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 ...
7Dr. 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.
6The 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.