They were showing the savages on the rooftop - that was the word at the curbstone. The brickwork canyon of La Salle Street ebbed with clerks and stenographers, messenger boys astride their Monarch bicycles, wheat brokers up from the pit at the Board of Trade. Typists in gingham dresses stood behind mullioned windows, gazing down at the tidal crowd. Insurance men huddled together in islands of billycock hats and brown woolen suits, their necks craned, wetted handkerchiefs at the nape. The swelter hung in the air like a stench. All summer long the signal station had issued warnings and proclamations. Water-carriers at construction sites fainted from heatstroke and were carried off on stretchers. Coal and lumberyard workers could be seen at noon, shirtless, wading into the oceanic blue of Lake Michigan. People spread rugs on their stoops to eat supper in the open air, watching, with something that approached religious awe, the horse-drawn ice wagons pull along the streets.
Despite the heat wave, the Chicago First Equitable was opening on schedule. Destined to be the world's tallest skyscraper for a little over a year, it jutted above the noonday tumult, twenty-eight stories of Bessemer steel, terracotta, and glass. For months, welders and riveters had worked by night to meet the deadline, tethered to the steel frame by lengths of hemp rope, laboring in the haloes of sodium lamps. Laden barges hauled along the roily dark of the Chicago River. They came from a bridgeworks on the Mississippi, pulling loads of rivet-punched girders and spandrel beams. By late spring the glaziers and carpenters had taken over, finishing out, thirty men to a floor. The clock tower was calibrated and set in motion, each hand as broad as a man. In the final stages the Tribune reported a death a week: pipefitters down the elevator shaft, electricians over the brink. But, as the glass-paneled walls began to hang from the girded floors like drawn curtains, not bearing weight so much as channeling light, the newspapermen turned their ink to the soaring itself. They stopped writing about the insurance company's grandfathered building permit, the backroom deals that trumped the city's height limit, and instead wrote about the effects of altitude on business acumen, about the hawks and falcons that roosted above the high cornices and gargoyles. By mid-morning, they wrote, with the sun up over Michigan Avenue and the shadows shortening inside the Loop, the juggernaut is nothing but a wall of lake-hued light.
Owen Graves stood among the crowd waiting to enter the mahogany cool of the building's lobby. The company would conduct tours by hydraulic elevator but only VIPs - insurance executives and their wives, journalists, councilmen - were invited for the topside exhibition. Owen was one of the rooftop invitees and he stood a few feet from the bloodred mayoral ribbon, staring down at the elegant shoes of his fellow skyscraper travelers, squinting through the brassy aura of a noonday hangover. He was wearing a pair of stovepipe boots, scuffed at the toe and split along one seam. Perhaps there had been a mistake. Ever since returning from a Pacific trading voyage two years earlier, he had been dodging the letters of his creditors so that he'd opened the company envelope with dread. Arriving as it had by private messenger, he'd thought it was surely a summons for failure to pay. But the elegant lettering inexplicably requested his presence at the opening and suggested he would have a private meeting with the company president at the conclusion of the event.
The city teemed at his back. A concession wagon made a slow orbit through the welter of derby hats and bicycles, selling tripe to famished telegraph boys. Herdics and hansoms rode up to the human wall and fell back, their passengers alighting in the side streets and alleyways. The wind was scorched with smoking lard as it whipped through the financial canyon and he could smell the dredge of the cess-filled river. Owen Graves did not like crowds. There was no happier place for him than on the foredeck of a sloop or clipper, alone and keeping watch in the spectral hours before dawn at sea. He missed the ocean and the rituals of sailing. He raised his eyes - tender as peeled fruit - to see a clutch of policemen escort the mayor and company president toward the building entrance. A wave of applause lapped through the crowd, echoing off the windowpanes and masonry, punctuated here and there with a stadium whistle and an alley whoop. The recently elected Carter Harrison, Jr., edged forward in a bowler and double-breasted, his epic mustache riding above a grin. Hale Gray, insurance magnate and company president, trotted at his side, doffing his hat to the ladies. Bearded in the manner of frontier explorers, Hale brought to Owen's mind an Irish wolfhound - there was something woolly and quietly menacing about him.
Excerpted from Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith. Copyright © 2011 by Dominic Smith. Excerpted by permission of Washington Square Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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