Chrysler Building

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Chrysler Building

A monument to the glitzy Jazz Age of the 1920s, the Chrysler Building in New York City is America's most prominent example of Art Deco architecture and the epitome of the urban corporate headquarters. This unabashedly theatrical building, which was briefly the world's tallest after its completion in 1930, makes an entirely different statement than its nearby competitor, the Empire State Building. The Chrysler Building's appeal was summarized by architectural critic Paul Goldberger, who wrote, "There, in one building, is all of New York's height and fantasy in a single gesture."

The Chrysler Building was originally designed for real estate speculator William H. Reynolds by architect William Van Alen. In 1928, Walter Percy Chrysler, head of the Chrysler Motor Corporation, purchased the site on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, as well as Van Alen's plans. But those plans were changed as the design began to reflect Chrysler's dynamic personality. The project soon became caught up in the obsessive quest for height that swept through the city's commercial architecture in the 1920s and 1930s. Buildings rose taller and taller as owners sought both to maximize office space as well as to increase consumer visibility. Van Alen's initial design projected a 925-foot building with a rounded, Byzantine or Moorish top. At the same time, however, Van Alen's former partner, H. Craig Severance, was building the 927-foot Bank of the Manhattan Company on Wall Street. Not to be outdone, Van Alen revised his plans, with Chrysler's blessing, to include a new tapering top that culminated in a spire, bringing the total height to 1,046 feet and establishing the Chrysler Building as the world's tallest. The plans were kept secret, and near the end of construction the spire was clandestinely assembled inside the building, then hoisted to the top. The entire episode defined the extent to which the competition for height dominated architectural design at the time. The Chrysler Building's reign was brief, however; even before it was finished, construction had begun on the Empire State Building, which would surpass the Chrysler by just over two-hundred feet.

The finished building is a dazzling display of panache and corporate power. The most famous and notable aspect of the Chrysler Building is its Art Deco decoration. With its polychromy, zigzag ornamentation, shining curvilinear surfaces, and evocation of machines and movement, the Art Deco style—named after the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris—provided Van Alen with a means to express the exuberance and vitality of 1920s New York, as well as the unique personality of the building's benefactor. The interior of the Chrysler Building reflects the company's wealth. In the unique triangular lobby, reminiscent of a 1930s movie set, the lavish decorative scheme combines natural materials like various marbles, onyx, and imported woods with appropriate machine-age materials like nickel, chrome, and steel. Outside, a white brick skin accentuated by gray brick trim was laid over the building's steel frame in a pattern that emphasized the building's verticality. Steel gargoyles in the form of glaring eagles—representing both America and hood ornaments from Chrysler Company automobiles—were placed at the corners of the building's highest setback. (These gargoyles became famous after a photo of photographer Margaret Bourke-White standing atop one of them was widely circulated). The crowning achievement of the building, both literally and figuratively, is the spire. A series of tapering radial arches, punctuated by triangular windows, rise to a single point at the top. The spire's stainless steel gleams in the sun. The arches at the spire's base were based on automobile hubcaps. In fact, the entire building was planned with an elaborate iconographic program, including radiator cap gargoyles at the fourth setback, brick designs taken from Chrysler automobile hubcaps, and a band of abstracted autos wrapping around the building. The use of such company-specific imagery incorporated into the building's design anticipated the postmodern architecture of the 1980s.

The Chrysler Building was not the first corporate headquarters specifically designed to convey a company's image, but it may have been the most successful. The unique building was a more effective advertising tool for the Chrysler Company than any billboard, newspaper, or magazine ad. The Chrysler Building, with its shining telescoped top, stood out from the rather sedate Manhattan skyscrapers. While some observers see the building as kitsch or, in the words of critic Lewis Mumford, "inane romanticism," most appreciate its vitality. Now one of the world's favorite buildings, the Chrysler Building has become an American icon, symbolizing the pre-Depression glamour and the exuberant optimism of the Jazz Age.

—Dale Allen Gyure

Further Reading:

The Chrysler Building. New York, Chrysler Tower Corporation, 1930.

Douglas, George H. Skyscrapers: A Social History of the Very Tall Building in America. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 1996.

Goldberger, Paul. The Skyscraper. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Reynolds, Donald Martin. The Architecture of New York City. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984.