|The Day the Center of the World Disappeared|
|October 21, 1970: An overcast day much like any other, the city roars with the sound of cars, jackhammers, buses, an occasional siren, and eight million people making their way through the day. High above the banks of the Hudson River, the blowing wind muffles the distant roar into a mere rumble. Mindful of the danger of winds at this high altitude, an unknown laborer helps position a steel beam into its pre-ordained location, placing its upper end at just a little more than 1,250 feet above the surface of the earth below. Far down below, most Americans continue their daily routines, unaware that a forty year reign has just come to an end.|
|Human Wonder and Achievement|
The Great Pyramids of Giza, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Roman Coliseum, The Great Wall of China, The Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Eiffel Tower, all these great wonders of the world were, and are, brilliant proclamations of the skill, ingenuity and purposeful will of the great human civilizations that created them, and the legendary cities that were, and are, the seat of their inspiration and glory.
There are those who have no interest in great human achievement: the kind that lasts, that advances human knowledge, and speaks to the ages. They see a great human structure in much the same way a dog or cat would; as just another object of a different shape and size, and without any interest or intellectual curiosity as to its origins, its inspiration, or its impact on future human thought or development. Often they question the wisdom of great endeavors that cannot immediately be monetized. If the world were led by their likes, we would all still be scratching out a subsistence among the bushes, and dying after thirty or forty brutish years. Fortunately, civilizations and cities do arise now and then that provide fertile ground for geniuses, visionary patrons, and prosperous societies to come together and produce wonders that not only inspire our existence, but elevate our knowledge and understanding of the possible.
For America, the greatest locus of its inspiration and glory has been New York City. And its most dazzling and universally impressive expression has been the skyscraper. Replicated since in all of its other great cities, and then across the world, this uniquely American concept has become a universal symbol of achievement and status, and more importantly, capability. Some scoff at the sight of Arabian and Asian cities scrambling to build greater and greater structures. These same people would have turned their noses up at New York's and Chicago's competitive building frenzy at the start of the twentieth century that led to the creation of the tallest structure built by man in 6,000 years of recorded human history; a competition that advanced human knowledge in the realms of engineering and architecture, and changed the face of our cities across the earth.
|Building the Center of the World in the 20th Century|
The completion of the 102-story Empire State Building on May 1, 1931, was the culmination of the first architectural race for the clouds that had begun forty-six years earlier in Chicago with the building in 1885 of the world's first skyscraper: the ten-story, 138-foot Home Insurance Building. But while Chicago may have been the birthplace of the skyscraper, and had the initial lead in the race for the skies, New York City quickly caught up with its smaller rival, and took the honor of having the world's tallest building by 1895, with the completion of the 26-story, 306-foot American Surety Building - an honor the city would keep for the next seventy-nine years. By the start of the 1930's, technological advances, increasing prosperity, and ambitious imagination put the skyscraper race into high gear, and became so heated, it even featured secret plans by competing architects, including the legendary hidden spire used to spring the Chrysler Building ahead of its competition. The spire, constructed in secret inside the Chrysler Building, was one day lifted from the interior of the building, raising the building’s height overnight by 121 feet, suddenly laying claim to the title of world's tallest building, to the amazement of stunned rivals at the Manhattan Company Bank Building (more recently known as the Trump Building) and startled New Yorkers everywhere. By the time the construction boom ended in 1933, New York had built the world's five tallest buildings in the span of three years, each alone a wonder equal or superior to the Eiffel Tower. And, not one of those buildings would be surpassed until the year the first man set foot on the moon, when the 100-story John Hancock Building was completed in Chicago in 1969. New York lived up to its state motto, "Excelsior" ('ever higher') as literally as anyone ever has.
Thus it was that in 1970 everyone knew the world's tallest and most famous building stood at the center of New York City, as it had for nearly forty years. Its spire fittingly crowned, at a quarter of a mile, a skyline that boasted fully thirty-five of the world's fifty tallest buildings (70%, or over twice as much as all other cities of the world combined!), and two-thirds of the top one hundred. A colossal collection of monumental emblems of the city's power and centrality to world civilization, the Manhattan skyline was until the 21st century the world's most massive architectural and engineering feat. Never has a city loomed so much larger than all its contemporary rivals, except maybe ancient Rome. So, when one stood atop the Empire State Building, the greatest building of the greatest city the world had ever seen, one could be excused for feeling one was standing at the center of the world - literally the physical apex of human civilization.
But soon the center of the world would begin to dissipate. A few miles across town, on that gray, twenty-first day of October of that year, workers were busily arranging glass, steel and concrete into orderly lines and planes that would eventually rise 1,368 feet by the end of the year. With the completion of the north tower of the World Trade Center in 1972, the crown title of New York officially moved from the center of the city to its edge, as if it was about to depart. It soon did.
|Image courtesy of SkyscraperPage.com|
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