The World Building’s 309’ height is an unusual number, until we put it into context: up to the completion of the 303’ tower in Chicago’s Board of Trade in April 1885, the 281’ high steeple of New York’s Trinity Church had been the tallest “building” in the U.S. since its completion in 1846. (This ignores the planned height of 548’ for the tower of the corruption-plagued Philadelphia City Hall-not completed until 1894. In case you are wondering, the piers in the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883 are only 272’ tall.) Now we must get into the definition of a “building,” for the Washington Monument was completed in December 1884 at a height of 555,’ making it the tallest “structure” in the world at that moment. (I have discussed the various European churches that had held this record prior to 1884 in v.4, sec.3.7.) I don’t think anyone argued that the monument was a “building” so two categories of “tallest” began to emerge: the tallest “structure” vs. the tallest “building.” Chicago’s advocates argued that Sperry’s “Corona” at the top of the Board of Trade had extended its height to 322.’ (Otherwise, the recently completed tower of the Auditorium had a height of 240,’ that is, unless you count the 35’ wooden observation tower added by the U.S. Signal Corps that increased its total height to 275.’) So then, should flagpoles and other ornamental extensions count in a building’s final height? (The debate over these definitions continues to evolve over time.)
New York had quickly regained the title of “tallest” in its battle with Chicago with the completion of the Statue of Liberty in October 1886 to a height of 305,’ curiously Hunt had designed its pedestal to be just two feet taller than the 303’ Chicago tower. That is, unless one counted the statue as a “structure” and not a building. Of course, this begs the argument of whether the Chicago tower was part of a “building” or was just an added “structure.” New York continued to build taller as the twin steeples of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were finished in 1888 to the height of 330,’ shutting down Chicago’s claim of 322’ with Sperry’s Corona once and for all.
While today this contest/debate in 1889 may seem a bit pointless, we must remember that 1889 is THE YEAR that Congress would make the decision over which city would host the 1892 World’s Fair. In 1889 bigger was definitely better and New York was “pulling out all the stops” to bag the Fair. New York’s pièce de résistance planned to incorporate not only a larger performance venue than Chicago’s Auditorium, then scheduled to open in December 1889, but also a tower taller than anything in New York (and, of course, Chicago): the new Madison Square Garden.
As St. Patrick’s steeples were nearing completion, an even taller tower was being planned by architect Stanford White (see Vol. Seven for a biography) of the firm McKim, Mead, & White. In September 1887, White was a member of the syndicate, headed by William K. Vanderbilt (Alva’s husband) that had purchased the old Madison Square Garden on the northeast corner of Madison Square at the northeast corner of Madison and 26th Street. The group was planning to erect “one of the largest places of amusement in the country.” There can be little doubt that this was a direct response to Chicago’s construction of the largest music and convention venue in the country, the Auditorium. New York had already been embarrassed ten years earlier when Cincinnati had completed its Music Hall and enticed Theodore Thomas with his German orchestra to move from New York to its new acoustical wonder. Then in 1885 Chicago’s Board of Trade had risen 38’ higher than New York’s venerable Trinity Church steeple (281’). Paris was then building the 300m Eiffel Tower. It was, however, the Auditorium that was the last blow to New York’s civic ego that finally awakened the giant city from its self-imposed smugness. New York’s civic pride would only stiffen during the 1889-90 competition over the 1892 World’s Fair.
The syndicate’s plan was to best both of the Windy City’s “biggest” with one building. The new Madison Square Garden’s arena that was to be sized to accommodate a minimum of 8000 seated people, with many more with standing room, was reported by the press to be larger than not only Chicago’s Auditorium (that was still under construction), but also Salt Lake City’s Mormon Temple, the Paris Opera House, and London’s Royal Albert Hall. (Andrew Carnegie was originally part of the syndicate, but would withdraw to fund the construction of Carnegie Hall, which was another New York response to the Auditorium and the mounting battle with Chicago over the Fair. Its relatively inexperienced architect, William B. Tuthill, was instructed to consult Adler for his expertise in acoustics during its design. It opened a year after the Auditorium on May 5, 1891.) In addition to a 1500 seat concert hall and a 1200 seat theater for various sized performances, the planned project also included a summer and winter garden on the building’s roof.
White also planned a tower for the complex that would be taller than not only the Board of Trade tower, but also the steeples of St. Patrick’s, if they actually would ever be completed to their planned height. He had based his design of the tower on the Giralda Tower of the Seville Cathedral that had been derived from the design of the Koutoubia Minaret in Marrakesh, Morocco.
While the syndicate had no doubts about the project’s auditorium, there was great skepticism over the profitability of the tower. White was confronted in March 1888 by a New York Times reporter that gave him the opportunity to acknowledge that there had been “some objection to the proposed tower” and to fight for the tower in the arena of public opinion. The Times jumped to White’s defense:
“While accounts of the wonderful tower of Eiffel were coming across the ocean from Paris, the modern Babylon, the city of New York was hugging herself with the belief that she was to have a tower too, but one in which quality not quantity was to be shown… (the tower would confirm that) we had for that purpose not only the architects capable of designing a beautiful tower, but citizens of wealth who had the courage and civic spirit to undertake its erection… The abandonment of the tower as a means of obtaining a bird’s eye view of the city… and as the one thing which dignified and made important the main building, is a fact somewhat crushing… If New York is proud of the new Madison Square Garden as a work of art, everything connected with it will succeed.”
The investors refused to be intimidated by such editorials and the project’s financing remained questionable for another sixteen months. Meanwhile, Pulitzer had jumped into the fray by announcing in the fall of 1888 the competition for the World Building, with Post winning with his 309’ design.
Construction on both the World Building and Madison Square Garden began in late summer of 1889, just as the battle with Chicago for the World’s Fair began to heat up. Madison Square Garden, with its tower of masonry bearing walls completed to the 304’ high observation deck, was the first to be opened with a huge gala event attended by 12,000 people on June 16, 1890.
Although the House of Representatives had voted to give Chicago the Fair on February 24, the matter was far from decided in June because the National Commission established to approve Chicago’s plans was withholding its final approval over where within Chicago the Fair should be erected because, as of yet, there was not agreement between the Commission and Chicago’s own Board of Directors for the Fair. President Harrison, who had the final say by issuing the call to all nations to come, was waiting on the decision by the Commission. This was still some five months in the future, so the 12,000 New Yorkers that June night were still clinging to the hope that Chicago would some how blow its big chance.
Landau, Sarah B., and Carl Condit. The Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Stern, Robert A.M. New York: 1880. New York: Monacelli Press, 1999.
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