The Master Builders
John Jakob Raskob, an executive at General Motors, hired Shreve, Lamb & Harmon to be the architects for his new building. Raskob pulled a thick pencil out of a drawer, held it up to William Lamb and asked, “Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?”
Influenced by Raymond Hood’s Daily News building, the architects came up with a simple classical composition of a 5 story base, a large tower with setbacks (required by the city’s zoning laws) and a monumental spire. The core of the building would be developed around a central for mail chutes, toilets, shafts and corridors. Around this core would be office spaces.
Contractors bidding for the job included Starrett Bros. & Eken who told Raskob that they could get the job done in eighteen months. So fast! But how would they do it?
“Gentlemen,” Starret explained, “this building of yours is going to represent unusual problems. Ordinary building equipment won’t be worth a damn on it. We’ll buy new stuff, fitted for the job, and at the end sell it and credit you with the difference. That’s what we do on every big project. It costs less than renting secondhand stuff, and it’s more efficient.”
The quality of their work combined with their honesty ultimately won them the project.
The same architecture firm, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, did a building a little way uptown, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, across from the New York Public Library. New Yorkers may remember this building as the former site, on its ground floor, of the Nat Sherman cigar store. (The store has since moved a few blocks east on 42nd.) One of the great pleasures of a Manhattan day is to go to the summit of the Empire State and, looking north, spot its slimmer, younger brother 13 blocks away.
In Winston-Salem, N.C., the Reynolds building is the headquarters of RJR Nabisco, was also designed by the same firm, in 1929, then known as Shreve & Lamb. It is not precisely a prototype for the Empire State, as is sometimes said, but one can see scaled-down versions of the setbacks and strong central column that would rise to even greater success two years later in New York.