Midtown buildings of New York City looking northwest, circa 1939

Author interview: Jules Stewart, ‘Gotham Rising’

Image credit: Getty images

Once a colonial trading post, New York is now one of the world’s most exciting cities. Jules Stewart argues that the turning point came in the 1930s, as advances in technology ushered in the age of the skyscraper.

It has been said that the primary concerns of society can be deduced from the function and purpose of its tallest buildings. But this adage seems to be flipped on its head when we look at 1930s New York.

The Empire State, Chrysler building, Waldorf Astoria and Rockefeller Center, as well as dozens of other skyscrapers that were put up in Manhattan around this time were all dedicated to commerce and trade; this at a time when the United States economy was in tatters. At a time when bankers were notoriously prone to throwing themselves off their high-rise window ledges, the city continued to climb, giving them longer perhaps to regret their miscalculations.

In his new book ‘Gotham Rising’, Jules Stewart chronicles this fascinating decade that in so many ways defines the city we are so familiar with today: the city that never sleeps, so good they named it twice, the Big Apple; Gotham.

One of the reasons Stewart says he chose to write about New York in the 1930s was that “it’s just about the only decade in the city’s history that has a recognisable beginning and end”. The themes of the decade began in late October 1929 when the stock market crash on Wall Street brought an abrupt halt to the Roaring Twenties; it ended in early September 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War.

“In the 1930s you had the worst economic meltdown that the US had ever experienced, but at the same time the city was bubbling. At the beginning of the decade there were of course the great skyscrapers: the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, which were finished in 1930 and 1931 respectively.”

Stewart goes on to say that the contracts for what were to be the tallest edifices ever built had been drafted in the 1920s at a time of considerably higher economic optimism, and yet the projects were seen through to the end, in part because they were simply too big to fail.

“They were truly architectural masterpieces in many ways,” says Stewart, “not least given the time-frame. The Empire State Building was put up in 13 months. We’re talking about 10 million bricks and something like 40,000 tonnes of structural steel.” This is something the author thinks couldn’t be replicated today.

The reason for such rapid growth in construction was simply “because they could”. Up until this point in the architectural history of the city, buildings of any significance or permanence were made from masonry, which limited their height significantly. “But the advent of structural steel, which came from the Industrial Revolution and was taken to the States where it was produced at much lower prices, was an important factor. Another was the development of the elevator by the engineer Otis” (see below: ‘The only way is up’).

But the need to build upwards did not come about, as is so often thought, from the physical size constraints of Manhattan Island. The urban myth has it that the city, unable to expand sideways because of the Hudson and East rivers, was of necessity required to grow upwards. “But that’s not necessarily so,” says Stewart, who thinks that he main reason for upward expansion was a response to the changing economic character of Manhattan Island.

“It changed from being a manufacturing to a commercial centre, which meant that there was no longer the need for so many warehouses, factories and production centres. What you needed was buildings where you could put people in suits. While warehouses need to be on the ground, close to the dock with easy access, it doesn’t matter if you put people 30 floors up in the sky, so long as they can get there without having a heart attack.”

The Empire State and Chrysler buildings were only part of a much wider and intensive effort by the city to reach for the sky. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the decade was the construction of the Rockefeller Center. Comprising 19 skyscrapers between 48th and 51st streets, the complex – which is now a National Historic Landmark – was paid for entirely from the private purse of JD Rockefeller Jr, in spite of the recession.

Today, the centre is the world’s biggest tourist attraction, with more visitors than either the Great Pyramids at Giza or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Stewart goes on to point out that the decade also saw the flowering of Art Deco structures such as the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue (that held the record for the world’s tallest hotel from 1931 when it was built to 1936). “And of course, this was also the age when jazz took over the city and New York entered the Swing Era, with great names such as Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. And with the exception of the Met (which was late 19th century) all the great museums of the city opened their doors in the 1930s.”

At the same time there was a massive wave of immigration, with refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe arriving in New York “in droves, bringing their skills and knowledge.” These migrants became the labour pool for a series of large infrastructure projects. The man behind the expansion of New York was the controversial and unelected power-broking city planner and parks commissioner Robert Moses, who was responsible for the Triborough (now the Robert F Kennedy Memorial) Bridge and the Brooklyn-Battery Link, and who pioneered New York’s economic recovery after the end of the depression.

Moses is an important figure in ‘Gotham Rising’ because he is permanently at loggerheads with another great character, the city’s three-term mayor Fiorello La Guardia. “Moses was determined to see through his projects even if he had to knock down every tenement in the city to do so… and he got rid of a great deal of them.” At the same time, Franklin D Roosevelt was in the White House putting together a series of economic stimulus packages known collectively as the New Deal. “Of course, New York got the lion’s share of the New Deal, largely due to the close relationship between the president and La Guardia, despite the fact that these two men were as different as could be imagined in every respect.”

We all know that New York isn’t typical of the United States. But the message that comes through loud and clear from ‘Gotham Rising’ is that there have been moments when the Big Apple is almost independent from the rest of the country. This was never truer than in the 1930s when, while the nation teetered on the brink of financial collapse, New York reinvented itself as one of the greatest cities the world has ever seen. 

‘Gotham Rising’ by Jules Stewart is published by I B Tauris, £20

We read it for you: Gotham Rising

Often described as the greatest city on the planet, New York is the unofficial capital of just about everything, from fashion to technology, diplomacy to commerce. 
Less than 400 years old, it might have remained just another eastern seaboard harbour city had it not been for the arrival of the elevator and advances in construction materials science. These were the two critical factors in creating the city’s famous skyline.
The heyday of the skyscraper was the 1930s when, despite the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Depression, under the leadership of the charismatic mayor Fiorello La Guardia, New York went through its architectural renaissance.
Author of ‘Gotham Rising’ Jules Stewart takes us through this defining decade, expertly guiding the reader through not only the engineering of this fantastic city, but the cultural, social, economic and artistic spin-offs that went with it. Great stuff.

Extract: The only way is up

The notion of a building soaring hundreds of feet above the pavement was in the 19th century given the name ‘skyscraper’, originally a nautical term referring to a small triangular sail set above the skysail on a sailing ship. In time, such edifices came to be seen as an intrinsic feature of New York’s landscape. By the 1930s Manhattan was dotted with about 100 buildings worthy of the name, albeit ones that responded to an early 20th century definition of the term.

But how did this phenomenon come about – and why? At the 1853 Crystal Palace exhibition, on the grounds where the New York Public Library now stands, the master mechanic Elisha Graves Otis stood on a platform suspended by a cable above a crowd of onlookers. On a given signal, he ordered the cable to be severed. To the spectators’ amazement the platform dropped a few inches and then held fast, thanks to a safety device Otis had installed to prevent it from crashing to the ground. Thus was born the precursor to the modern elevator, which in turn was to give birth to the Otis Elevator Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of vertical transport systems. This meant that the apartment dwellers and office workers could now ascend to great heights in a building without having to climb stairs.

Meanwhile, in Europe a revolution had begun in the steel-making industry that meant it was now possible to erect tall structures without having to rest them on enormously thick and space-consuming masonry walls.

Edited extract from ‘Gotham Rising’ by Jules Stewart, reproduced with permission


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