Over and Up

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In the spring of 1931, men stood on New York City street corners selling apples; other men stood on soup-kitchen lines; still other men desperately stalked the buildings of Manhattan looking for non-existent jobs. Spring is natures work and arrives no matter what mortals do to crush each other’s spirits. Hope and rebirth felt out of place in the Depression spring of 1931. To most Americans it seemed as if the winter of 1929 had continued, never ending, growing darker and colder with each passing season. The sickness of spirit that gripped the land was immune to nature’s crocuses. Only a belief in the American dream of growth and progress could vanquish the Great Depression.

Two man made crocuses were sprouting into bloom in that spring of 1931, both belied the depression surrounding them and pointed toward a new and better tomorrow. One was a bridge; the other, a building. The building started up at the outset of the Great Depression; the bridge started over during the heady days of 1927.

The Hudson River, a formidable barrier, separates Manhattan from New Jersey. After the Roeblings built the Brooklyn Bridge connecting the then city of Brooklyn with the city of New York, engineers said the western connection between New York and New Jersey would have to be double the length of the world’s longest bridge. Many experts thought spanning the Hudson was impossible; others believed a 3,000- foot bridge was possible, but incredibly difficult.

In 1924, Swiss immigrant Othmar H. Ammann was appointed chief engineer of the New York Port Authority. After consulting the world’s best bridge builders, Ammann presented a plan to conquer the Hudson with the first co-ordinated bridge and highway developed solely for the automobile. The Port Authority issued bonds payable from bridge toll revenues and began work in 1927.

The George Washington Bridge would be 3,500 feet long with room to add a second deck underneath the main road when traffic increased in future years. The bridge’s two 635-foot towers would support dual suspension cables containing 107,000 miles of wire. Much of the $60 million cost would pay for building approach roads to handle the projected 30 million vehicles a year.

On August 29, 1929, when the George Washington Bridge reached the half-way mark, former New York state governor and unsuccessful 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith announced plans for a sensational new office building for mid-town Manhattan. Smith was the front man for a consortium, led by General Motors Acceptance Corporation founder John Jacob Raskob, that planned to tear down an emblem of the Gay Nineties — the Waldorf Astoria Hotel — and build in its place the world’s tallest skyscraper. The Empire State Building was a purely speculative deal, a brainchild of the Roaring ’20s. Planing for the skyscraper ended before the bubble burst on Wall Street and construction began before anyone realized the nation was descending into economic depression faster than the mighty building was ascending the New York skyline.

Begun on March 17, 1930, the Empire State Building rose four and a half stories every week until it reached the 102nd floor. A 200 foot tower and dirigible mooring mast brought the building to a height of 1,250 feet. The final structural steel pieces reached the top on November 21, 1930. From St. Patrick’s Day to Thanksgiving week, steel workers had erected 53,000 tons of steel 102 stories into the sky. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and other workers completed the interior of the building by the planned opening day of May 1, 1931. Built in only 410 days, this magnificent Art Deco structure came in under the original $50 million budget.

The opening ceremonies on May 1 were broadcast nationwide by the two fledgling radio networks: the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Al Smith’s two little grandchildren performed the ceremonial honors, cutting a red ribbon in the lobby. Smith then ascended to the 86th floor observation deck to pose for pictures with his successor to the Governor’s chair, Franklin D. Roosevelt. New York City’s Mayor Jimmy Walker joked that he would be glad to get the tax revenue from the building for the city, but said “that no matter what we tax you, you know that it is worth it.”

The George Washington Bridge opened five months later on October 25, 1931 — eight months ahead of schedule. A crowd of 20,000 stood at the Manhattan plaza entrance, 4,000 in the Fort Lee plaza entrance, and 5,000 in the grandstand erected in the middle of the bridge. Thousands more lined New Jersey’s Palisades and New York’s Riverside Drive. Secretary of the Navy Charles F. Adams, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, and New Jersey Governor Morgan F. Larsen dedicated the span. The first pedestrians to cross from Manhattan were two enterprising Bronx boys who beat everyone to the Jersey side by zipping across on their roller skates.

A long decade of depression lay ahead for all Americans, but the skyline of the nation’s biggest city boasted the world’s tallest building and the world’s longest bridge, attesting to a continuing faith in the American dream. Yet, even more promising than the cold structural steel were the two roller-skating Bronx boys, 11 and 14 years old. The youngsters competitive spirit reflected the necessary spark needed to conquer not only the Great Depression, but also a darker cloud forming on the horizon. The boys represented a generation that had, as one of the speakers at both openings would one day say, “a rendezvous with destiny.”