Giant Ambition

Isaac Newton paid homage to his precursors by declaring that if he had seen further it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. Today’s blog takes a brief look back at one of the giants of the construction industry – one who defied peoples’ understanding of Newton’s laws and whose contribution was ironically built on a lot that was the opposite of giant.

The Tower Building, built in 1889 in New York City, was arguably New York’s first skyscraper. John Noble Stearns, a silk importer, was faced with the problem of building offices fit for a titan of industry on a lot with a  mere 6.5m frontage. Conventional building practices of the day would result in a cramped concrete chamber, so the gauntlet was thrown out to innovators and architects to find a solution.

Architect Bradford Lee Gilbert had a bold idea. He proposed to turn the steel foundations of a railway bridge on its side to create a strong steel foundation, which would allow for a more spacious and fitting office space. He envisioned a tall needle thin building among the stone behemoths that populated New York’s 19th century cityscape. The idea was met with ridicule at the time, with critics convinced it would fall. Gilbert backed his creation and even climbed the steel frame of the unfinished building in the middle of a hurricane to drop a plumb line to demonstrate how sturdy the structure was.

Although the Tower Building was razed over a century ago, innovators like Gilbert continue to set the bar higher and higher (literally) on what can be achieved in a world with higher demands – and with less space to achieve it in.

You can hear the story of the Tower Building over at the Memory Palace here.

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