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The strange, thrilling history of skyscraper climbing

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Started from the bottom, now we here

As one brave soul just demonstrated Wednesday while attempting a solo climb up New York’s Trump Tower with suction cups, there are few things that can attract the attention of an entire city more quickly than scaling a skyscraper. A death-defying stunt, climbing up the side of a tall building offers daredevils and activists many things: attention, an adrenaline rush, and even a platform for a political statement or simple advertising message.

The history of climbing skyscrapers is nearly as old as the buildings themselves. One of the earliest records of "stegophily" (the sport of climbing the outside of buildings) was penned in 1901 by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, an English mountain climber, writer, and war hero who attempted to climb the spires of Cambridge University in 1895. "The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity," a small, 74-page manual, describes a series of routes one can take to reach the summit of Trinity College in Cambridge, a winking satire of the overwrought alpine manuals of its day.

While Winthrop-Young, a serious climber, wrote that book as more of a joke, the obsession with these dazzling towers was very real. They became magnets for daredevils of the early 20th century, and attempts to climb them, often without safety gear, seemed to channel the general excitement around progress and the modern age. They also channeled the carnivalesque atmosphere of early advertising in the modern age, writes Jacob Smith in the book Thrill Makers, taking advantage of the "billboard architecture" of early towers.

It’s only fitting that since skyscrapers are considered an American invention, one of the first noteworthy building climber hailed from the U.S.A. Henry Gardiner, who would earn the nickname "The Human Fly,’ climbed more than 700 buildings during the early part of the 20th century, often without special equipment or gear. He was especially active during the later half of WWI. He climbed buildings across Canada and the United States, and on November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, ascended the Bank of Hamilton building in Ontario with bravado. At one point, he stuck his head inside the window of an insurance office and signed papers (he, understandably, had a hard time obtaining an affordable policy).

While the press at the time had no shortage of hyperbolic descriptions for Gardiner’s work, they kept recycling his nickname. Numerous climbers throughout the century were given the title, including John Ciampa, the "Brooklyn Tarzan."

Gardiner had a flare for publicity, and even consulted some building owners ahead of time, pitching his climbs as publicity stunts (he scaled the Majestic Building in Detroit in front of a crowd of 150,000 as a stunt for the Detroit News). Not every climber cared about getting in trouble. In 1920, George Polley, another pioneer of what would be called buildering, was busted for trying to work his way up the Woolworth Building in New York City. He actually was most of the way up the 57-story tower, occasionally pretending to slip to garner more attention from the crowds below, before he was caught by the police. Polley, who supposedly got his start when a clothing store owner said he’d give him a free suit if he scaled the store, would go on to climb hundreds more buildings.

Not every climber was as lucky as Gardiner and Polley. In 1923, Harry F. Young attempted to summit the Hotel Martique in New York City to promote the film Safety Last, which featured a scene with a slapstick climb up a downtown tower (star Harry Lloyd did all his stunts on a set built atop a real building in Los Angeles, so the elevation and traffic looked real). Sadly, during the promotional climb, Young tragically fell nine stories to his death, all while wearing a placard bearing the title of the film. After the fall, the New York City Council passed a law preventing "street exhibitions of a foolhardy character in climbing the outer walks of buildings by human beings."

The excitement over those early daredevils seems to have faded away, only to be reborn in the later half of the century, as early climbers without gear made way for more high-tech attempts with sophisticated tools (the brick and terra cotta of early towers, which offered great handholds, made way for slick, modern steel-and-glass facades). Another wave of climbers attempted to reach the tops of skyscrapers in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A few years after the events chronicled in the film Man on a Wire, George Willig climbed the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1977.

Dan Goodwin climbed the Sears (now Willis) Tower in 1981, replying, when asked about his motives, that it was simply the tallest building in the world (his punishment was a $35 fine). Labeled SpiderDan (he sometimes wore a costume featuring the comic book hero), Goodwin carried a message during his climbs; in 1980, he witnessed a tragic casino fire in Las Vegas that killed 87 people, mostly due to the inability of rescuers to reach the upper floors. He was told that, to understand fire rescue, he would need to climb up a skyscraper. Once, when he was climbing the John Hancock building in Chicago, the police tried to stop his ascent by dousing him with water from fire hoses; the city's Mayor, Jane Byrne, interceded and let him finish his 100-story climb.

"French Spiderman" Alain Roberts is perhaps the most well-known building climber in the world, having attempted numerous ascents up the sides of high-rises and towers including the Burj Khalifa, the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower. He supposedly got his start at age 12, climbing into his family’s seventh-story apartment after locking himself out. He took to climbing, and advanced from natural to man-made structures. He’s made a name for himself scaling building with little more than climbing chalk and shoes, often setting off at dawn on multi-hour climbs up stupendously tall buildings. The New Yorker once profiled Roberts, labeling him the "Vertical Tourist."

The rush to Facebook Live, Periscope, and other streaming media suggested that, despite being a century separated from early attempts to scale tall buildings, we’re still susceptible to the stunt (of course, the Trump name above the door was perhaps the biggest contributor to the media frenzy). However, not everyone is impressed by these climbs. In 2008, Roberts tried to scale the New York Times building, a relatively new Midtown building with a ladder-like facade. During his ascent, as crowds formed on the sidewalks and the media, obviously, took a front-row seat, a police office quipped that "To be honest, looking at this building, you don’t have to be a professional. This building is like a ladder."

Extell’s One Manhattan Square Preview

Henry Gardiner in 1915