Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America

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Supreme City captures a vanished Gotham in all its bustle, gristle, and glory” (Vanity Fair). In the 1920s midtown Manhattan became the center of New York City, and the cultural and commercial capital of America. This is the story of the people who made it happen.

In just four words—“the capital of everything”—Duke Ellington captured Manhattan during one of the most exciting and celebrated eras in our history: the Jazz Age. Supreme City is the story of Manhattan’s growth and transformation in the 1920s and the brilliant people behind it. Nearly all of the makers of modern Manhattan came from elsewhere: Walter Chrysler from the Kansas prairie; entertainment entrepreneur Florenz Ziegfeld from Chicago. William Paley, founder of the CBS radio network, was from Philadelphia, while his rival David Sarnoff, founder of NBC, was a Russian immigrant. Cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden was Canadian and her rival, Helena Rubinstein, Polish. All of them had in common vaulting ambition and a desire to fulfill their dreams in New York. As mass communication emerged, the city moved from downtown to midtown through a series of engineering triumphs—Grand Central Terminal and the new and newly chic Park Avenue it created, the Holland Tunnel, and the modern skyscraper. In less than ten years Manhattan became the social, cultural, and commercial hub of the country. The 1920s was the Age of Jazz—and the Age of Ambition.

Transporting, deeply researched, and utterly fascinating, Supreme City “elegantly introduces one vivid character after another to re-create a vital and archetypical era...A triumph” (The New York Times).

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About the Author:

Donald L. Miller is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College and author of nine books, including City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, and Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America. He has hosted, coproduced, or served as historical consultant for more than thirty television documentaries and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. Visit DonaldMillerBooks.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Supreme City CHAPTER EIGHT

STREET OF DREAMS




Park Avenue on the island of Manhattan is the end of the American ladder of success. Higher one cannot go.

STUART CHASE, 1927
The Building Boom


It was the most spectacular decade of building in the city’s history. During World War I both commercial and housing construction declined sharply nationwide, with workers and building materials directed toward military mobilization. But after a severe postwar recession, the economy rebounded robustly in late 1921 and for the next eight years a new building went up in New York City every fifty-one minutes, on average. Older buildings were demolished at an equally rapid rate.

The Grand Central Terminal Zone was the eye of this hurricane of construction activity. In the years between the opening of Grand Central and the Lindbergh parade, the assessed value of land in Terminal City shot up nearly 250 percent. “The city is being rebuilt,” wrote The New York Times in late 1926. “In not more than half a dozen years the skyline of midtown Manhattan . . . [and] Park Avenue has been lifted a hundred feet.”

The speculative fever was abetted by an acute postwar shortage of housing and office space, and by new sources of investment capital available to real estate developers. “The building orgy outlasted and outdid all others in New York real estate history,” explained historian Arthur Pound, “because ways and means were found for getting the little fellow’s money into big deals.” The commercial real estate business was no longer governed by transactions between one buyer and one seller. Large landholding companies emerged and sold stock on the open market, making it easier to become a real estate investor “than buying sugar.” Small investors were also enticed into purchasing mortgage bonds. These were created by splitting up large mortgages into smaller, affordable parcels, a practice introduced years earlier by the New York Central and other big railroad companies. Mortgage companies pledged to safeguard the bond holdings of small investors, promising them that their money was more secure than it would be in the vaults of their neighborhood banks. “So assured, a public, ignorant of risk, was drawn into the risky game of real estate speculation,” wrote Pound.

When the supply of housing and office space finally began to overtake demand in 1927, New York architects and real estate developers remained serenely confident that blue skies were in the financial forecast for years, perhaps decades, to come. After the speculative bubble burst in October 1929, the solemn guarantees of the bond hucksters proved worthless, and investors, small and large, were ruined. But in the buoyant 1920s, such a bleak scenario was beyond imagining for most New Yorkers.

The building boom fed on itself. Spiraling land values drove up taxes on older rental properties, providing incentive for owners of prime Manhattan real estate to build taller buildings, with more rental space, on their heavily taxed sites. City government poured oil on the fire. In 1921, in response to the housing shortage, it exempted new residential construction from real estate taxes for a period of ten years. No single piece of legislation in New York history gave a greater boost to the city’s construction industry. In the 1920s, New York City would account for fully 20 percent of all new residential construction in the country. Builders of large apartment houses were the pacesetters. In 1926, 77 percent of all new residential construction was given over to apartment dwellings.

The following year only five new single-family houses were built in all of Manhattan; and for half of that year, the city’s Building Department failed to receive a single application for a permit to put up a private house. Almost none of the new money available for housing went to the construction of apartments for the needy. The returns were vastly greater on high-end construction on Park Avenue than they would have been on modest apartments on the Lower East Side. Here, as in nearly every other sector of the city’s commercial culture, profit ruled.

Development along Park Avenue was accelerated and given a distinctive cast by circumstances peculiar to its real estate market. In any large, thickly settled city, it is exceedingly difficult for a developer to acquire separate, but contiguous, parcels of real estate in order to assemble a building lot of sufficient size to put up a big revenue-generating building. This was the attraction of land leased from the New York Central’s real estate company. The sole owner of a million square feet of prime Midtown land, the Central leased this land and the air rights over it in large, sometimes block-size, parcels. Urban land offered in this way—already assembled into big lots ready for development—was deeply attractive to speculative builders. But only to those with the means and incentive to construct the kind of housing that yielded the highest return on investment: apartments for the hugely rich.

By leasing rather than selling its air rights, the company was able to “exercise a strict supervision over the architectural features of the buildings.” This was important to sharp-eyed capitalists like J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Stockholders in the New York Central’s real estate company, they also lived in the vicinity of the terminal and were interested in upgrading the area. Though unimaginatively similar in style, the buildings constructed on Grand Central property were among the most substantial and richly appointed in the city, establishing Park Avenue’s reputation as the world’s most fashionable apartment thoroughfare. “Windows and prim greenery and tall, graceful, white facades rise up from either side of the asphalt stream,” wrote Zelda Fitzgerald, “while in the center floats . . . a thin series of watercolor squares of grass—suggesting the Queen’s Croquet Ground in Alice in Wonderland.”
Mansions in the Sky


By 1927, the commanding apartment buildings along Park Avenue were not just tall; they were immensely tall, true towers, the first skyscrapers built for permanent living. The tallest of them was the Ritz Tower, shooting up from the pavement at the corner of Fifty-seventh Street and Park Avenue. Built for bluebloods and tycoons by Emery Roth, an immigrant Jew from Eastern Europe, it opened in October 1926 and was one of the first residential buildings in New York constructed in sympathy with the city’s landmark zoning law of 1916.

Concerned about diminishing sunlight and fresh air in the canyonlike streets created by the closely massed skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, the city placed a limit on the maximum height and bulk of tall buildings. Height limits were based upon the width of the street a building faced; if a developer proposed to exceed the legal limit, the stories above it had to be set back, roughly one foot for each four feet of additional height. Skyscrapers could be of any height, provided they occupied no more than a quarter of their lot.

Forced to work within the confines of the so-called zoning envelope, architects began constructing “set-back” skyscrapers, with sections of the buildings set back further and further as they rose from their bases into the island’s sky. “Wedding cake” architecture, some New Yorkers called it; others compared the new-style skyscrapers to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with their ascending terraces. Great parts of Midtown were being transformed from “brownstone into Babylon,” said The New York Times.

Unlike apartment houses built only five years earlier on Park and upper Fifth Avenues, most of them twelve to fifteen stories. The Ritz Tower, however, was forty-one stories high. The tallest inhabited building in the world, it dominated the skyline of Midtown Manhattan as the Woolworth Building did that of lower Manhattan. Residents of its upper stories had unobstructed views in all directions for a distance of twenty-five miles on clear days, “panorama[s] unexcelled in all New York,” Emery Roth boasted.

It was a new way of living for the rich. They became sky dwellers, their “mansions in the clouds” higher than anyone had ever lived. In its architectural aspirations alone, the Ritz Tower expressed the shoot-for-the-moon spirit of the Jazz Age. Sculpted in rusticated limestone, it rose from its base “like a telescope,” up through its set-back terraces to a square tower crowned by a glistening copper roof.

Arthur Brisbane, the internationally known newspaper mogul, had commissioned the building. He wanted to live in it and make money from it. The former editor of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal, flagship of the Hearst newspaper chain, Brisbane authored a column, “Today,” that was syndicated in two hundred Hearst papers, and lately had become editor of Hearst’s racy tabloid, the New York Daily Mirror. Both he and his boss, close friends who had flirted with socialism in their youth, were aggressive investors in Manhattan real estate, partners in Hearst-Brisbane Properties and developers of the Ziegfeld Theatre and the Warwick Hotel on the West Side.

The Ritz Tower was a residential hotel: a type of urban living that had arisen in America in the late nineteenth century and become increasingly popular in 1920s Manhattan. Property taxes, keyed to skyrocketing real estate values, made the urban palaces along Fifth Avenue, north of Forty-second Street, prohibitively expensive to maintain, even for the Vanderbilts. One by one, owners of these ponderous mansions, many of them widows, sold them to real estate speculators and moved to residence hotels along Park Avenue. But the very rich lived in their sky houses only part of the year. Wives, children, and grandchildren spent entire summers abroad or at waterfront “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island, and newly fashionable Palm Beach, Florida. Working fathers and sons stayed in Manhattan and joined their families at their summer retreats for weekends and extended vacations. In September, families reunited on Park Avenue for the city’s obligatory social season, either in residence hotels or in their elegant cousins that took in both resident and transient guests: the Barclay, the Park Lane, and the Drake, names associated with exclusivity and extravagance. “In town it is no longer quite in taste to build marble palaces, however much money one may have. Instead one lives in a hotel,” said a Manhattan social arbiter. It was the height of convenience for those who could afford it. Families could close down their summer homes and arrive at their Park Avenue hotel an hour behind their moving truck and baggage. They could then dress for dinner “with a full complement of maids and valets—members of the house staff—and thereafter continue their accustomed mode of life without the slightest break in the calm course of their living. A pen and a check book,” said one writer, “are the sole requisites of housekeeping or home making.”

But the outstanding attraction of the luxury apartment was the merging of mansion and flat. As the editors of Interior Architecture explained, “The city dweller finds combined in the apartment hotel the quiet, the permanence, and, to a certain extent, at least, the personality, of his own house with the conveniences and freedom from responsibility supplied by hotel service, brought to its present perfection.”

“This is the age of the apartment,” declared Elsie de Wolfe, the city’s foremost interior designer. “Modern women demand simplified living, and the apartment reduces the mechanical business of living to its lowest terms.” Nowhere more than at the Ritz Tower. Arthur Brisbane hired the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, owners of Manhattan’s ultra-exclusive Ritz-Carlton Hotel, to manage it. The company ran it like a luxury hostelry, providing residents with full hotel amenities, including maid service, barber and beauty shops, three first-class restaurants, and an Italian tea garden entered through a Florentine gateway. The suites ranged in size from one to eighteen rooms and had serving pantries rather than kitchens. Meals were prepared in a basement kitchen and sent up to the floors on swift, electrically heated dumbwaiters. Servants delivered them to the apartments. When residents desired a different dining experience, they had their chauffeurs drive them down the avenue to the Crillon Restaurant, in the McKim, Mead & White–designed Hecksher Apartments, or to the fashionable Marguery, just across the street.

The Ritz Tower commission was a career breakthrough for Emery Roth, a Hungarian Jew relatively unknown in Manhattan in 1925. Roth was entirely self-trained. In 1884, he arrived in America at age thirteen with only seven dollars in his pocket, a dreamy romantic who loved to paint and draw. His father had died suddenly that year, and his mother, burdened with seven other children, could no longer afford to support him at a Budapest gymnasium on the paltry salary she earned as a village innkeeper. He settled first in Chicago, where he supported himself as a shoeshine boy, and later as a barber’s apprentice. Eventually, he found steady work as a draftsman in the office of the firm of Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root, principal designers of the White City for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. “No technical or art school could have afforded me greater opportunities for advancement in design than the two years I spent on that job,” Roth wrote in his unpublished memoirs. He called the Chicago fair his “Alma Mater.” The austere classicism of its exposition buildings had a lasting influence on him.

When the fair closed in the fall of 1893, Roth moved to New York and secured a minor position in the firm of Richard Morris Hunt, architect of one of the White City’s exposition buildings. After Hunt died in 1895, Roth formed his own architectural firm. In 1900, after designing the ten-story Belleclaire apartments on upper Broadway—a jewel of a building—he began receiving commissions from the Bing brothers, Leo and Alexander, whose real estate firm, Bing & Bing, specialized in the construction of apartment buildings in New York’s outer boroughs. When the building recession ended, Roth was one of the chief beneficiaries. “The construction boom is on,” he wrote excitedly at the time. “God only knows when it will stop.”

An aggressive self-promoter, Roth found himself awash in commissions—from Bing & Bing as well as other Jewish developers, many of them fellow émigrés from Eastern Europe. In 1924, he was actively seeking work in new territory—Midtown Manhattan—when he landed the Ritz commission. Two years later he collaborated with Bing & Bing on three impressive apartment hotels: the Dorset, at 30 West Fifty-fourth Street; the twenty-story Hotel Drake, a block south of the Ritz Tower; and the Hotel Alden on Central Park West. All bear the mark of Roth’s reverence for the Italian Renaissance.

The Drake and the Dorset exemplify what Roth is best known for—not soaring originality but what has been called the “ensemble” effect. Along with J. E. R. Carpenter, Rosario Candela, and the firm of Schultz and Gross, Roth’s chief competitors for luxury apartment house commissions, Roth insisted that a building fit in with its neighboring structures, complementing them rather than competing with them for attention. His still standing apartment hotels in central Manhattan “have a style, an aura to them,” writes architectural historian Paul Goldberger, “a sense that a city is made well when the whole is greater than the parts.”

The exception is the Ritz To...

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