Origins of 5 Iconic Buildings

Did you know that the Empire State Building was a built in a race between Chrysler and General Motors on who could build the taller building? Or that when the Sydney Opera House design was selected, the technology to build it hadn't existed yet? Here are the origins of 5 of the world's most iconic buildings:

Empire State Building


Building the Empire State Building, by Lewis Hine (1930): "Old-timer, -- keeping up with the boys. Many structural workers are above middle-age."
The Chrysler building can be seen in the background.

As it turns out, New York City's most recognizable landmark was born out of a rivalry between two American car companies. At the height of the Great Depression, nobody dealing in large, expensive, luxury objects was doing very good business. So, rather than settle their differences in the marketplace, the CEOs of General Motors and Chrysler opted to see who could build a taller building in downtown Manhattan. (We're sure this made perfect sense at the time.)

Walter Chrysler, as you've probably guessed, had the Chrysler Building built as his avatar. John Jakob Raskob, the founder of General Motors, opted to join forces with the owners of DuPont Chemicals not just to build the world's tallest building, but also to build it as fast as humanly possible. They broke ground in March of 1930 and, using a force of 3,000 workers, were able to have the entire 102-story buildings finished and opened to the public just a year and two months later. Arguably, you could say that General Motors won that round.

The White House


Earliest known daguerrotype of the White House, taken by John Plumbe (1846)

George Washington got the shaft. Sure, he got to be our nation's first president, got to work with urban planner Pierre L'Enfant on the design for Washington, D.C., and got to be part of the committee that chose the winner of the 1792 "Design Your New Leader's House" contest (architect James Hoban, who won $500 for his troubles) - but, despite all that, the man never got to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The White House wasn't completed until 1800, just in time for Washington to step down and the newly elected President John Adams to move in. Unfair.

In all honesty, however, living in the White House hasn't always been an exercise in luxury. When the Adamses moved in there weren't any amenities like the swimming pool, bowling alley, and movie theater that grace the current mansion. In fact, there wasn't even running water. Servants had to carry the president's H2O in buckets from a spring five blocks away.

Worse, the building was still somewhat under construction, so the "yard" was essentially a pile of dirt and mud; the lamps hadn't been hung yet, forcing the Adamses to get by with randomly placed candles; and much of the interior finishings had yet to be installed - including the main staircases! For a while, the Adamses and their guests had to climb upstairs via temporary wooden steps and platforms.

Things got a little better over the years, but when your home repair and improvement budget has to be allocated by Congress, it's hardly a surprise that your house is bound to end up falling apart. By the time the Trumans had settled in, in the late 1940s, things had gotten so bad that some politicians had suggested tearing the building down and starting from scratch. In fact, according to legend, the president decided that the White House officially needed a major renovation when he found his bathtub was sinking into the floor. Between 1948 and 1952, the White House went through a major, "This Old House" style overhaul. As a result, President Truman and his family spent most of their term living across the street.

Sydney Opera House


Sydney Opera House at night. Photo: Adam J.W.C.

How's this for an audacious construction plan: when architect Jorn Utzon's won a contest to design a new opera house in Sydney, Australia, in 1957, there was no existing building technology capable of bringing his plan to life. Seriously. Out of the 300+ designs the government of New South Wales had to choose from, they picked the one that literally couldn't be built. Now, this might seem like a good reason to scrap the idea, but the plucky Australian government opted to move forward, charging Utzon with finding a way to get his series of soaring roofs off the drawing board and into Sydney.

That part alone took Utzon and a team of engineers more than four years to solve. But the building's troubles weren't over. Given that builders were performing what amounted to an engineering miracle, the costs associated with the construction quickly skyrocketed. After Utzon figured out how to make his sail roof work, a large portion of the building - already completed - had to be rebuilt to support the ceiling. In 1966, the government of New South Wales briefly discussed pulling the plug on the project altogether, rather than deal with a bill that was spiraling out of control. Luckily, someone came up with the bright idea of letting the People fund the construction. Not through a tax, mind you, but by lottery. The Opera House Lottery eventually collected the equivalent of more than $101 million U.S. dollars from a series of 496 individual lottery contests - coming extremely close to recouping the building's entire cost.

Unfortunately, relationships proved more difficult to repair than pocket books. The working partnership between Jorn Utzon and the New South Wales government became increasingly strained over the years. In 1966, when the politicians threatened to bail, Utzon called their bluff - quitting on his own building. The task of completing the job - which took another seven years - fell on the shoulder of different architects.

Eiffel Tower


Photos of Eiffel Tower Construction (Image: L’histoire de la tour Eiffel et sa construction, vues par son architecte, un album publié en 1900)

Believe it or not, the Eiffel Tower was originally supposed to be in Barcelona. But thinking the thing would end up looking like an eyesore, the city rejected Gustave Eiffel's plans, and he was forced to repitch the project elsewhere.

Luckily, Eiffel found a home for his idea in Paris, where the Tower could serve as the main archway for the 1889 International Exposition. Amazingly, the Tower didn't exactly go over well with the Parisians, either. The enormous iron structure was immediately belittled by critics, and one especially harsh reviewer referred to the thing as a "metal asparagus."

Truth be told, the Eiffel Tower wasn't supposed to stay up for very long. In fact, it was offered for sale as scrap and was spared only because it proved useful to the French army. (they found that its 984-foot height worked nicely as a communications tower.)

Thankfully, however, Gustave Eiffel's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad structure has managed to endure; the structure received its 200 millionth visitor in 2002, and has become one of the world's most recognizable man-made landmarks the world over.

More: The Eiffel Tower Story

Taj Mahal


Photo: amla [Flickr]

Legend has it that once the construction of the Taj Mahal was complete (c. 1648), the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had his architect blinded. Apparently, the Shah wanted to ensure that the designer could never again create a structure was beautiful as the tomb he'd built for his wife Mumtaz. Just to be on the safe side, though, Shah Jahan also cut off the architect's hands.

The article above was reprinted with permission from mental_floss' book In the Beginning.

From Big Hair to the Big Bang, here's a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything by our friends at mental_floss.

Did you know that paper clips started out as Nazi-fighting warriors? Or that cruise control was invented by a blind genius? Read it all in the book!


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i think its ironic that the taj was built by shah jahan in the name of love for his wife, the same person had no compassion for the people who toiled so hard for him,he blinded his architects and cut his workers hands. he deserved a worse punishment than what his son put him through.the taj though undoubtedly beautiful has got a dark side to it.
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I think the best of Sydney Opera House. Because people an aesthetic structure. the right of the skyscraper has a swank Sydney Opera House, but there is also aesthetic.
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As a Chrysler fanatic, I am very happy to see how many people love the Chrysler Building. As the Company itself in its heyday, the Building is also the Indisputable Engineering Winner: it is the first skyscraper in the world to have Air Conditioning. Yes, by Airtemp!
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