When Mark Houser was writing “MultiStories” — a history book about antique skyscrapers — he headed straight to the top, literally, and dug deep. In Pittsburgh, that meant discovering that one of the great stories that clings to Downtown’s Frick Building (1902) is probably an urban legend.
Henry Clay Frick’s spite for his erstwhile partner Andrew Carnegie was legendary, and almost certainly influenced his decision to build his skyscraper to literally overshadow Carnegie’s own.
“Frick certainly loathed Carnegie enough to build a taller skyscraper to block out the sun, (but) he could never have relieved himself on his rival’s skyscraper from his private bathroom window,” explains Houser, a former reporter for the Tribune-Review and Pittsburgh Magazine. “I’ve stood there and scoped it out, and it’s too far, even if Frick drained a six-pack the night before.”
Houser also visits the very first skyscrapers in New York City and Chicago, and follows them as the building phenomenon spread in the early 1900s across the country to the West Coast, and even to Europe. It’s a triumph of technology, from the invention of the elevator by Elisha Otis in the early 1850s to the rebuilding after the Great Fire of Chicago (1871) to the concurrent advances in steel frame construction.
Plus, of course, there was the skyrocketing growth of large companies that needed big numbers of clerical workers in one place. The skyscraper was, as architect Cass Gilbert (designer of the Woolworth Building in Manhattan) described it, “a machine that makes the land pay.”
“Every city in America was going through this and it blew people’s minds,” says Houser. “I mean they’d never seen anything that was taller than five stories, basically because that’s how far you can go up on steps (without getting exhausted).”
The book is a witty, breezy read, told with a veteran reporter’s knack for finding the right story within a tower of information. It’s illustrated throughout by Houser’s collection of antique postcards, which were issued when the idea of a new skyscraper was still a novelty.
The idea for the book began as a column for Pittsburgh Magazine, with the help of Editor Brian Hyslop (who is now editor of NEXTpittsburgh.)
Today, these skyscrapers are some of the most beautiful buildings in America — some famous, like NYC’s Flatiron Building, some not — but all cathedrals to commerce in a panoply of styles that reflect everything from the Gothic spires of Flemish guild halls, to the curving organic forms of Art Nouveau.
The stories of the industrialists, tycoons, prospectors (it was the Gold Rush era) and architects who built these skyscrapers are almost universally fascinating.
There’s Billy Durant, for instance, the man behind the iconic General Motors Building in Detroit. He started and grew General Motors by assimilating a variety of other smaller automakers (Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac), and co-founded Chevrolet with a Swiss auto racer and designer named Louis Chevrolet. But Durant clashed with everyone, was eventually forced out and blew his fortune on the stock market. He ended up running a bowling alley and hamburger joint in Flint.
There are murders, con men, silver prospectors, penniless immigrants who became millionaires, and millionaires who became penniless.
There’s “The Bathtub King” of Pittsburgh, an Irish immigrant named James Arrott, whose white enameled bathtubs just looked so much cleaner than the tin tubs that everyone used up until then. Even the kings of Italy and England had to have them.
Arrott hired acclaimed architect Frederick Osterling, who built a “gaudily striped Venetian palazzo of a skyscraper,” the Arrott Building.
Eventually, this baroque, ostentatious style of skyscraper fell out of fashion in favor of austere modernism. Times and tastes are constantly in flux, however, Just this year, it has seen new life as the fittingly-named Industrialist Hotel, with a stylish bar/restaurant called The Rebel Room.
The book also has a chapter on European skyscrapers, which is much shorter. Though Europeans had the ability to build beautiful tall things — witness the Eiffel Tower — they were generally down on the whole skyscraper idea.
“There was pretty much uniform dismissal of skyscrapers among the elite in Europe,” says Houser. “As an ugly American invention that would mar the beauty of their classic cities.”
One of the most fascinating stories in the book is about the Italian architect Mario Palanti, who builds the outlandish Palacio Barolo in Buenos Aires as a literal tomb for the poet Dante Alighieri. Reflecting the hell of Dante’s “Inferno,” the building’s lobby has brass grills on the floor that are lit from below. Dante’s body remains in Ravenna, Italy.
Many of the buildings featured in the book yielded surprises upon exploration — sometimes ugly ones. The 17-story Candler Building (1906) in Atlanta, created for Asa Candler — who built Coca Cola into a worldwide empire — has a particularly disturbing secret.
“He was so rich that the building is sheathed in marble, exterior and interior, all the way up,” says Houser. “It’s amazing. When we go into the lobby (it’s now a luxury hotel), it’s like you’re in the Louvre, looking at a three-story atrium and a staircase of carved marble.”
There are marble busts in the stairwell, whose history you can scan via a QR code with your phone.
“They are all like some of the worst, racist white supremacist characters in the post-war era, like the founder of Georgia’s KKK chapter,” says Houser.
If Houser has to pick a favorite skyscraper story, it’s the Flood Building in San Francisco.
James Flood opened a saloon in San Francisco after some success as a gold prospector and used it to collect tips — not just coins, but stocks. Eventually, he made enough to open his own brokerage.
“A New York reporter goes out to see all the mining operations and James Flood gives them a tour. Their sawmill is up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which is where they get all the timber to hold up the mines in Nevada. And I guess on a whim, Flood, this wild guy, challenges the New York reporter to ride with him in a pig trough down their log flume that brought wood down to to the rail yard below,” explains Houser.
“It takes like a half an hour — this is like a long and dramatic ride, and they think they’re going 100 miles an hour. You know it’s terrifying; it’s faster than a locomotive. The reporter writes this big story about riding a log flume with James Flood and barely surviving.”
Houser asserts that this could easily be the idea that led to the log flume rides at amusement parks — Kennywood included.
“What doing this book showed me, is that — in every city across America — there are the same kinds of fascinating stories,” says Houser. “You really come to understand how America became what it is today when you look at how each of these cities uniquely progressed. And a lot of that history can be found in their first skyscrapers.”