My last blog had a tribute to New York's twin towers of The World Trade Centre. The first time I went to New York they were building the towers; the last time I went they had gone. When one thinks of New York, or more specifically Manhatten, one thinks of skyscrapers, a city of skyscrapers. My favourite one has to be the Chrysler Building, and art deco monument, best seen I think, at night, from the top of the other great icon, the Empire State Building.
The Chrysler Building at 405 Lexington Avenue at 42nd Street, was built in 1928-1930 by Walter P. Chrysler. Its design was a 77-story tall triumph of Art Deco, and it was one of the first skyscrapers to make a major use of metal in its construction and adornment. Many consider it the most important Art Deco building in the world.
Until his departure in 1920, Walter P. Chrysler had been vice-president of General Motors in charge of operations and president of their Buick division. Five years later he had bought out the Maxwell Automobile Corporation and reorganized it into the Chrysler Corporation. In 1927 he bought the much larger rival Dodge Brothers Company and renamed it the Dodge Division of Chrysler.
Heady from that success, Walter P.Chrysler teamed up with architect William Van Alen for the design and construction of an office skyscraper. Van Alen was essentially given a blank check to come up with a design to fit the car magnate's ambition.
Architects Van Alen and H. Craig Severance, the architect of the Bank of Manhattan's building at 40 Wall Street, had been former partners but were now ardent rivals – both wanted to build the tallest building in the world. Severance had just finished the structural work on his Bank of Manhattan building by a winning margin of less than one metre, so Van Alen revealed his trump card on October 23,1929, just one day before the stock market made its first plunge. To hide the last design revision to incorporate a needle-like top, the pieces for the 27-ton vertex were hoisted to the 65th floor, assembled inside the spire and, with the help of a derrick, raised that day in just one and a half hours to add another 37.5 metres to the building's height – a total of 1048 feet – exceeding the Eiffel Tower (then the tallest structure in the world). It was the first building ever to exceed 1000 feet in height. However, four months later the rapidly ascending Empire State Building caught up and overtook the Chrysler Building’s height. Nevertheless it remains the world’s tallest brick building.
Completed at a cost of $20 million, the Chrysler Building was officially opened on May 27, 1930, and Van Alen was already in trouble. He was accused of taking bribes from contractors and Chrysler refused to pay his full percentage-based fee. Van Alen hadn't made it any easier for himself by not making a written contract with Chrysler for the design commission. Although Van Alen would later reach immortality with this building, he had lost his good reputation as an architect and never worked on a notable commission again. Moreover, the building was scorned by critics, who saw it merely as an oversized advertisement for Chrysler with little architectural merit.
The building is clad in white brick and dark gray brickwork is used as horizontal decoration to enhance the window rows. The eccentric crescent-shaped steps of the spire are made of chrome-nickel steel as a stylized sunburst motif, and underneath it immense steel chimeras depicting American eagles, which stare over the city. The building has a lot of ornamentation that is based on features that were being used on Chrysler cars of the day. The corners of the sixty first floor are graced with eagles, replicas of the 1929 Chrysler hood ornaments. At the thirty first story, the corner ornamentations are replicas of 1929 Chrysler radiator caps.
Although Walter Chrysler had his personal office here for a number of years, contrary to popular belief, this building was not built or financed by the Chrysler Corporation. Instead, it was a personal project of Walter Chrysler to be given as a business venture for his sons, Walter Jr. and Jack, who were not interested in the automobile business.
Unsurprisingly, a street level showroom for the Chrysler line of automobiles was incorporated in 1936 by Reinhard & Hofmeister. All of the building's 32 elevators are lined in a different pattern of wooden paneling; eight varieties of wood from all over the world were used in the elevator decor. The doors are of a fantastic design that perhaps better than anything indicates the great influence of ancient Egyptian designs on the birth of Art Deco – the burst of Deco's themes and the uncovering of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 being a good coincidence.