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By Peter Chamberlain

Publication via Chamberlain, Peter, and Ellis, Chris

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He plodded flatfooted, “like an Indian,” to save his leg muscles, he later said. He reached the one hundred and second floor 37 minutes and 1,860 stairs later. “It was sort of monotonous, but there’s some good masonry,” he told reporters. ” The newspapers gleefully pumped his climb into an Olympian feat. The 1933 release of King Kong, with its climactic scene of a great ape making its last stand on the building’s crown, turned its dramatic silhouette into an indelible image to millions of moviegoers across the nation.

Corporations had begun to view their buildings as advertisements. Was there a more attention-grabbing billboard than the top of the Manhattan skyline? As an exercise in gaining recognition, however, it was a nearly zero-sum game. There could be only one king of the skyline, one focal point for visitors craning their necks to pick out the tallest building. Builders like Smith and Raskob could do no more than guess at the economic payoff such a distinction would yield. Only the future would tell to what extent ego had begun to cloud the business judgments of otherwise shrewd men.

Bank of Manhattan’s new tower on Wall Street, slated for 925 feet, was keeping pace with it floor for floor. Both were intent on bagging the record. Raskob and Smith must have sighed with relief when they learned that Walter Chrysler intended to top out his streamlined tower at 78 stories. But Raskob underestimated his old foe. The Bank of Manhattan building had crested an irritating two feet higher than Chrysler planned to go. Chrysler ordered his architect, William Van Alen, to reach higher. Van Alen reexamined his plans.

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