Iwalked New York City’s Chrysler Building - The Chrysler Building is to New York City what the Eiffel Tower is Paris or Big Ben is to London. It is truly the single piece of architecture that most individuals have come to associate with New York…and for good reason. After all, fans of the 1978 musical film The Wiz, will recall, it was images of the Chrysler Building depicted along the yellow brick road…not the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center.
The inspiration for the Chrysler Building began as the vision of Walter Percy Chrysler, the famed automobile manufacturer. In 1928 he hired New York architect William Van Alen to construct him what would be the world’s tallest building, surpassing the 792-foot Woolworth Building. His instructions to Val Alen specifically stated that he wanted the world’s highest toilet so he could look down and “shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world.” The site selected was the former locale of the city’s largest beer-maker, the Bloomingdale Brewery.
Construction on the structure began on September 19, 1928. Meanwhile across town, one of Van Alen’s former partners whom he had had a falling out with, Craig Severance, had similarly entered into contract to erect the world’s largest building. Severance’s client, the Manhattan Company, began construction on their skyscraper around the same time at 40 Wall Street (a locale we visit on our Lower Manhattan tour).
Over the ensuing months, Val Alen and Severance raced to not only complete their structures first, but also ensure they were not outdone by the other. Each made multiple modifications to their original plans as rumors leaked on their rival’s approach. At one point when while feeling backed into a corner and running out of ideas, Van Alen was chastised by his employer who threw automobile metaphors at him for supposed inspiration. Chrsyler challenged Van Alen by stating that, “Your values need grinding,” and to “Speed up you carburetor.”
Van Alen was apparently up to the task as progress proceeded on the Chrysler Building at an incredible pace. The building was built at a rate of approximately four stories per week and completed in just twenty months. Up to 3,000 workers were actively engaged on the building’s construction at one point. Their efforts included laying approximately 3,826,000 bricks and applying some 400,000 rivets.
During the building’s final stages (literally in the month before its unveiling), unknown to Severance and the rest of the world, Van Alen had begun construction on a secret spire that would ensure his building would receive the title of world’s tallest building upon completion. The spire was actually assembled into four discrete sections within the fire shaft of the Chrysler Building to ensure its secrecy. When the spire was ready to be hoisted atop the 66th story on October 23, 1929, crews worked feverishly to install it within just ninety minutes! Upon its installation, the Chrysler Building’s spire officially ensured its height exceeded 40 Wall Street by 121 feet.
Unfortunately just eleven months later, the Empire State Building would surpass both buildings by more than 200 feet in 1931. Currently the Chrysler Building is tied for third amongst tallest structures within the city. A title it shares with the New York Times Building and two positions behind the Empire State Building and the Bank of America Tower. Upon completion of One World Trade Center, each of these structures will fall one place in their respective positions.
As for our hero Mr. Val Alen, despite having succeeded in not only creating the tallest building in the world and one of the most iconic structures of the 20th Century, he never again undertook a significant project after the Chrysler Building. Val Alen’s professional reputation reportedly took a bit of a hit when he sued his former employer, Mr. Chrsyler for not paying his commission of approximately $840,000 after having failed to enter into a formal agreement prior to commencement of the project. While Van Alen did win his day in court, he was virtually ostracized and relegated to teaching for the remainder of his days.
Meanwhile, Walter Chrysler’s $14 million investment remained within the Chrysler family until 1953 when they sold their interest in the property. While the Chrysler Corporation maintained headquarters within the facility from 1930 until the 1950s, it was never owned any rights in the building. Walter had financed the entire project himself as a family investment for his children. Today the Chrysler Building is 90% owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Council.
- Website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/buildingbig/wonder/structure/chrysler.html
- Address: 405 Lexington Avenue, New York City, NY
- Cost: Free