Discover the Bizarre Race to See Who Would Have the Tallest Skyscraper in the World!

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to architecture and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the architecture urban legends featured so far.

ARCHITECTURE URBAN LEGEND: Architects William Van Alen and H. Craig Severance engaged in a cloak and dagger race to see whose skyscraper would be the tallest in the world.

H. Craig Severance and William Van Alen were partners in an architecture firm for almost two decades, but by the late 1920s, the pair’s relationship had become strained, and they ended their professional relationship at the end of the decade.

The former friends then became bitter rivals, especially as they each began a competition to design the tallest building in the world.

The tallest building during the 1920s was the Woolworth Building in New York City, which was built in 1913 and stood 792 feet tall.

Both Severance’s building, the Bank of Manhattan Trust building (which is now more commonly reffered to as its address, 40 Wall Street) and Van Alen’s building, the Chrysler Building, were designed to be a good deal taller than the Woolworth Building.

The Chrysler Building was designed to be 925 feet tall, and the Bank of Manhattan Trust building was designed to be just short of that.

So the buildings began construction in 1929 with that being the case – the Chrysler Building the top and the Bank of Manhattan Trust building being a little shy. However, at the end of April 1930, with both buildings seemingly done, Severance delivered his secret coup – a lantern and flagpole that, once added, would make the Manhattan Trust Building 927 feet tall, exactly two feet taller than the Chrysler Building.

As the Chrysler Building neared completion, Severance felt pretty pleased about trumping his former partner. However, upon learning of Severance’s trick, Van Alen (with the full cooperation of Mr. Chrysler, who surely wanted to have the tallest building in the world) began construction on a spire to be added to the Chrysler building – however, the spire was constructed inside the building, so no one could see it being made!

So at the end of May, they raised the spire and suddenly the Chrysler Building went from 925 feet to 1,046 feet!!!

Of course, all the cloak and dagger was made moot when less than a year later, the Empire State Building became the tallest building in the world at 1,472 feet, a record it held for many years!

The legend is…


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