Humans build incredible things. Chances are good that you passed something on your way to work this morning that would make our ancestors accuse someone of witchcraft. But we never stop to wonder what awe-inspiring creation someone could be producing right under our noses, because why would anyone build something impressive and keep it a secret? Plenty of (usually insane) reasons, it turns out.
The next time you look out your window, you might be totally unaware that you're staring right at something like ...
#7. Dr. Dyar's Catacombs
In September of 1924, a truck was driving in Washington, D.C., when its tires sank into the ground. On closer inspection, workers found that they had discovered the entrance to an intricate series of tunnels, with 6-foot ceilings and walls painstakingly lined with white enameled brick, an expensive building material at the time. For days, newspapers had a field day speculating who had built this mysterious underground labyrinth. Was it World War I spies? Confederate soldiers? Mad scientists?
"The Morlocks want us to keep the noise down."
Dr. Harrison G. Dyar, entomologist and mosquito expert at the Smithsonian Institution, let the speculation continue for a few days -- presumably while wringing his hands and laughing maniacally -- before stepping forward to admit that he had single-handedly constructed the catacombs. The first indication that he was telling the truth, and not just some crazy bug expert, was that the tunnels originated from the backyard of his former residence. But the idea that it was the handiwork of just one guy seemed impossible. The tunnels extended hundreds of feet in length and reached depths of up to 32 feet below the surface. Not only had Dyar done it all by his lonesome, but he'd also kept the project secret, starting work on the tunnels in 1906 and continuing until he moved away from the house in 1916, removing every bit of the dirt himself. In buckets.
"You think the garbage man will suspect anything if I leave this out on the curb?"
Once people got their heads around the fact that one guy had really done this all by himself, the search must have been on for all the dead people he'd dug the tunnels to store. When the tunnels came up clean for dead bodies, officials were forced to accept the fact that they were dealing with the most monumentally bored person on the planet (quite a feat at that time).
"I did it for exercise," he said. "Digging tunnels after work is my hobby. There's nothing really mysterious about it."
"You'd be surprised how much time you can find for digging when women won't talk to you."
His digging habit didn't end at his former residence, either: At his new home on what is Independence Avenue today, Dyar constructed a second series of tunnels, this time featuring concrete walls, stone stairways and electric lighting, and reaching depths of up to 24 feet.
And that's where he stuck all the bodies.
#6. The Chrysler Building's Secret Spire
In early 20th century New York City, size most definitely mattered. Corporations built towering skyscrapers for promotional value and to increase name recognition. And while claims of dick-measuring contests are overused, the phallic implications were pretty straightforward here: America's wealthiest companies were competing to be the island of Manhattan's biggest dick.
A title held at that time by the Woolworth Building, an impressive example of neo-gothic penisness.
In 1929, two corporate behemoths began chubbing up in an effort to become the tallest building on the island. In one corner was the Chrysler Building, a shining beacon of hope for America's unstoppable automotive industry, and in the other was the building that today is 40 Wall Street, sponsored by the Bank of Manhattan Trust. William Van Alen, architect of the Chrysler Building project, went through several revisions before arriving at a final design with a projected height of 807 feet. Just one month after announcing the final design, Van Alen learned that his former partner, the sinisterly named H. Craig Severance, had been commissioned to develop a building at 40 Wall Street with specific instructions to build something "taller than that Chrysler bullshit." (Citation needed)
"We'll see who can aim the biggest middle finger at God."
Both parties began designing and redesigning their buildings in a mad flurry of competitive architecture that would undoubtedly be difficult to make exciting were this story ever adapted to film. As construction on the buildings neared completion, they both looked like they would be coming in at exactly 840 feet. That's when Severance decided to show them boys up at Chrysler who wanted this thing more, scrambling the designs they'd been using all along to squeeze another three stories and 87 feet into the Bank of Manhattan Trust building, publicly claiming the title of the world's tallest building. But as he and the boys whooped about town having "World's Tallest Building" mugs and T-shirts made, Van Alen was up to something. Something secret. And tall.
And a lot more pointy.
Van Alen had a 185-foot spire secretly constructed in huge ventilation shafts that were built in order to vent smoke in case of a fire. On October 23, 1929 -- after Severance's project had reached its full height and could get no taller -- Van Alen had his giant steel middle finger hoisted to the top of the Chrysler Building, surpassing 40 Wall Street as the tallest building in the world and the Eiffel Tower as the tallest structure.
"That's right, I'm wearing a huge spire on my head
because fuck you, H. Craig Severance."
This touched off intense debate over whether or not it counted. Critics immediately ripped into the spire as nothing more than an embarrassing gimmick. However, many architectural minds praised the overall integrity of the building, with or without a spire. The next year, everyone unanimously agreed that nobody gave a shit anymore, as a new, even taller building designed as a dock for zeppelins stole the Chrysler's spire-shaped crown.
Of course, it wasn't all a loss for the Chrysler, which was recently rated by architects as the most admired building in Manhattan. The Bank of Manhattan Trust building has changed hands many times since its very foundation was extended upward as part of an ultimately pointless publicity stunt, and today it is appropriately known as the Trump Tower.
#5. New York City's First Subway
In the 1860s, New York City's streets were an unpleasant place to be. Crime and overcrowding were making it increasingly apparent that an alternate method of public transportation was needed.
Alfred Ely Beach, publisher of Scientific American, became one of the first people to look for the solution underground. While this seems like a foregone conclusion these days, turning the inhabitants of the biggest city in the world into burrowing creatures probably seemed like a pretty crazy idea at the time. And it only got crazier when he revealed how the first subway would work: The Beach Pneumatic Transit used the same principles as those suction tubes you've probably used at your bank's drive-through, and that Callahan Auto Parts used to transport interoffice mail in the movie Tommy Boy.
Also coincidentally the home of the first steampunk face lift.
Beach's planned prototype for the system consisted of a single 312-foot-long tunnel 8 feet in diameter that would run down the length of Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street. The tube-shaped subway cars would be controlled by a 48-ton fan that would push up to 22 passengers at a time between the two destinations, presumably with a satisfying "FWOOMP!" sound when arriving at and departing from the station.
If we're not mistaken, that guy on the left is about to be a mustache stain on the side of the tunnel.
But Beach had one major obstacle: legendarily corrupt politician William "Boss" Tweed. Since Tweed had a vested interest in keeping the aboveground streetcar companies in business and kicking money back to him, Beach knew that any proposals for developing an alternate underground system would be quickly shot down. So he instead applied for and received a permit to install pneumatic postal tubes below Broadway.
Using the postal permit as a cover, Beach put up $350,000 of his own money to fund the construction of his subway prototype. The construction was done mainly at night, in secret, and took only 58 days to construct. Once complete, the luxurious station featured frescoes, easy chairs, ornate statues and a goldfish pond to entertain passengers as they waited to ride.
This is the design of someone completely out of touch with human nature on public transport.
Oh, and did we mention that all this was built below Broadway right in front of City Hall?
"What? I had to build the postal tube big enough for my balls to fit through."
Beach's gamble seemed like it might pay off when the prototype opened to great public enthusiasm, right up until you remember that he'd spent the previous months orchestrating a covert Boss Tweed ball-stomping parade. Beach either thought he could change Tweed's mind, or merely didn't give a shit, but whichever it was, he was wrong. The project quickly died, and with it our childhood dreams of being shot through a tube like a giant blow dart.
#4. Boeing Plant 2
In the early 1940s, Boeing Plant 2 was one of the largest, most important buildings in the world. It was responsible for producing many of the warplanes the Allies used to win World War II, which is how Boeing Plant 2 came to be known as "the building that won World War II." Also because factories were apparently last in line when it came time to pick snappy nicknames.
"'Nazi Asswhoop Cannery.' 'Death From Above Hatchery.' Really any of these would have worked, guys."
But for such a crucial factory, it sure didn't look very threatening.
The biggest building in this picture appears to be a trout farm.
Of course that was by design.
The problem with depending on one giant building to win a world war is that your enemy can drop bombs on it from as high as they want without having to worry too much about stuff like aiming and being remotely sober.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1995-042-37 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA
"Pilot to bombardier ... could you bring up some more Jagermeister?"
At the height of the war, the asswhup cannery had ramped up production to as many as 12 B-17 Flying Fortresses a day. Its size of 1,776,000 square feet and location in Washington state meant that it would be the first place Japanese bombers would visit if they ever decided to fuck with American soil again.
Of course, they'd have to find the damn thing first. In a decision that surely elicited a medley of harrumphing among military brass, Boeing turned to John S. Detlie, a Hollywood set designer and art director, to use his movie magic to make the very large, very obvious building less of both of those things.
He later went on to disguise Pearl Harbor as an Oscar-winning film.
It cost a fortune at $1 million (estimated at $15 million in today's money), but when he was done Detlie had made America's most vulnerable target disappear under an entirely fake, 12-square-block neighborhood draped over the roof of the plant. What from the air appeared to be a normal suburban neighborhood -- complete with houses, streets, trees and even hills -- up close was an enormous Hollywood movie set constructed from plywood, chicken wire, burlap and a whole shitload of paint. The camouflage was so detailed that the fake roads had street signs marking them, with names like Burlap Boulevard and Synthetic Street.
"I told you Marie, Bullshit Avenue is another block down from us."
The set was dismantled after the war, and the materials used to build it were offered to Boeing employees for little to no cost. So today there are real homes that were built using bits and pieces of the fake ones that once served to hide the building that won the war. It also means that, for one fleeting moment in this one instance, Hollywood was as important as it thinks it is.