher into the air.
The frame of steel is the core of the building. It is the only thing that bears or carries any weight. Every-thing that is put on afterwards is fastened to or hangs from this skeleton with the possible exception of one or two stories at the bottom which, in their walls, may bear their own weight. The upper walls, whether of brick, terra-cotta, cement, or stone, depend from the steel structure to which they are attached by brackets. They may give the impression of being self-supporting, they may beguile one into thinking that back of the walls is solid masonry; but they are only so much shield to keep out the weather. Just so with the floors, windows, balconies, cornices, railings, roofs. They are not sup-ported by the walls from below, but by steel brackets or trusses from within. With such a novel building principle it is possible to place the outer walls on the twentieth story before those of the first story are started, or to put up the roof before the window frames are in.
The foundations are the vital spots of the building. Hence the necessity for their being sunk deep to bed-rock. Some of them go down nearly a hundred feet underground. This is compulsory because lower New York is underlaid with beds of sand and ooze from ten to eighty feet thick. The caisson method of working through them is employed. Air-tight, bottomless boxes are driven through the drift (the water being kept out by compressed air) to bed-rock and afterward filled up with cement. It is upon these cement piers that the columns of the sky-scraper rest. The foundations being difficult to build are often items of great expense, costing sometimes half a million dollars for a single building. The weight they bear is enormous. The steel structure of bolted plates may look light and frail at a distance, but some of the larger buildings have upwards of twenty thousand tons of steel in them, which is by no means an insignificant figure. The walls, cornices, and roof differ in weight according to the materials used; and, inasmuch as they have only to hold on, they are not a great problem to the builder, though of importance to the architect.
There are other figures, used in connection with these buildings and their details, more amazing than those of cost or foundation or weight. The newspapers love to juggle with them, and to show by pictorial illustration how much higher are the steel structures than, say, an ocean-steamer placed on end; or to figure out how many acres of ground their floor space would cover, or how many scrubwomen are required to keep the windows clean. The very high buildings are the ones that usually bristle with these statistics. The Singer Building, for instance, in addition to having its foundations ninety-two feet below the curb, rises above the curb in forty-two stories to a height of six hundred and twelve feet. Its outer walls are of terra-cotta, metal, and glass great areas of glass. It is more of a tower than a building; yet, even so, it has over 400,000 square feet of floor space. In sheer altitude the tower of the Metropolitan Building on Madison Square goes beyond it. This is some seven hundred feet in height, rising in fifty stories, far above its own main building, rising, indeed, like a beacon tower or light-house above all New York. There is no reason to think, however, that it will Iong retain its preeminence. A thousand feet are almost as easily attained as seven hundred. It is not a question of engineering, but of finance, that is to be considered. If still higher buildings will pay, they will probably be built.
In office capacity the high towers are not so remark-able as the buildings of more bulk and less altitude. The City Investing Company Building is only four hundred feet in height and has only thirty-six stories, but its floor area is 686,000 feet, and there were seven-teen thousand tons of steel used in its construction. In sheer “bigness” the Terminal Buildings on Courtlandt and Church streets go beyond this. The two buildings stand linked together by a bridge like Siamese twins and are twenty-one stories in height. Their foundations are seventy-five feet below the curb, and in this deep excavation are placed the terminal stations of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, which operates the Hudson tunnels in connection with a subway on the west side of New York. The superstructure required twenty-six thousand tons of steel and provides eighteen acres of floor space, four thousand offices, thirty-nine passenger elevators (twenty-two of them express cars), five thousand windows, thirty thousand electric lights; and no one knows how many janitors, engineers, firemen, locksmiths, glaziers, painters, plumbers, to keep it running properly. It called in all the trades to build it and needs a great many of them to continue its existence. It might be added in parenthesis that the services of a financier are also needed to look after the items of rents and repairs especially the latter. The wear and tear upon a sky-scraper are quite as astonishing as the other things in connection with it.
Almost all of these high buildings are supplied with the conveniences of a city, and one can live in them indefinitely without going out for food, clothing, or lodging. Besides offices, they contain stores, clubs, restaurants, bachelor apartments, barber shops, cigar and news stands, boot-cleaning establishments, baths, safe-deposit vaults, roof gardens everything except vaudeville, and even that is a possibility of the near future. Moreover, each one of them contains the inhabitants of a city. In the larger ones there are from six to ten thousand tenants; and from 50,000 to 100,000 people pass in, or through, or up and down them in a single day.
Of course, all the tenants and their thousands of clients and customers require gas and electricity, private telephones, hot and cold water, electric fans in summer, and steam heat in winter. The mechanical devices for supplying these are ingenious to the last degree. For instance, in the matter of heat, where so many men have so many opinions, there is a device in the newer office buildings whereby each room is supplied with a heat indicator, and all one needs to do is to turn the pointer to the required number, 60, 70, or 80 degrees Fahrenheit, to have the heat at that temperature in a few minutes. As for such other features of life as meals, messenger boys, cabs, and service in general, one touches a button as in a hotel or a house.
If there is one thing above another that makes the sky-scraper possible, it is the elevator. Without it the in-habitants of the top stories would have to climb the mountain each morning, and descend it each evening something no man or superman could or would do. The elevator is the central pulsing artery of the whole steel structure; and it is a very rapid pulse in the bargain. For the first ten stories you move slowly if you get into the local elevator stopping at each floor; but, if you are bound twenty-five stories up, you travel by the express elevator and the first stop is perhaps the eighteenth or twentieth floor. You enter the car and when it starts perhaps there is a feeling that your stomach is not accompanying you, so rapidly does the car get under way. When the car stops, it is again so suddenly that you feel as though the top of your head were continuing the journey without you. When you go down again, the top of your head threatens to part company once more; but you are landed at the street entrance as softly as though borne upon zephyrs and clouds thanks, perhaps, to the air cushion.
The elevator is indeed the genius of the sky-scraper as it is the incarnation of the get-there-quick idea. Rapid transit never had a more exemplary exponent. It works swiftly, silently, and to all appearances uncomplainingly and everlastingly. Each. sky-scraper has from six to thirty of these shuttles that fly backward and forward, taking up and setting down passengers; and in the course of the day carrying many thousands of people. Nothing is more amazing to the stranger in down-town New York than to see the, cool and yet swift way that tenants of the high buildings load themselves into these steel cages. There is nothing said but “Up” or “Down” by the elevator boy; and nothing said but “Tenth” or “Thirty-Second” or some other floor number, by the passenger; but everyone understands, steps lively, shrinks when the elevator is crowded, expands when it is empty, and makes as little of a nuisance of himself as possible. If it were not for this perfect understanding of sky-scraper machinery and the recognized ethics of the crowd, there would be instant confusion. Such high buildings as the Singer, the Park Row, the St. Paul, the Trust Company of America, use elevators as a necessity rather than a convenience; and there is required some concerted action on the part of the passengers to make them successful.
Not in lower New York alone do the tall buildings with their swift elevators crop out, though they are more concentrated there than elsewhere in the city. All over the borough of Manhattan they are to be seen. They are not only expedients to utilize extra-valuable real estate, but are in themselves cheap and durable buildings and ordinarily profitable investments.’ The steel skeleton is to-day used in almost all the large hotels, apartment houses, clubhouses, printing shops, department stores, wholesale houses, and even factories. From the Battery to Harlem and beyond these tower-like buildings keep breaking above the whilom sky line like jonquils above the grass of a spring lawn. The parks of the city are surrounded by them, Union and Madison squares, with the Plaza, are dominated by them, Broadway, dwindling away into the north, still has echoes of them; and Fifth Avenue, with its twin pylons, the St. Regis and the Gotham, already in place, will soon become a canyon like Broad Street or lower Broadway.
Everywhere they are safe, serviceable, absolutely necessary buildings; and it may be added that eventually people will find them not wanting in beauty. Just now many of them seem to stand like guideposts, showing where and how the city is to be built, and what the level of its new roofs. Naturally they look out of scale, and very much too high when compared with the older.
Note: The Baltimore fire and the San Francisco earthquake proved the steel building far safer and more lasting under storm and stress than either brick or stone.