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Fit for a Chrysler

The Chrysler Building remains a beacon of a thrilling moment in design.

New,York,City,-,Usa,-,Mar,12,2019:,Close-up
(Edi Chen/Shutterstock)

There are people who cite the Chrysler Building as one of their favorites in New York, and there are people whose opinions you should ignore. William Van Alen's 1928 skyscraper is a symbol of New York. No silhouette of the skyline will ever omit it, and you'll find it in the backdrop of countless films set in the city.

It's universally acclaimed today. Bafflingly, this wasn't always the case. Its sin, in the eyes of its critics, was its failure to innovate at a moment when innovation was prized above all else. Lewis Mumford, otherwise a source of good sense, wrote a pan for the New Yorker, dismayed that "this inane romanticism, this meaningless voluptuousness, this void symbolism, should have been commissioned by the manufacturer who has the reputation of having effected an aesthetic evolution in the design of the moderate-priced car."

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Thankfully, neither evolution nor revolution were Van Alen's prime aims—he created a building that is unmistakably modern in every sense of the word; even the most casual observer of architecture could easily gauge its decade of origin. 

The marvel of art deco in general was its sheer range of influences, from the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris to earlier Art Nouveau and Wiener Werkstätte elements. The whole game was a palimpsest, one frequently utilizing very new materials—in the Chrysler Building, Nirosta, a 1922 rust-proof alloy of nickel, chrome, and steel—but borrowing inspiration from all sorts of things. 

Unlike other modernist styles, in Art Deco, ornament was essential, ornament was usually the point, and on this front, the Chrysler Building does not disappoint. 

Building a skyscraper is intrinsically a gigantic undertaking: The desire is always to make a splash. Modesty simply won’t do. This is especially the case when superlatives are within grasp, in this case, that coveted title of tallest building in the world, which the Chrysler Building secured, at least for 11 months. It lost that crown to its famous peer the Empire State Building, but height signifies little. The Empire State Building is also very fine, but it can't help but look drab in comparison to the glittering Chrysler. Some of the later tall buildings are great. Many are just tall. It’s far more of an accomplishment to be attractive, which the Chrysler Building unquestionably is.

The building was a passion project for Walter Chrysler, the founder of the car company. Chrysler the company occupied the tower, but the company didn't commission or pay for it; Chrysler himself did, and all the better for us. Skyscrapers change names, sometimes often; there isn't technically a Sears Tower anymore, for example. In the case of the Chrysler Building, however, no one would dare.

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The building had already been generally plotted out by a real estate developer before Chrysler became involved. His backing enabled the designers to dream bigger.

The architect, William Van Alen, is known almost solely for this project. A Brooklyn native, he graduated from the Pratt Institute and attended one of the greatest forge for architects and artists of all time—the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which launched Henry Richardson, John Russell Pope, Sargent, Fragonard, Seurat, and many more. Van Alen found the school’s ethos a bit fusty, but it provided an obvious and invaluable grounding for his work. This education involved an intensive course of draftsmanship in rendering all sorts of spaces from precedent. The benefits of this type of training are perhaps greatest for those who seek to break from some conventions; many of the finest Impressionists were well-steeped in conventional landscape architecture. 

When you know a form well, you’re more likely to do something interesting when you break from it. So it was with Van Alen, who displayed great attention to the scale of the building, establishing a perfect articulation that ensured a dynamic street presence and a perfect top. 

The base Van Alen designed isn't square. It is an H shape, with the tower rising in the center, providing light and a gradual elegant meeting of the street, all of which frames dramatic three-story entranceways, designed deliberately to seem like curtains parted to a swank set. 

There is rich marble and brick patterning throughout the building. Van Alen’s fenestration pattern is vital to the building’s design, with three central window volumes reading vertically while corner windows stress the horizontal. Aluminum spandrels placed beneath windows accentuate these patterns. 

Gilding was then thickly layered on automotive themes; winged radiator caps top many of the building’s corners. The thirty-first floor includes a frieze of hubcaps, mudguard, and running board stylizations. That might sound ridiculous, but not if you do it this well. 

The building’s lobby is also a full-stage set; more like walking into a German Expressionist film or an RKO set than a place of business. The masonry contrasts with chrome, with fluorescent lights diffused by blue marble and onyx. The marbles feature red, yellow, and amber of varying origins. It all accentuates the building’s broader success in its means of fabrication; plenty of mechanical processes were involved in its construction, but all sorts of handcraft as well.

Edward Trumbull's ceiling mural, "Transport and Human Endeavor," is fantastic, featuring all sorts of human endeavors and just about all transport they could then imagine, including, of course, the Chrysler automobile and an ever-delightful bit of hubris: the construction of the building itself. 

One entirely profligate element of the design is that each elevator cab is unique, drawing upon satin wood, plum-pudding wood (yes, that's real), Japanese ash, English grey harewood, walnut, and more.

We cannot forget the most important feat of the Chrysler Building: ending well. Van Alen said, "If this is to be a skyscraper, why not make it scrape the sky." There's something unsatisfying about so many buildings’ pinnacles; a flat top is often boring, and others seem like arbitrary additions. Even the Empire State Building feels not quite there. A spire that coheres with the whole of a skyscraper is a rare feat. As Van Alen also wrote:

It should terminate in a crowning feature that is a natural and logical development of the tower itself, not merely an ornament placed on the top of the tower. All parts of the design should be tied together in a closely knit composition, each part not only belonging to the whole but accentuating the effectiveness of the other parts.

Gregory Gilmartin, Robert A. M. Stern, and Thomas Mellins describe this in their New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars:

The most extraordinary transformation was the evolution of the building's crown into a fantastic, terraced dome, an invention almost as allusive, bizarre, and sculpturally complex as a church finial by Borromini. Van Alen's design was a sort of cruciform groin vault sliced in seven concentric segments that mounted up one behind the other. The whole complex seemed animated by a mysterious vertical thrust: the vaults swelled upwards toward the center, and as they did their shapes were progressively distorted from a pure semicircle at the bottom of the finial to a thin parabola that stretched toward the vertex. 

This wasn't merely a knockout design: It was a tremendously difficult feat of engineering. The topping-off of the Chrysler Building was a tremendous structural feat, conducted amid much secrecy, involving a genuinely preposterous feat of engineering with a surreptitious planning process. 

There was one problem, though. H. Craig Severance's 40 Wall Street tower was going up at the same time. One-upmanship was the literal name of the game; it was not uncommon, if the intended height of a competing skyscraper was known, to tack on a few more stories (which is how the Empire State Building stole its thunder less than a year later). Chrysler and Van Alen were coy about their spire. You can hide some things easily, but not a 185-foot, twenty-seven ton spire. That's beyond the practical fact that just getting it into place was exceptionally difficult. 

Neil Bascomb detailed the process in his book Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City. Portions of the spire were brought up in five sections:

As Van Alen said, “it was manifestly impossible to assemble the structure and hoist it as a unit from the ground, and equally impossible to hoist it in sections and place them as such in their final position.” A derrick perched on the seventy-fourth floor relayed the first section of Van Halen's spire up the side of the building above the fifty-ninth-floor setback. Once the steel cleared the dome, the derrick then lowered the section into the fire-tower court, resting its square base on two 12-by-12 boards, 20 feet long, on the sixty-fifth floor. The vertex was hidden within the higher floors, and some of the floor framing had to be temporarily eliminated so that the vertex could fit.

The derrick that would perform the final lift was over its 20-ton capacity, but the building workers determined that at the right angle this might just work. Bascomb noted, "Balancing an elephant by his trunk on top of the building would have been an easier proposition."

This emerged to the world in 90 surely stressful minutes, and was then clamped into place without a hitch. It may have been the most striking hour and a half in the history of New York's built environment.

There wasn’t an immediate happy ending. Van Alen had never actually signed a contract for his work, and Chrysler wasn't about to pay him any more money. A lawsuit followed. Critics were unimpressed. As larger and columnless office buildings emerged in the 1950s, tenants moved elsewhere. Chrysler's heirs sold the building in 1956. It hit a nadir of 17 percent occupancy in the 1970s, entering into foreclosure in 1976. And yet the broader public valued it, and everyone else came around, with ruinous renovations foiled in 1978 by the city’s designation of the building and its lobby as interior landmarks. It's returned to prime form since.

Praise for the building is now unanimous and effulgent. Le Corbusier, an early exception to the chorus of detractors, called it “hot jazz in stone and steel.” Paul Goldberger offered stirring praise in his Skyscraper

But Chrysler goes beyond Art Deco to become a truly new type of skyscraper. Its bizarre form seems a perfect encapsulation of the energy and flamboyance of Manhattan at the end of the 1920s: All of the drive for height, and all of the theatrical passion seems expressed in those flashy arches and slender spire. Chrysler's romanticism is a far more appropriate statement of what New York wanted to be about as the twenties turned into the thirties than any historicist skyscraper or international style box. Yet for all its strangeness, it is never too strange. The quality of Chrysler as a work of architecture comes from its ability to be romantic and irrational and yet not quite so foolish as to be laughable; it stops just short and retains credibility in the midst of fantasy.

Unfortunately, lobby access has been restricted since Covid-19, which is bizarre given that you are free to wander around the lobbies of Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building. We hope this will change. One view that doormen cannot bar is that marvelous exterior. It remains a beacon of a thrilling moment in design, the sort of stylish extravagance that only New York could produce. Henry James, in The American Scene referred to New York’s skyline as “extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted.” He did not see the Chrysler Building, of course, but it’s likely the most extravagant building we’re ever going to get.