Tuesday History: A daredevil comes to town

NEW HEIGHTS: In 1925 and 1926, Harry Gardiner came to Asheville and succeeded in climbing three of the city's tallest buildings. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

ASHEVILLE, N.C.— In the mid-1920s a man by the name of Harry Gardiner made several visits to Asheville with one goal in mind: to scale its downtown buildings without rope or safety net. The Jackson Building, the Flatiron Building and the former Battery Park Hotel (present-day Battery Park Senior Apartments) were among the structures he conquered.

In a May 28, 1918, interview with Robert Welles Ritchie of New York City’s The Evening World Daily Magazine, Gardiner said he did not initially set out to be a stuntman, but rather a surgeon. While studying at Columbia University, however, he had a change of heart. “I’d have been a common, ordinary bone sawyer now if it were not for the fact that I had an itch to make a name for myself,” he told Ritchie.

In 1894, this itch led him to perform in hot air balloon ascensions and parachute drops. Within a few years, the New York City skyline inspired his next venture. “I came out of an old hotel that used to face Madison Square and took a look at the Flatiron Building,” Gardiner explained to Ritchie in the 1918 interview. “A new idea struck me. Why not climb up the front of the building?”

Gardiner would perform his feat across the country. He became known as the “Human Fly.” In a Feb. 6, 1925, interview with The Orlando Sentinel, the daredevil claimed the nickname was given to him by President Grover Cleveland.

On April 2, 1925, The Asheville Citizen announced Gardiner’s plans to scale the Jackson Building. The climb was part of a fundraiser for the American Legion. Pack Square was roped off. The newspaper went on to report:

“None of the windows of the building open sufficiently to permit [Gardiner’s] ingress once the ground floor is left so when he starts up Friday night he must continue to the roof. Saturday afternoon he will start at the top and climb down.”

The following year, Gardiner returned to Asheville to scale the recently built Flatiron Building, as well as the Battery Park Hotel. On May 14, 1926, The Asheville Citizen reported on the large crowd that assembled outside the Flatiron Building to watch the “Human Fly” climb its facade.

According to the paper, many in attendance deemed him a fool, flirting with death. The unnamed reporter, however, disagreed, noting that “If all of that crowd that witnessed his agile feet could spend five minutes in his presence they would understand. The ‘human fly’ comes as near to being a superman as any living American.”

The reporter went on to write:

“Now the man who made that climb is almost 57 years old. He doesn’t look a day over thirty. Every bit of his being radiates the vivacity and strength of youth, and every thing about him catches the infection of his sprightliness. At 57 most men are about ready to be shelved. Aches and pains, rhumatic tremors and shaky limbs bedevil them. Yet Harry Gardiner climbed the Flatiron building successfully last night at that age, and on Saturday afternoon at 4:30 o’clock will climb the corner of the Battery Park hotel blind-folded.”

The following day, The Asheville Citizen reported that Gardiner’s fingers were insured for $50,000. In the article, the daredevil explained the importance of his appendages:

“‘Don’t get the notion,’ [Gardiner] says, ‘when I start that perilous climb [up the Battery Park Hotel] this afternoon, in what will be one of the hardest feats of my long career of 30 years, that anything is going to be left to chance. I made certain before I ever climbed a building that my fingers were absolutely perfect, and would respond to my mind in every detail. My first concern years ago was to master those fingers — to make them powerful, but above all to make them vassals of my mind and will. That accomplished, it remained only for me to learn to conquer the peculiarities of particular buildings.’”

The article went on to predict that later that afternoon, at 4:30 p.m., as Gardiner began his ascent up the hotel, he would be “the calmest, the coolest, the best composed man present.” For readers skeptical of the claim, the paper insisted:

“Harry Gardiner, with his $50,000 hands, does not regard his task as a hazard. He doesn’t regard it as a monstrous undertaking conceived by some mad man. With him it is a cold blooded, shrewdly studied, well calculated business.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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