Who would build the world’s tallest building – the powerful Bank of Manhattan Trust Company down on Wall Street or Walter P. Chrysler, the automobile tycoon up on 42nd Street? It was early 1929, and a race for the sky raged in New York City. In late summer, the newspapers reported that the bank soared to 973 feet, just two feet higher than planned for the Chrysler Building. To the king of cars this was intolerable, so he turned to his architect, William Van Alen, who decided to outfox the competition.
Five months later, people in New York were treated to an extraordinary sight. In 90 minutes, a splendid tower, topped by a silvery spire, with triangular windows, emerged from the building’s open roof. Secretly assembled in the fire shaft, it rose to a height of 1,046 feet, making the Chrysler Building the world’s tallest building.
Van Alen had given Chrysler a structure that not only scraped the sky, he also, most imaginatively, used details of cars as decorations. Near the top of the building perched eight eagle-headed gargoyles, based on the hood ornament of a 1929 Chrysler Plymouth. Thirty-six stories above the street, there’s a wrap-around frieze of stylized cars featuring real metal hubcaps and four giant radiator caps.
For a few months, until the Empire State Building took over as the world’s tallest building, Chrysler relished his number one status. His lavish apartment was near the top, and he boasted to friends and foes alike that he had the highest toilet in the city. So there he sat, on his porcelain throne, delighting in his elevated position.
Chrysler and Van Alen expected rave reviews when the building was completed, but that didn’t happen. “The height of commercial swank,” sneered The New York Times. “Stunt design, with no serious significance,” sniffed The New Yorker, and another newspaper accused the spire of having the “appearance of an uplifted swordfish.”
But things change. Now some 75 years later, the Chrysler Building is many people’s favorite skyscraper, and recognized as an outstanding example of Art Deco, the style of the twenties and thirties. Above all, there’s that incomparable swordfish-nose spire.
It was Van Alen’s aim to have the triangular windows lit up at night. And now, long after his death, they do, launching the Chrysler Building into the Manhattan sky with all the fantasy and glitter of the Jazz Age.
Roxie Munro is not only an author, but she is also an illustrator.
She did the art for Gargoyles, Girders & Glass Houses by Bo Zaunders, a superb picture book tribute to seven of history's most celebrated architectural wonder-workers; It takes readers from the domes of Florence to the mosques of Turkey, from the Eiffel Tower to the Chrysler Building. Stunning illustrations and lively text evoke the passion and genius of builders whose inspiring work spans five centuries and six countries. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "The Race for the Sky." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 5 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ The-Race-For-The-Sky.
Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
During the Renaissance, French kings and queens built many palaces, in an area known as the Loire Valley. The royal family would travel from palace to palace to get away from Paris, the way you might head to a lake house. The Loire Valley is not very close to Paris. It’s about 110 miles from Paris to the palace of Chambord, for instance. I wondered how long it took sixteenth century travelers to make this journey—and why there were so many palaces.
First, the distance. Under the best of conditions (good roads, decent weather, level ground), humans can walk four miles per hour over long distances. Horses can’t do much better–maybe five mph—but a lot less if they’re pulling something or if roads are in awful condition. A horse can canter at 20 mph, but it can only do that for six to eight miles at a time, after which it will slow down and walk, or stop completely. So it would have taken a long time to get from place to place. Under the best conditions, a journey from Paris to Chambord would have taken three weeks.
But in fact, it took a lot longer than that. Because in the sixteenth century, the royal court didn’t just hop on a horse and head to their country home. They took everything and everyone with them, loading all the stuff onto the backs of horses and mules.
When Catherine de Medici was queen of France, she traveled with her ladies and gentlemen, foreign ambassadors, pet bears, servants, retainers, attendants, apothecaries, astrologists, tutors, musicians, cooking pots, food, clothing, portable triumphal arches, wall hangings, and furniture.
And the reason there were so many palaces is simply that the court in Renaissance times –thousands of people–had to move around from estate to estate so as to find new hunting grounds. Once they’d exhausted the food supply in the area, they moved on to the next estate. Also, the sanitation was dreadful. After thousands of people had taken up residence in and around a great estate for a few weeks, filth piled up, and with it, stench and disease.
The royal procession could be miles long. When Catherine de Medici’s court packed up and left for a new palace, the beginning of the royal caravan sometimes entered a town before those traveling at the back of it had left the last one.
Sara Albee's recent book is Why'd They Wear That?, published by National Geographic in 2015. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, you will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Renaissance Road Trips." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/renaissance-road-trips.
“What is this country bumpkin up to? Is this some kind of a joke?” Laughter rippled through the conference room in Richmond as Lemuel Chenoweth unloaded his saddlebags and took out a bunch of oak sticks wrapped in newspapers.
He was the last builder to show his plans for the great competition in 1850 to build a bridge across the Tygart River in western Virginia (now West Virginia). Only a ferry connected the bustling north-south throughway at Philippi, causing traffic jams and the slowing of our young nation’s relentless commerce and travel.
Engineers had come from all over the east to show their plans … blueprints of cable suspension bridges, fancy cantilevered structures, an arched bridge. It had to be durable, and support wagonloads of heavy goods and herds of livestock. ridge across the Tygart River in western Virginia (now West Virginia). Only a ferry connected the bustling north-south throughway at Philippi, causing traffic jams and the slowing of our young nation’s relentless commerce and travel.
Quietly Lemuel assembled a miniature bridge, using no hammer or nails. Compared to the fancy bridge models shown, his was plain. Then, he pulled out two chairs, placed his construction across them, and spoke.
“Since I have no blueprints,” he said, “you may allow me a demonstration.”
Suddenly he stepped up onto the top of the model, and walked across it--from one end to the other. A gasp went up. No way could it hold! They knew their mathematics. Had this been the actual bridge it would have been as if a six-hundred-foot man stood on it. But the model held, and in the hushed silence that followed, Lemuel turned to the other contestants and asked, “Can you stand on your models?”
No one dared. They all knew theirs would be crushed.
And that's how Lemuel Chenoweth, a shy western Virginian with a third-grade education, won the competition for the famous Tygart River Bridge.
The double-barreled bridge has survived fires, the Civil War, floods, and 18-wheeler trucks. It is the only covered bridge left in the US serving a federal highway. It has its own museum, and in 1983 Governor Jay Rockefeller declared June 15 Lemuel Chenoweth Day.
Lemuel started out making furniture, wagons, and coffins, and later built houses, a church, and many bridges. He married Nancy Hart, the great-granddaughter of John Hart, signer of the Declaration of Independence. They had 13 children.
So how do we know about this story?
Because Lemuel Chenoweth was my great-great- granddaddy, and throughout my childhood I heard the story of Lemuel, the model bridge, and the two chairs.
Roxie Munro's newest book uses thirty-seven of her favorite masterpieces by great artists as an inspiration for her own masterpiece that is a cityscape and a game. You can read a review of the book here.
Roxie is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call where you can invite her to your classroom virtually.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Lemuel's Bridge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 16 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/lemuels-bridge.
by Andrea Warren-Giving Voice to Children in History
St. Paul's Cathedral during the blitz of World War II.
When I interview people in my work as a writer, I soak up the stories they share about their lives. This is what brings history alive. I’ve always wished for a way to interview historic buildings, because they could tell stories from such a different perspective, having seen it all and heard it all. My dream interview would be St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a place rich with history—and therefore, with stories.
I have learned that those with the most to say can be wary of interviewers. Sometimes employing a little charm can help them warm up. So I would begin by complimenting St. Paul’s on how wonderful it looks for a building that opened in 1708. I would reference its great architect, Christopher Wren, who was also an astronomer and mathematician, as is evidenced in many of its design elements. I’d mention its magnificent dome and its massive booming bells that can be heard for miles.
“You’re the prize jewel in a city rich in architectural beauty,” I’d say. “No wonder so many notables have been baptized, married, and had their funerals here.”
Flattered but still reserved, St. Paul’s might ask me what I like best about it. “I have two favorites,” I would reply earnestly, mentioning first the Crypt, where many of England’s war heroes are buried, along with famous painters and poets. (Writers and composers are at nearby Westminster Abbey). Other notables, like Florence Nightingale and Lawrence of Arabia, are here, too. It’s altogether quite a congenial place.
Starting to thaw a bit, St. Paul’s might wonder aloud about my second favorite, and I would single out the American Memorial Chapel, located behind the High Altar and dedicated to the memory of the 28,000 Americans who died defending England in World War II.
“And speaking of that war,” I would tell St. Paul’s, “I am awed by Londoners’ resolve that you, their national treasure, would not be destroyed during the Blitz when so much of the city burned. Volunteer firefighters, both men and women, were stationed at all times on your roof. When bombs exploded, starting fires, they were right there to put them out, a number of them sacrificing their lives.”
St. Paul’s would nod, remembering.
“The British love you very much,” I would say.
St. Paul’s would pause, clear its throat, and then reply, “Let me tell you some of my stories.”
© Andrea Warren, 2014
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "How to Interview a Historic Building." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 13 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/category/warren-andrea.
The great Paris tower was underway. From each corner of a broad base the size of a football field, four spidery iron structures rose, curving inward in one majestic sweep toward the middle. The construction – a web of connecting girders – called for 300 workers to assemble some 15,000 pieces of iron and snap 2.5 million rivets into place. This would be the world’s tallest man-made structure, reaching a height of 300 meters (934 feet). A glorious demonstration of engineering, it was conceived by Gustave Eiffel, the most illustrious engineer of nineteenth-century France.
The tower was to be the focal point of the International Exhibition of Paris in 1889, commemorating the 100th birthday of the French Revolution. After that, since it had no practical use, it was to be torn down.
It took two years, two months, and three days to build the Eiffel Tower. Eiffel used wrought iron, which was a relatively new building material at the time, used primarily for bridges and aqueducts. As the tower rose, becoming the city’s most prominent feature, not everyone approved. “Useless and monstrous,” one newspaper called it. Another described it as an “odious column of bolted metal.”
Called the Magician of Iron, Eiffel’s mathematical prowess and attention to detail was legendary. To put the tower project on paper took 30 draftsmen working full time for 18 months. Every rivet of the 2.5 million needed for the structure had its designated place, down to a fraction of a millimeter.
The Tower became the hit of the International Exhibition, with nearly two million people visiting it. Still, not everyone loved this prodigious web of steel girders. A famous writer was once asked why he ate lunch there every day, since he was known to hate the sight of it. He replied, “Because it’s the only place in Paris where I can’t see the damn thing.”
So why wasn’t the Eiffel Tower torn down? It almost was. What saved it was the radio broadcasting center and the weather station that Eiffel installed at the top.
Now France’s most famous landmark, it is not the only national symbol that Eiffel was involved with. He also built the iron skeleton of a lady we’re all familiar with: The Statue of Liberty.
As for the Eiffel Tower, “I ought to be jealous of that tower,” he once said. “She is more famous than I am.”
The Eiffel Tower under construction highlights the intricacy of the design as well as the massive size of the project in relation to the city of Paris. Art by Roxie Munro
Eiffel's most famous works are still major tourist attractions in the 21st century. The Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world. An average of 25,000 people ascend the tower every day. Approximately four million people visit New York's Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island each year. Photo Benh Lieu Song viia Wikimedia Commons. Art by Roxie Munro
One of Roxie's most recent, Masterpiece Mix, is a book about art. As an artist searches for inspiration, she explores thirty-seven paintings of different genres, and comes up with a grand finale, using all of them. The book has "smart, concise, marvelously amplifying backmatter" (Kirkus), a dedicated web page, and free downloads.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "The Magician of Iron." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 7 Mar.