Saturday, 1 March 2014

Is New York's Chrysler Building the Forgotten Skyscraper?


The Chrysler Building, 1932 (United States Public Domain)


Nearing the end of the Roaring Twenties there was a fierce, highly-competitive “race for the sky” in New York City. Who was going to build the highest skyscraper in downtown Manhattan? It was down to 2 teams. It would be the most intense race in skyscraper history, launched by a personal feud between two individuals.

On one side…architect William Van Allen, hired by Walter P Chrysler of auto fame, the chairman of the car company second in the world in auto sales. A tinkerer since a teenager, Chrysler wanted a monument to himself, to American capitalism, and to the machine age he was part of. The new structure, to be located at 405 Lexington Avenue--the corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue in east Manhattan--would be called the Chrysler Building. They broke ground 19 September 1928.

The other side…architect Craig Severance, a former business partner of Van Allen’s until the 2 had a bitter following out in 1925. Severance’s people were located at 40 Wall Street, ready to begin work. His contractors broke ground in early 1929 and it was their job to build the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building.
The race was on…

Back and forth, they  went, the public and media keeping a close eye on the action.  With only five miles between them, the crews were actually within eyesight of each other’s construction progress. The original plans for the Chrysler Building called for a height of 807 feet, but Van Allen revised it to 925 feet. Once Severance heard this, his new plans were for 2 feet more than that, from his original 840 feet. His 3 shifts worked 7 days a week. When his Manhattan Trust Building (some preferred to call it by its address of 40 Wall Street) topped out at 927 feet, he claimed he had the highest skyscraper in the world, beating out New York City’s 792-foot-high Woolworth Building built in 1913. It looked like Severance had won out. For only a whole month, that is.

Then, to his surprise, on 27 May 1930, a jovial Chrysler Building crew showed off its secret weapon by pushing a 125-foot stainless steel, pointed spire--hidden inside the top floors and built secretly in 4 sections--through the center of the structure. Riveted to the roof in only 90 minutes, it brought the height of the Chrysler Building to 1,046 feet, making it the highest in the world as well as the first 1,000-foot skyscraper. It now had 77 stories in all, and was 48 feet higher than the previous-highest structure, the Eiffel Tower. 

The Chrysler Building, as seen from the Empire State
Building, 2005 (United States Public Domain)
Once the foundation was in place, the Chrysler Building was built at a rate of 4 floors a week, with 3,000 workers at the peak of construction. In all, 750 miles of electrical wire was used…the distance from New York City to Chicago. Thirty-four elevators were installed. The Chrysler Building also saw 20,960 tons of steel, 391,880 rivets, 3,826,000 bricks, 10,000 light bulbs and 3,860 windows, over 4 million tiles, and one million square feet of marble. Its Art Deco design featured auto hubcaps, fenders, and mudguards; and its gargoyles were shaped like Chrysler hood ornaments, not to mention the beautiful marble in the rotunda and the floors. It took $20 million to build ($300 million in 2014 money), but no deaths. This monster of masonry, steel, stone, marble, and concrete was something totally new, a break from the past, a showcase for the future machine age that had descended upon the world. But some people thought it too loud, too tacky. Especially the spire which was modeled after a radiator grill…a “stunt design” someone called it.

In a promotional booklet, the Chrysler people bragged about the new building. “A thoroughly modern structure in every practical detail, the Chrysler building is also one of the outstanding examples of the application of modern art tendencies to the skyscraper. Its sponsor has expressed the same imagination and same foresight in anticipating critical public demand that have given the name Chrysler international prestige as the symbol of new thinking and new daring in going beyond the less imaginative.”

Walter Chrysler added his own words in a brochure, by stating, “Here is a city within a city--a community with its Schrafft’s restaurant and its Terminal barber shop, its stores, and beauty parlor, its two gymnasiums and its emergency hospitals for men and for women…Every contribution to efficiency, sanitation, comfort and even inspiration, that human ingenuity can conceive or money can buy is provided.” In other words, his building would be the community of the future.

But the rivalry continued even after the projects were finished. Craig Severance made it known rather quickly in a newspaper article that although his rival’s building certainly was the highest, the Manhattan Trust Building had the higher “usable  floor space,” 100 feet higher than the Chrysler Building. Severance must have had a good laugh once the Chrysler Building was completed when he heard that Walter Chrysler refused to pay William Van Allen the remainder of the money for his work because the auto tycoon believed Van Allen was taking bribes from the contractors. Van Allen sued and won. But word must’ve gotten around because he was never asked to do another massive job again.

The Chrysler Building achievement was short-lived, however. Eleven months later, in 1931, at a cost of $41 million (equal to $629 million in 2014) the Empire State Building eclipsed them all by rising to 1,454 feet, including the tower, and remained the tallest skyscraper in the world until  1970.

All through the 1930s, the Great Depression was well entrenched in North America, initiated by the 1929 New York Stock Market Crash, literally and figuratively just down the road on Wall Street. The race for the sky ended with the completion of the Empire State Building. Although it stood tall and majestic for decades, it had many floors vacant for the longest time. Some people were calling it the “Empty State” building. It didn’t make money until  1950.

The Bank of Manhattan Building was bought by Donald Trump in 1996, where it went through millions in renovation dollars to become what is now called the Trump Building. The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building have also seen huge renovations recently to keep up with the times. When it came time for the Chrysler Building updating in 1999, they found the original windows were still in great shape. So, they were left as is, a testament to the exceptional Roaring Twenties workmanship.

Built for the car company, Chrysler Corporation never did own the building. Walter Chrysler paid for it himself, so his children could inherit it. It was the headquarters for the Chrysler Corporation from 1930 to 1953, then was sold to real estate developer William Zeckendorf. Other real estate developers Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo bought it later, who in turn sold it to Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. Sports icon Jack Kent Cooke purchased the skyscraper in 1979. Then it was sold by his estate in 1997 for $220 million. It’s now 90 percent owned by Abu Dhabi Investment Council, the investment arm of the Middle East government of Abu Dhabi. To this day, it’s still the highest steel-supported, brick-faced  building in the world.

So, is the Chrysler Building the forgotten skyscraper? I think not. Although it is the 4th highest building in New York City and the 60th highest in the world, it’s considered by many as the most beautiful of all New York’s skyscrapers, admired for its many Art Deco curves and ornaments. It stands tall and proud, a symbol of the future, whatever the age. 

When driving or walking through downtown Manhattan, the Chrysler Building spire stands out like never before in the midst of the mesh of downtown skyscrapers.

On a clear day, it’s out-shined only by the sun.

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