Day 210: The Stately Queen Of The Skyline

originally published July 28, 2012

I’m not going to lie. While this site often adopts an air of academic objectivity (so long as the topics of bacon and the New England Patriots’ magnificent defeat in their past two Super Bowl appearances don’t arise), I cannot always remain impartial. There are some subjects I will write about with a drooling, sycophantic fervor. I make no apologies for this; no one’s paying me to remain neutral. In fact, no one’s paying me at all.

So without hesitation I am eager to pen a kilograph about my absolute favorite building on this planet.

The Chrysler Building is located near the east side of Manhattan, north of the Empire State Building and south of Central Park. The land once belonged to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, an educational facility that has granted full-tuition scholarships to every one of its students since 1902. If this strikes you as remarkably socialist and evil, then you’ll probably cheer on the Republicans this November, and you and I bestn’t discuss politics.

Oh, and the guy who founded the school also invented Jell-O. So score one for the Reds.

The development rights for the property fell into the hands of businessman William H. Reynolds, architect of the Coney Island lunacy known as Dreamland. While listed as an amusement park, Dreamland mostly consisted of freak shows and sideshow weirdness. It burned to the ground in 1911, and Reynolds decided he next wanted to build the tallest building in the world. He was beaten to the punch in 1913 by the Woolworth Building.

Reynolds brought in architect William Van Alen, who concocted a monster building to be fitted with a glass dome on top, while the bottom six stories would be dominated by wrap-around glass, creating the illusion that the building was floating. Reynolds threw out the idea and asked for something more conservative (meaning he didn’t want to spend floating-skyscraper money).

What Van Alen came up with next was cheaper, but featured the same flanks and staggered setbacks that you can see on the end result. What was missing was the key ingredient of awesome – there was nothing shiny, nothing spectacular. Van Alen’s new design was to be a brick skyscraper. Well-designed and architecturally pleasing but really just a taller version of what was already scattered around Manhattan like loose salt.

In 1928, Reynolds defaulted on his lease, and Walter P. Chrysler stepped in and claimed the land, the plan, and the man (Van Alen. Hey, it rhymed). Chrysler’s investment came not from company funds, but from a personal account. He wanted to finish the building as a personal project to inspire his sons. His approach was to build the most incredible building in the history of history, and he wanted his boys to watch it grow.

I can relate to this; the website you are presently reading was constructed as a monument for my kids to see the value in writing for hours every day and not making any money for it. Come to think of it, I might be sending the wrong message.

Back to the building. Van Alen was thrilled to be working with someone as passionate about breaking in an entirely new style of building as he was. But by July of 1929, the Chrysler project had competition.

H. Craig Severance, Van Alen’s former partner, now his rival, announced that he was building a new addition to the downtown skyline for the Bank of Manhattan, one that would be the largest building in the world. It would be located at 40 Wall Street, and would loom like a titan over the Woolworth Building and all other concrete and stone edifices of the financial district. It would also stand more than thirty feet higher than the Chrysler Building.

Shit. Now it was on.

Severance and Van Alen’s business had split rather acrimoniously, so there was venom behind this rivalry. The construction crew on the Chrysler project was astounding; the building grew by an average of four floors every week, and the number of deaths on the site never exceeded zero. Whether they’d win or lose the height race, Chrysler was destined to win the race of style.

Both the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street were designed to be beacons of the new Art Deco movement (which wasn’t even called that yet) that came out of France in the mid-20s. But Chrysler went out of his way to make sure his project was prettier:

The use of chromium-nickel steel arches evoked the idea of chrome wheels. The building was meant to shimmer in the sunlight, to interact with it as a work of art.

The mounted hubcaps and protruding winged radiator caps link the building’s deco style with the industry that financed it. It was a form of subliminal advertising – a building everyone in the city would look at, and distinctive highlights that inarguably link it to the automobile.

Then there’s the shiny hood ornaments. Though the eagle head wasn’t a symbol of any Chrysler vehicle, it just looks car-ish, and while it borrows inspiration from the gargoyles of the gothic style, Chrysler’s eagles are much slicker, much more New York.

In April of 1930, 40 Wall Street officially opened and claimed the title of world’s tallest building away from Woolworth. Less than a month later, Chrysler grabbed it.

Chrysler and Van Alen had a secret weapon. Months earlier, they had installed a massive spire inside the upper floors of the building. There it sat while the shiny upper structure was built around it. While it had appeared that they were willing to cede the height race to Severance’s downtown monolith, it was all just part of the plan. As the building prepared to open to the public, the spire was raised up through the roof and set into place, marking the Chrysler Building as the first building to eclipse 1000 feet in height (1046 to be exact), and the new tallest building in the world.

Severance fought back, claiming the Chrysler Building may be taller in flashy, pointy parts, but 40 Wall Street’s upper observation deck was 100 feet higher up than the tallest serviceable floor of the Chrysler Building. Sure, but it still didn’t look like this:

Also, with the Empire State Building opening up less than a year later, all this was just a fight between children anyway.

The first time I saw the Chrysler Building up close, it literally took my breath away. As glorious a monument to art deco as the Empire State may be (and 40 Wall Street isn’t too shabby, I guess), she just isn’t as magnificent. She isn’t as regal. If the Chrysler Building were a woman, I would have stupid, dangerous, ill-advised sex with her. If she were a food, she would be bacon-wrapped bacon. If she were art, she would be the White Album.

With something like this, I just can’t be impartial. Sorry.

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