Skyscraper

THE old brick building had vanished before the wreckers in a cloud of broken brick and plaster. From my window I could look down into the cavity which had held it. Already the muddy floor was dotted with the toadstool tents of the excavators, and day and night unceasingly wagon-loads of sticky clay and mud dragged up the incline to the street. Far down in the stifling air of the caissons the concrete roots were being planted, tied with cement and steel to the very core of the world.

The foundations were finished and the first thin steel columns stretched upward. In a day they multiplied. A hundred black shoots pierced the soil; a hundred sprouting shoots, in even rows, like a well-planted garden. In ordered plan the crossbeams fell into their places, and the great lattice of the substructure shaped itself. Then, above the uproar and vibration of the street, rose the angry clatter of the pneumatic riveters, steel against steel in a shattering reverberation.

With incredible rapidity the gaunt frame piled upward. On the topmost story the derricks crouched like giant spiders, thin legs firmly braced against post and I-beam, casting their threads of steel softly to the distant street to take a dozen tons of girders in their grasp and lift them, gently turning, to the top. Against the pale sky the black ribs of the building surged higher. As through prison bars I saw the distant blue of the harbor; the familiar view had vanished; a miracle had transformed it. Untiring, hour after hour, the derricks lifted bales of steel to swing into their destined place; and as each new story was bolted down the derricks lifted themselves heavily to the new level, clean cut against the sky, above the highest towers of the city.

Like beetles the steel-workers clambered surefooted over the empty frame. Far out on the end of narrow beams they hung above the void; on the tops of slender columns they clung, waiting to swing into place a ton of steel. Braced against nothing but empty space, they pounded red-hot rivets with their clattering hammers; like flies they caught the slim-spun threads of the derricks and swung up to some inaccessible height. On flimsy platforms the glow of their forges blinked red in the twilight.

I am thinking also of other workers: of men who measured this tall tower on their slide-rules, of grimy workers who followed their mystic blue-prints and made each piece with such fine precision that the great masses of steel fell softly into their final place with hairbreadth accuracy, rivet-hole to rivethole, and tongue in groove. Engineers, who foresaw each bolt and fitted so perfectly mass on mass with only imagination and their books of figures to guide them; workers in the steel mills of the distant city who moulded each beam and pillar to go together like a watch, — theirs is the silent forgotten labor!

Day faded in fog and darkness. Black-blurred, the frame of the skyscraper rose in the gray of the mist and the shadow of the night. Through the tangle of its skeleton frame the flaming red and yellow of an electric sign spattered a trail of jeweled fire against the sky. Another, with a flash of myriad color, shone and was gone. Far down in the streets the glare of automobile lights stroked the gleaming blackness of the pavement. From surrounding buildings the glitter of countless windows shone brightly through the mist. But high above the firefly activity of the city the black frame of the skyscraper touched the starless sky. Like beacon fires the forges of the workers glowed intermittently, panting breaths of red, half smothered in the approaching night. In graceful curves, like tiny comets, the heated rivets, tossed from forge to the waiting bucket of the riveter, gleamed yellow and vanished. I thought of Whistler’s nocturnes; of the fireworks at Cremorne.

I stood on the rough staging of the top floor of the tower. Above, the light steel ribs of the dome met in a heavy rosette from which a flagpole pointed to the drifting clouds. Standing on its base a man was arranging the tackle which would lift him up the slender mast, to paint it, or gild the ball at its tip. He saw me and leaned down.

‘Come up,’ he shouted.

I climbed the ladder and, with his arm to steady me, crawled out above the dome. There was room for my feet beside his. I heard him laughing beside me.

‘Don’t break off that pole, I’ve got to climb it.’

I looked down. The curving ribs of the dome ended in a shallow cornice twenty feet below. That was all. Far down the roofs of neighboring buildings lay flat and small in the sunlight. Like the great black matrix for a printed page the roofs and streets extended to the harbor and the hills; like column rules the shallow grooves of avenues cut sharply the solid lines of the side streets. Here and there were the open spaces of public squares; far off, the green sweep of a city park. And everywhere above the roofs wisps of steam and smoke lay softly on the breeze. Like crooked fingers the wharves caught the edge of the harbor; the water was a quivering green, dotted with toy boats that crossed and recrossed like waterinsects, leaving a churn of white behind them and a smear of smoke above.

Straight down in the street the cars crawled jerkily in two thin lines, the beetle-backed roofs inch long in the distance. And everywhere were the moving dots of people, swarming upon the pavement .

It was very still. Far below, the noises of the street, the living cry of the city, rose like the murmur of a river in a deep cañon. Beside me, the steeplejack leaned easily against the mast, his eyes watching the distant glimmer of the sea. I looked up and the slowly moving clouds seemed suddenly to stand still, the tower took up the motion, and racing across the sky, the flagpole seemed bending to the earth.

Down in the street I joined t he crowd on the sidewalk, necks bent back to watch a tiny speck at the top of the thin shaft of the flagpole.

‘Pretty high up,’ said some one.

‘ Yes,’ answered anot her, ‘ but they ’re putting in the foundation for a higher one on the corner.’