Bascomb debuts with a lively account of how three great New York City skyscrapers were built at the end of the Roaring Twenties.
The author begins with portraits of two architects, William Van Alen and Craig Severence, former partners who became bitter rivals. Van Alen was the partnership’s creative heart, trained in Paris and imbued with the modernist spirit. Severence was the consummate businessman, constantly networking in search of the next big commission. Breaking up in 1924, just as the skyscraper was becoming the symbol of preeminence in business and the economy seemed to be on an endless upward spiral, the erstwhile friends by 1929 were executing rival commissions to build the tallest building in the world. Severence’s backers were Old Money, with conservative tastes and a building plot at 40 Wall Street, at the center of the financial district. Van Alen’s patron was self-made automobile tycoon Walter Chrysler, willing to spend whatever it took to erect his personal monument at 42nd and Lexington. The two architects openly sought the “world's highest” crown, each altering their designs several times in order to top the other. In the end, Chrysler and Van Alen won. But neither had taken into account the plans of John J. Raskob, who headed a corporation with defeated presidential candidate Al Smith as its spokesman. One of Chrysler’s fiercest rivals, Raskob acquired the Fifth Avenue site of the Waldorf Astoria for a skyscraper destined to become the epitome of its kind: the Empire State Building, completed in 1931. Bascomb puts all three projects vividly in context, giving broad overviews of the times as well as detailed portraits of the men who designed, financed, and constructed the three buildings even as the crash of 1929 took all the sweetness out of their triumphs.
Despite occasionally clumsy exposition, Higher goes a long way toward doing justice to its fascinating subject.