The Race To Reach Up Into The Clouds

The excess of the late 1920s was exemplified by the almost humorous race to build the tallest building in New York City. Companies were competing to build the tallest, finest structures as a matter of prestige. As the new skyscrapers pushed upward greater and greater heights, they became a metaphor for the new modernism. The story of the Chrysler Building is singular in that, in the end, it won the race for new heights not in a matter of days, but in a matter of just an hour and a half.

The Woolworth Tower in lower Manhattan was the first of the skyscrapers. It held the position as the tallest building in the world for several years. By 1928, automobile magnate Walter P. Chrysler had leased land on Lexington Avenue and hired architect William Van Allen to build a spectacular structure to house the headquarters of his car empire. By locating in New York, and building the tallest building yet, Chrysler figured his company would stand out from the others, located at that time in somewhat drab quarters in Detroit, Michigan. It was also important to Chrysler that the building epitomize modern design, convenience and luxury.

Originally, the Chrysler building had been designed to top off at 925 feet. When Chrysler and Van Allen got wind that another building, the Bank of Manhattan Tower at 40 Wall Street, was going to exceed its height (by a mere 2 feet), Van Allen went back to the drawing board and added floors. Rumors of other buildings rising between 1,200 and 1,400 feet into the sky began circulating (neither were completed) so this whipped Van Allen into a frenzy.

Walter P. Chrysler's Commitment to Technology

While Van Allen was busy designing new floors for the top of the structure, the lower part of the building was going up at the swift rate of four floors a week. Chrysler's intention to make the building the most technologically superior started with the design of a special telephone system. Engineers working on higher floors could be immediately informed of the arrival of new or needed materials, thus reducing the space necessary for storage of the materials until manpower could get the message through. Less travel by personnel throughout perilous and perhaps unfamiliar parts of the structure meant it was the safest building erected yet; with zero fatalities from start to finish.

The building is actually a complex (now called Chrysler Center) which includes a smaller building which occupies the rest of the block the skyscraper stood on. No expense was spared (and Chrysler reiterated this to whomever would listen) to make the building a model of beauty, cleanliness and convenience. Indeed, it is like a small city, with restaurants, various services as well as access to nearby Grand Central Station. The heating systems were the first in a building to work semi-automatically in separate zones, ensuring the comfort of all the workers. The elevators exceeded the 900 or so foot-per-minute speed which was the maximum mandated by New York City's buildings department (they were built by Otis Elevator for a 1,200 foot per minute rate and had to be slowed down.) The elevators were also completely electronically controlled so that they could handle the extra traffic going up in the mornings and coming down in the afternoons. There were no elevator operators. The push-button age had arrived.

The Simple Brick Facade Belies the Beauty Within

One writer likens the Chrysler Building's appearance to "something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis." Certainly, that is true to an extent. However, the flash and style of the distinctive night-lit stainless steel "crown" of the building goes against the grain of the monolithic, dark and imposing German expressionist style of architecture. The closest tie the building has to German expressionism is the view from the street. One critic described the plain, spartanly detailed brick facade at street level and "coffin-shaped" entryways as being "funereal."

The rest of the tower, but for the eight huge, imposing steel gargoyles located above the 51st floor, is tan and black brick, with an interesting pattern that adds an energy of movement that a monochromatic scheme would lack. It is still, however, quite plain in its design; pleasantly so to some critics, mundane to others.

Even though it appeared as if the fairly simply designed brick tower wasn't going to be of great aesthetic appeal from the outside, from the inside it was a whole different story. Blood-red African marble covered the lobby walls. The floors were done in Siena marble, amber onyx and blue marble trim, separated by nickel steel. The ceiling boasts an enormous mural, "Energy, Result, Workmanship and Transportation" by Edward Turnbull. It is said that Turnbull used some of the workmen from the building as models for his art deco masterpiece. It was not until 1970 that the lighting in the lobby was renovated and the space became even brighter, rendering the incredibly complex mural easier to see.

The elevator cabs and doors are made from rare wood and stone veneers, again separated by nickel steel. No two elevator car interiors are the same. These priceless art deco gems were renovated in the late 1980s, after having become a bit threadbare by the '70s.

Pop! Goes the Weasel

Architect Van Allen had at one time been partners with the architect of the competing 40 Wall Street building. Their partnership broke up with no little acrimony on both sides. Van Allen had the last laugh. In the single most amazing feat of secrecy, engineering and public relations all rolled up in one, the building grew from 925 feet to over 1,000. A special "finial" of over 100 feet was being pieced together inside of the top floors of the near-finished tower. When it was put together in its entirety, special rigging elevated the finial into place, where it was firmly riveted to the rest of the structure. The Chrysler Building had beaten 40 Wall Street by 175 feet. What's even more miraculous is that the elevation of the finial took no longer than 90 minutes to complete.

The finial atop the building was covered with a brand-new type of German steel manufactured by Krups Works. High in chrome and nickel content, "Nirosta" steel had never been used in an American building before. The steel plates cover the building's elaborate, distinctive fan-shaped top design and the modernistic "gargoyles" (emulating Chrysler hood ornaments) at each corner of  the 61st floor and again 10 floors below. They have not tarnished significantly nor have they shown any signs of wear in the over 70 years they've been in place.

Once finished, the building caused a sensation; not an easy task on New York's 42nd Street. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White occupied an office on the sixty-first floor and made Chrysler's gargoyle ornaments world-famous when she crept out on one to take a picture of the city from that vantage point, even as she was having another taken of the event.

Chrysler himself kept private quarters at the top, an office suite and an apartment that had a lavish dining room in classic art deco style. His architect was directed to be certain that his was the highest toilet in Manhattan, so that he could look down upon the city from his porcelain throne and, as one observer wryly put it, "shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world."

A Short Stint in the Limelight

The Chrysler building was finished in 1930. By 1931, the Empire State Building had been completed and replaced the Chrysler Building as the tallest building in the world. Where the Empire State Building had public observation decks, the Chrysler Building had the exclusive "Cloud Club." Remember, Prohibition was still in full force, so the club was equipped with ingenious ways for members to stash their "hooch" in the event of a police raid. Sadly, the new owners of the building, Tishman Speyer, have donated the glorious art deco lamps, the Bavarian wood bar and other artifacts from the old club to museums. A private corporation now occupies the towering space with its unique triangle-shaped windows opening on the sky. Tishman Speyer says that their tenant has made efforts to keep the flavor of the old space to a certain extent.

Philip Johnson To The Rescue

By 1998, the property had to be brought up to the standards of the neighborhood; one of the highest-traffic blocks in New York City. Continuing Walter Chrysler's tradition of "no expense to be spared," developers Tishman Speyer hired architect Philip Johnson to totally reconfigure the smaller of the Chrysler Center buildings. They also acquired the entire frontage on 42nd street, where retail space was erected. Above this, Johnson built "The Chrysler Trylons," a gorgeous glass sculpture of a building which houses connecting areas throughout the center as well as a fine restaurant.

The 1930s were peculiar years for the United States. America went from the depths of despair and poverty into the futuristic world of tomorrow (The first New York World's Fair and its "Futurama" opened in 1939). Critics of the excesses of the 1920s, leading up to the Great Depression, would accuse the Chrysler building and its contemporaries for being icons of capitalism, erected by the blood and sweat of the poor to house office-workers in luxurious climate-controlled conditions. Perhaps the critics of progress shouldn't be so harsh. Buildings like this just aren't built anymore.

Fans of the art deco style are encouraged to visit the Chrysler Center and view its lobby and accompanying exhibits. To walk into the breathtaking, almost cathedral-like lobby after exposure to up-to-the-minute modern New York is literally like taking a step back to a more elegant era.

SOURCES: (Accessed 7/21/07)

The University of Virginia, American Studies Dept.: Online Exhibit: "America in the 1930s," Article: "The Building of the Chrysler Building: The Social Construction of the Skyscraper" (Accessed 7/21/07)

The Midtown Book: (Accessed 7/21/07)

A photo of the Cloud Club: (Accessed 7/21/07)

Tishman-Speyer Corp. (Developers): and related pages (Accessed 7/21/07)

Emporis Buildings Directory: (Accessed 7/21/07)

CBS Forum (Not affiliated with the CBS Television Network): (Accessed 7/21/07) (Accessed 7/21/07) Down 42nd Street by Marc Eliot:

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