cover image HIGHER: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City

HIGHER: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City

Neal Bascomb, . . Doubleday, $26 (342pp) ISBN 978-0-385-50660-1

The 1920s "race" to build the world's tallest building has been extensively chronicled. A former literary agent and former St. Martin's editor, Bascomb centers his narrative on two architects, William Van Alen and Craig Severance, who schemed to outdo each other in the race to pierce New York City's skies with, respectively, the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building on East 42nd Street—only to be beaten by a third team hired to construct the Empire State Building (at Fifth Avenue and 34th). While this story is most often told as a sentimental paean to "progress" rather than a bitter corporate feud, Bascomb gives his tale a fresh sense of capitalist drama in his evocation of the nascent worlds of skyscraper engineering, architecture and construction—and real estate speculation with returns projected at 10%. He imbues the former three with some terrific detail (including a 22-item list of how many trades, including mail chute installers and asbestos insulators, it took to build a skyscraper) that gives context to the players and incidental characters, including the five Starrett brothers (builders raised in Lawrence, Kans., who built 40 Wall Street), General Motors' financier John Jacob Raskob (the man behind the ESB), Walter Chrysler, New Yorker reviewer "T-Square," former governor Al Smith and many others. The occasionally intrusive clichés (the Starrett brothers "had building in their blood"), hyperbole (the '20s were "a decade gone mad") and familiar generalizations (the U.S. "finally came into its own" in that same decade) are excusable in a debut book, especially one chronicling an obsession with height and speed. (Oct. 21)