Saturday, June 6, 2009

Chanin Building - Art Deco Masterpiece

Chanin Building
122 East 42nd Street at Lexington Avenue

Irwin Chanin was an architect and real estate developer who had visited Paris in 1925, taking in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. He was so inspired when he returned that he immediately set out to incorporate these forms and motifs in his current projects. Not yet a registered architect, he worked with the firm of Sloan and Robertson to fashion his crowning achievement, the Chanin Building, which notably rose 56 floors in 1927 between the extant Grand Central Terminal and the future Chrysler Building. Its construction cost exceeded $14 million at the time, and the entire structure was erected in just 205 days.

The Chanin Building represents a turn away from the Beaux Arts style of Grand Central Terminal towards a more humanistic and modern imagery appropriate to the industrial age. In particular, the facade illustrates the introduction of colored glass, stone and metal on the exterior of tall buildings. Materials such as bronze, marble and terra-cotta are used in inventive and exuberant ways. Inside the lobby, the walls are decorated with reliefs by set-designer Jacques Delamarre and Renee Chambellan that represent "The City of Opportunity" and "The Active Life of the Individual," the latter a reference to Irwin Chanin's own rise from childhood poverty to power and wealth.

Above the base, the building's steel frame is clad in buff brick and terra cotta and is set back (starting at the 22nd floor) in conformance with the 1916 Zoning Law. At the top, it is capped by a dramatic crenelated feature that was once illuminated at night. To attract tenants, Chanin provided centralized services at the base of the building including an underground connection to Grand Central Terminal and ground-floor retail spaces.

The detail on this office building is some of the most exquisite French-inspired Art-Deco ornament ever created in New York. On the outside is a band of stylized terra-cotta with curving and angular leaf-like forms, and a frieze over the storefronts that was meant both to entertain and educate. It depicts the theory of evolution – the frieze starts with amoebae and then the amoebae become jellyfish, the jellyfish become fish, the fish become geese, and there it stops abruptly. At that point, the theory was too controversial to continue! This bronze frieze at street level depicts the sea and the tower rising majestically above it as land. The street level blandness of the Chrysler Building is a poor relation to the rich ornamentation visible to pedestrians as they approach the Chanin Building.

The main lobby boasts beautiful elevator doors that use the same goose motif used outside. A client would take one of the elevators to the top floor, to Chanin's office. But before entering his office, the guest had to pass through a pair of bronze gates that were every bit as much a part of the building's story. The gates represented the greatness of the city, with its art and commerce and its tremendous dynamism. Decorative elements included gears, which signify the industrial prominence of a great city like New York. And, at the top, in the center, a violin splits in half, indicating the cultural life of the city. Included are dynamic electrical bolts that shoot through, indicating the city's dynamism. None of this would have been possible without a great deal of money, so these gates rest on piles of gold coins. Amazing. Irwin Chanin ran his real estate empire from his private office in the Chanin Building up until a month before his death in 1988.

There was a private cinema theater on the 50th floor, as well as a viewing roof, neither of which is accessible anymore. At one time a bus depot with a rotating turntable was located on the ground floor. Overshadowed by the neighboring Chrysler Building, Chanin’s glorious edifice still had a tremendous influence on the future Rockefeller Center complex and remains a monument to the Art-Deco style.

In the summer of 2007 a Con Ed steam pipe ruptured within the building, and the explosion resulted in the temporary closing of the Chanin Building. 120 windows were broken, and the New York Fire Department teams caused much damage as they responded to the crisis. As well, there was significant water damage caused by the steam explosion. The building reopened on July 30, 2007, a scant ten days after the steam pipe rupture. No physical evidence of the explosion remains.

In 1915 Brooklyn native
Irwin Chanin (1891-1988) graduated from Cooper Union college, located in the East Village area of Manhattan. In 1981 Cooper Union named its school of architecture after him: The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union. The school ranks among the top five architecture study programs in the United States. In the span of his 96 years, Chanin designed, developed and built apartment buildings, movie palaces and Broadway theatres. From 1931 until his death, Chanin lived at the Century, a 400-unit apartment building he built in Manhattan.

From bottom to top: bronze, Belgian marble, terra cotta relief.

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