Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chrysler Building

The Chrysler Building – 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 meter, 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 meters to the building's height – a total of 1,048 feet – exceeding the Eiffel Tower (then the tallest structure in the world). It was the first building ever to exceed 1,000 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.

Elevator door detail:

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 (see photo below).

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.

The three story high, upwards tapering entrance lobby has a triangular form, with entrances from three sides, Lexington Avenue, 42nd and 43rd Streets. The lobby is lavishly decorated with red Moroccan marble walls, sienna-colored travertine floor and onyx, blue marble and steel in Art Deco compositions. The ceiling mural, the largest in the world at its completion, was painted by Edward Trumbull and praises the modern-day technical progress – and of course the building itself and its builders at work. The lobby was refurbished in 1978 by JCS Design Assocs. and Joseph Pell Lombardi.

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.

Inside the metal pyramid, on the building's top floors, a duplex luxury apartment with triangular windows was built for Walter Chrysler's use, completed with a walk-in fireplace. During the Prohibition, the fashionable Art Deco-style Cloud Club at the top of the building, on floors 65 and 66, was an exclusive male club with a jazzy atmosphere for the social elite. A large mural on the club wall depicted the city as seen from the clouds. On the 71st floor, an observatory deck – living its heyday from August 1930 until the opening of Empire State's observatory eight months later – sported a ceiling mural depicting the night sky. The club and the observatory deck have been closed for decades, and all the interior decor of those spaces was removed at the request of the current tenants.

A recent owner of the building, Jerry Speyer (who co-owns Rockefeller Center) bought the building, together with the neighboring Chrysler Building East, for an estimated $220 million in 1997, with an additional $100 million worth of repairs waiting to be carried out. The most recent transaction was in July, 2008, when the government of Abu Dhabi bought a 75 percent stake in the landmark building for $800 million.

The Chrysler Building was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1978. In 2007, The Chrysler Building was ranked #9 on the American Institute of Architechts “150 America's Favorite Architecture” list. National Historic Register #76001237.

Trivia: Chrysler ran Buick successfully for the full term of his contract, but resigned his position in 1919 when the term had been fulfilled (upon his departure, Chrysler was paid $10 million for his GM stock). Walter Chrysler had started at Buick in 1911 for $6,000 a year, and left one of the richest men in America.

Chrysler was then hired to attempt a turnaround by bankers who foresaw the loss of their investment in Willys-Overland Motor Company in Toledo, Ohio. He demanded, and got, a salary of US$1 million a year for 2 years, an astonishing amount at that time. When Chrysler left Willys in 1921 after an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control from John Willys, he acquired a controlling interest in the ailing Maxwell Motor Company. Chrysler phased out Maxwell and absorbed it into his new firm, the Chrysler Corporation, in 1925. In addition to his namesake car company, Plymouth and DeSoto marques were created, and in 1928 Chrysler purchased Dodge. He personally financed the construction of the Chrysler Building in New York City. In 1929, Walter Chrysler was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year.