April 29, 2019
Now and Then is a series of articles appearing regularly on our blog to make tenants aware of the rich and colorful history that occurred on the streets of our Manhattan neighborhood. Once the center of New York social life and national political life, our neighborhood witnessed some of the epic events, firsts, building projects, and celebrities that signaled the beginning of U.S. power and influence.
The beautiful Met Clock Tower was inspired by the Campanile in St. Mark’s Square, Venice. It has been a skyline landmark for 100 years that has seen little change. One of the last mass clocks in New York City, it makes a huge impression on all of us as we go about our everyday business in NoMad, and nothing could seem less fictional than this monumental steadfast stone obelisk.
Interestingly, artists see things differently, especially when they happen to encounter something out of the ordinary. That’s what happened one afternoon when Murray Leinster looked out of the window of his office in the Flatiron Building early in the 20th Century. He noticed the hands of the mass clock on the new Met Tower going counterclockwise, as though time were going in reverse. Workman in the tower were simply resetting the clocks. We might have not even noticed. Leinster, however, was inspired by this simple event to make the Met Clock Tower the protagonist in a science fiction thriller.
In “The Runaway Skyscraper” a seismic event causes The Met Life Tower (called Metropolitan Tower in his story) to crash back through several thousands of years. Suddenly, the inhabitants of the 20th Century building find themselves surrounded by a wooded, pre-Colombian Manhattan inhabited by Native Americans.
The story traces the trip back in time, the long-lost world the modern’s find surrounding them, and, the attempts to get the building to return to the present day. The engineer Arthur Chamberlain is not only the hero who propels the tower back to the modern era, but he is the main love interest of the story, who wins his girl by his achievement.
The writing might not be classic, but the description of the tower’s trip through time is ingenious and there are some wonderful ideas and beautiful passages, such as this one:
“A bright moon shone overhead and silvered the white sides of the tower, while the brightly-lighted windows of the offices within glittered like jewels set into the shining shaft. From his position on the ground he (Arthur) looked into the dimness of the forest on all sides. Black obscurity had gathered beneath the dark masses of moonlit foliage. The tiny birch-bark teepees of the now deserted Indian village glowed palely. Above, the stars looked calmly down at the accusing finger of the tower pointing upward, as if in reproach at their indifference to the savagery that reigned over the whole earth.”
That is undeniably a description of our clock tower. Passing the tower some night as it rises from the park, we may very well experience this image and its poetic symbolism firsthand.
“The Runaway Skyscraper” first appeared in the February 22, 1919 issue of Argosy, America’s first pulp magazine published from 1882 through 1978. It’s really worth a read in its entirety at Project Gutenberg.