Photographs of famous landmarks under construction
The greatest landmarks in the world required some brave people to risk everything to build mighty structures. Workers were suspended over hundreds of feet, and sometimes just taking a break saw them sitting without any safety equipment 600 feet above the ground. Their struggle has been captured in amazing photos that show just how crazy they were, and how dangerous their job was.
1. Hangin’ out
In 2017 a Chinese daredevil named Wu Yong Ming fell 62 floors to his death from the top of a building in China. You might remember it because he filmed it happen. These men are sitting on a girder on the 69th floor at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (“30 Rock”), and they aren’t daredevils — their just having lunch.
You might’ve thought this 1932 photo was of the Empire State Building, but even though some of their construction overlapped, these men are sitting at the center of Manhattan. And while it seems crazy to eat lunch here, you won’t believe how they spend their other breaks.
2. Having a snooze
While the previous photo is known as “Lunch atop a Skyscraper,” this one should be called “Lunatics Need Sleep Too.” On October 2, 1932 these two photos appeared in the Sunday photo supplement section of the New York Herald Tribune.
Sources say the photos were taken to promote the completion of the project. This means that the photographs were staged, but they are no less real. While it wasn’t common practice to eat lunch or nap on a girder 600 feet in the air, those are real workers and they are that high in the sky. Now for some real workers working…
3. The real McCoy
Photographer Lewis Hines is often credited with the previous two photos, but the one below of a worker on the Empire State Building is one that he actually took. Harnesses weren’t exactly common practice as this man is demonstrating. In case you’re wondering, there was one man who fell to his death during the construction.
But these high wire workers wouldn’t fall from a misstep, as the one person who did die committed suicide after he was laid off. The workers were as crazy as they were efficient, as the $40,000,000 Empire State Building was completed almost three months ahead of schedule.
4. Longest suspension bridge
The Empire State Building was completed in 1932, and the Golden Gate Bridge was started the following year. Engineers seriously doubted that the long bridge could span the 4,200 feet, while set atop the strong span of ocean current connecting San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.
The project had to overcome a number of obstacles just to get off the ground, as the Great Depression made it difficult to fund large public works. This certainly would’ve put a strain on convincing officials to build the largest bridge the world had ever seen, which was a record it held for almost 30 years.
5. Earthquake proof
Did you know suspension bridges were built in this manner? Construction workers who erected the large trestles that hold the two ends together had to fight the powerful ocean current. Not only that, but workers blasted deep into the ground to ensure the trestles would be earthquake proof.
That seems crazy, because San Francisco is an extremely active earthquake zone. But the trestles that rise to almost 750 feet high can withstand the worst the San Andreas fault can produce. A 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit in 1989 which caused terrible damage to the city of San Francisco, but little damage to the Golden Gate Bridge. However, the San Andreas is capable of much, much worse.
6. Eleven deaths during construction
“This bridge needs neither praise, eulogy nor encomium,” proclaimed Golden Gate Bridge chief engineer Joseph Strauss. “It speaks for itself.” As of the writing of this article, a project to make the bridge able to withstand San Andreas’ worst — an 8.3 magnitude earthquake — is underway.
Just like the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge had its fair number of casualties during construction. These gravity defying workers are very brave, as eleven men perished during construction, ten of which occurred when a scaffolding tower fell through a safety net. Construction of this size is a dangerous job, but they produce some of the most captivating landmarks the world has ever seen.
7. World’s tallest tower
The Eiffel Tower was the effective mac daddy of towers from the moment it was built. Sources say it taunted American architects for years as the tower that rises to nearly 1,000 (1,063 with its antenna) held the record of highest building in the world.
It sparked an effort by American industrialists to match the height that was achieved in 1889. But it wouldn’t be until the Chrysler Building was completed in 1930 that a building would eclipse its prominent stature (The Empire State Building was completed in 1932, and is 1,250 feet tall, and another 200 is added with its antenna).
8. 1889 World’s Fair
The project broke ground early in 1887 and it was built as the main entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. It’s very much a product of the Industrial Revolution, as iron was the chief building material of the day for large structures and the tower is built nearly entirely of it.
The only problem was that iron is ugly, and the design was extremely important. That’s why Gustave Eiffel, the chief engineer on the project, had 18,000 separate custom pieces of iron made in his factory. In all it amounted to 14,600,000 tons of iron, and workers had to hammer in a ridiculous 2,500,000 rivets!
9. Four man rivet teams
Nowadays metal workers have a rivet gun that makes the process much easier (but still a pain), but in 1889, one single rivet being set in place required four men. One man heats the metal, another uses tongs to transfer it, while another threads it through the back end, and a fourth pounds it in place with a sledgehammer.
Repeat 2.5 million times, and you get the Eiffel Tower. It’s a good thing Gustave Eiffel didn’t use the same design concept when he gifted the Statue of Liberty to the United States, because the ultimate symbol of freedom shouldn’t be made with iron bars. Fun fact: Parisians call the Eiffel Tower, “La dame de fer,” or “the iron lady”.
10. Why did the French give the US the Statue of Liberty?
The Eiffel Tower may have caused a bit of a rivalry between French and American architects, but the Statue of Liberty was undoubtedly built as a gesture of goodwill. Many different accounts exist as to why, but funds for the project were largely raised by the French people.
America has always been the great democratic experiment. While democracy was first conceived in ancient Greece, it was the French Enlightenment that brought about the ideas that are in the bedrock of the Constitution of the United States. But the untold part of that story was the French people were trying to tell their government they wanted to be more like America.
11. Throwing shade at Napoleon III
Originally called “Liberty Enlightening the World,” the statue represents the Roman god Libertas, which is the Roman deity for freedom. In 1875 when the idea for the statue took flight, France was under the rule of a monarch named Napoleon III (you know the one).
Just like the Eiffel Tower, sections of the Statue of Liberty were assembled in Gustave Eiffel’s factory. But unlike The Iron Lady in Paris, Lady Liberty is made of bronze. The same type of handcrafted care went in the construction of the Statue of Liberty and then some, as copper sheets on the exterior had to be hammered into shape using 300 different types of hammer.
12. Who is she?
After Lady Liberty’s head was on display at the World’s Fair in 1878 (which was said to be modeled after the architects mother), the Statue of Liberty was broken down into 350 pieces and shipped to New York City. It was received with fanfare, and then became the first thing 9,000,000 people saw when they immigrated to America in the late 19th century.
The granite pedestal it was placed on was built using public funds collected from people in the United States. Because public support on both sides of the ocean was lacking, the statue missed America’s centennial, but still serves as a beautiful monument in America’s most populous city.
13. The Brooklyn Bridge
Late in May 1883 a woman named Emily Warren Roebling rode a carriage across the Brooklyn Bridge with a rooster in her lap. In a quiet ceremony they became the first things to ride across the bridge, as the rooster was seen as a symbol for good luck.
The audience that attended the ceremony included then President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur. The ceremony went just fine, but evidently the rooster did little to bring luck to the bridge. The Chief Engineer of the project may have died from tetanus during the construction, but the bridge was totally safe. Or was it?
One week into operation, a panic on the bridge saw a crowd trample 12 people to death and seriously injure another 36 people. A rumor had circulated that the bridge was going to collapse, and hysterical New Yorkers stampeded off the bridge.
The city came up with an ingenious plan to convince the public that the bridge was safe to use. Officials hired P.T Barnum, who ran a circus act that included natures biggest land mammal. Twenty-one elephants walked across the bridge in May of 1884 to show the public at large that the bridge was indeed safe to walk on.
15. Shady dealings
The story of the Brooklyn Bridge is so New York. The Tammany Hall city official “Boss” Tweed had to pay $65,000 in bribes to city alderman just to get the project rolling. If that weren’t enough, the contractor who supplied the steel wiring took project overseers for a ride.
His name was J. Lloyd Haigh, and he managed to sneak in a ton of low cost, faulty wiring. The ruse was discovered only after it had been built, so engineers doubled the amount of support to make up for the tainted supports. In the end it was enough, but they kept it from the public for years to prevent a panic.
16. Space Needle
What happens when your city is set to host the World’s Fair? You build a tower! What’s true in Paris is also true for Seattle, as the Space Needle was built out of the desire to dazzle visitors to the 1962 World’s Fair.
It would’ve been far less dazzling had architects gone with the original design for the tower. The first drawing resembled a giant balloon tethered to the ground. Thankfully, an architect named John Graham came up with the idea of shaping the top like a UFO. Not only does it look much better, but it inspired the future home of the cartoon family, The Jetsons.
17. Massive foundation
It may be called the Space Needle, but it was built to stand up to all the forces of nature that planet Earth can hurl at it. Hurricanes don’t come up the West Coast of the United States, but the Space Needle was built to withstand winds up to 200 miles per hour anyway.
Not only that, but builders dug deep into the earth, pouring foundation at a depth of 30 feet. This massive foundation is then connected to the tour with 72 bolts that are 30 feet long. Since it resides in an area that is prone to earthquakes, designers had to make it exceptionally strong.
18. Can stand a 9.0 earthquake
The Space Needle rises to 518 feet, but because its foundation goes so deep its center of gravity is only five feet off the ground. The Cascade Mountain range, which is the epicenter of many earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, is capable of producing earthquakes of 9.0 magnitude.
The Space Needle is built to stand up to that punishment, as the tower itself is built to sway while locked in place at the bottom. That would be one heck of a ride, but hopefully visitors just settle for the beautiful view of the Seattle skyline and the mountains that make up its backdrop.
19. Mount Rushmore
The Eiffel Tower used rivets, the Statue of Liberty used hammers, but Mount Rushmore used dynamite to construct the iconic landmark. Made as an ode to various US Presidents who preserved or expanded the prominence of the country, workers blasted the faces of four of them on the face of the rock in the Black Hills.
In the neighborhood of 90% of the design work to produce the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln was done using dynamite. When the harder surface rock was removed, workers then brought in jackhammers to get even deeper into softer rock.
20. Project was never completed
Unlike many of the landmarks in our discussion, no one died during the 14 years of construction (1927–1941) of Mount Rushmore. In fact, workers were paid a decent wage for their work. But even so, despite the way it looks, the project was never totally completed.
The trained observer will notice that President Lincoln is missing an ear. Not only that, but the original plans for Mount Rushmore were supposed to include carvings of the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase. When the lead designer on the project, a man named Gutzon Borglum died in 1941, it was never picked back up again.
21. The design changed mid-construction
Borglum’s son tried for a few months to have the torsos of the presidents completed before construction was halted, but as the United States inched toward war, funding for the project ran dry. The official end date, Halloween 1941, was just over a month shy of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Blasting and shaping rock is a long and difficult process, and Borglum was forced to change the design of the faces several times. Jefferson was supposed to go where Washington is, while Roosevelt had to be carved much deeper into the rock face than originally expected. All in all, it went much smoother than the construction of the next landmark.
22. St. Louis Arch
In order to begin construction of the “Gateway to the West,” demolition had to take place that wiped out 40 blocks of downtown St. Louis. Not only that, but 290 businesses were uprooted and moved to make way for the 630-foot-tall behemoth.
It was found out later that the vote to choose the spot of the monument was rigged. But despite the corruption at the beginning of the project, the construction went off without a hitch. An insurance company estimated that because of the dangerous demands of the job, there would be 13 deaths on the project, but in the end no one died.
23. Extremely small margin of error
The St. Louis Arch is a marvel in its precision and craftsmanship. Each side of the arch was built individually, and they slowly made their way toward each other. They had to be exact, as if they were even 1/64 of an inch off, it would’ve been impossible to bring them together.
That was quite a challenge, because the arch is just as tall as it is wide (630 feet). Observers worried that the arch wouldn’t stand the test of time, and thought when the keystone piece was finally placed, it would bring down the St. Louis Arch. But it was built in 1965 to last, and is still standing strong today.
24. Base jumper
While no one died during the construction of the St. Louis Arch, there was one casualty of note in 1980. A daredevil skydiver attempted the impossible when he jumped from a plane and managed to land on the top of the arch.
His plan from there was to use his back up parachute to base jump the remaining 630 feet. Unfortunately, even though he made the nearly impossible landing on the arch, his reserve chute failed to open and he ended up falling to his death. As of the writing of this article, it is the only death associated with the massive arch.
25. Washington Monument
The Eiffel Tower seems to be coming up a lot in this discussion, but this is the last time, we promise. But its worth bringing up because when the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 it became the tallest building in the world. But can you guess who it stole the title from?
If you answered the Washington Monument, then you’re absolutely right! Since the Washington Monument was completed in early 1885, it’s reign at the top only lasted four short years. But it would’ve been a lot longer had construction of the project not been interrupted by the Civil War.
26. Incomplete project
Even though the Washington Monument (555 feet) has been surpassed in height by the Eiffel Tower, it’s still the tallest building in Washington DC, which is a title it will keep for a long time, because it’s protected by law.
Originally, construction for the Washington Monument broke ground in July of 1848, but it wouldn’t be completed for almost 40 years. Funding was always a problem for the Washington Monument, and when workers reached a height of about 150 feet in 1956, the money ran out. The statue stood at that height for 20 years, unfinished, until the project was finally picked back up again in 1876.
27. Weighs 162,000,000 pounds
The US Army Corps of Engineers continued construction of the Washington Monument, and it still took another nine years to complete, as the walls in some areas 15–18 feet thick. The stones that make up the structure include blue gneiss, granite, and marble, and in total weigh in at a whopping 162,000,000 pounds.
Because of the gap in construction periods, keen observers will see that the stones are a different color at 150 feet. It’s too bad the monument bears the scar of being underfunded, which was not uncommon in Washington DC, as the US Capitol Building sat for years under construction and unfinished.
28. US Capitol Building
The US Capitol Building as we know it today does not look much like the original version that was completed in 1823. In those days, the Capitol was topped with a copper dome that quickly oxidized and turned green, which caused people to complain that it was ugly.
Over the years, as the United States expanded, the need for a bigger Capitol building began to grow. Construction saw the new building expanded on the north and south sides, leaving the current dome out of proportion. In 1855 Congress appropriated funds to replace it, but the project took way longer than anyone could’ve anticipated.
29. Eleven years of construction
You have to look closely, but that’s Abraham Lincoln at the steps of the Capitol Building delivering his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, but you don’t have to look too closely to see that even though the project started six years earlier, the dome wasn’t finished.
Unfortunately, the dome wouldn’t even be complete in time for Abraham Lincoln’s second Inauguration, as the project was finally concluded in 1866… after eleven years. It must’ve been a sad sight in Washington DC when the nation was locked in a Civil War, and both the Capitol Building and Washington Monument were unfinished, frozen in time. What a metaphor.
30. Same dimensions as the Pantheon
The architect for the dome was a man named Thomas U. Walter, and his design was a tribute to some of the most iconic domes in Europe. Both the original and current dome actually match the dimensions of the Pantheon, but Walter’s dome was made as a tribute to St. Peter’s Basillica, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Pantheon.
Walter didn’t actually finish the project that he started, and given how long it took, that’s no surprise. The entirely cast iron dome was completed in January of 1866 when the Statue of Freedom was perched at the top of the dome, and the Apotheosis of Washington painting was completed.