Pinnacle of the Jazz Age

Chrysler Building, New York City

Chrysler Building, New York City

Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan (1979) first inspired me to visit New York.  Freddie Laker’s Skytrain made it possible, in the summer of 1981.  My former school-friend, Malcolm, at that time lived on E41St, so when I came out of his apartment each morning, the first building I saw was the Chrysler Building, the epitome of Jazz Age New York.

The Chrysler was built, not by the Chrysler Corporation, but by Walter P Chrysler on his own account.  Its architect, William Van Alen, engaged in a race with his former professional partner, H Craig Severance, to build the tallest building in the world.

The story is repeatedly told of how Van Alen waited until Severance’s 40 Wall Street was topped out before launching the 27-ton, 125-foot steel spire, which had been secretly delivered to the site in pieces, through the roof in ninety minutes flat on the night of Friday September 27th 1929, giving a final height of 1,046 feet 4¾ inches.  Van Alen remarked afterwards that “it was necessary to resort to the unusual”.

This procedure is explained in ‘How engineers crowned world’s tallest building’, Popular Science, August 1930, p 52 at http://kanikasweet-amazing.blogspot.com/2011/10/unreal-structures-built-in-secret.html in the section ‘Chrysler Building’s secret spire’.

Black Thursday, the beginning of the Wall Street Crash, came less than a month later, on October 24th 1929, and the Chrysler has always had a fin-d’époque air.  It was the tallest building in the world for all of eleven months, until the rival Empire State Building was in turn topped out.

The building is known for its embellishments, the genuine Chrysler hubcaps fixed to the brickwork around the 30th floor, the corner features at the 31st floor based on Chrysler radiator caps and the eagle-gargoyles on the 61st floor, modelled on the hood (boot) handles of the 1929 Plymouth.  Its diamond-honed Enduro KA-2 stainless steel cladding by the German manufacturer Krupp has needed neither cleaning nor replacement since it was installed.  Lewis Mumford dismissed it as “advertising architecture”.

The red African marble lobby with its ceiling mural by the English artist, Frank Brangwyn, carefully restored by the current owners, is accessible to the general public, though if you try to take a photograph the security guards become agitated.  I’ve never dared outface them to enter one of the elevators, which are also apparently still in original condition.

When the Chrysler opened, the 66th-68th floors were given over to the Cloud Club, the most blatant speakeasy in Prohibition New York.  Long before the police stepped out of the elevator the members’ liquor could be stowed in individual lockers, personalised by indecipherable hieroglyphics.  Its decoration included a Georgian lobby, a Tudor lounge, a Bavarian bar and a dining room with faceted blue marble columns and white-ice sconces and a vaulted ceiling painted with clouds.  All this survived a couple of decades after the club finally closed in 1979, only to be ripped out and dumped at the end of the 1990s.  Randy Juster’s images of the club area are at http://decopix.com/art_deco_photo_galleries/the-cloud-club;  there are further images of the Chrysler Building at http://adamunderhill.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/the-chrysler-building-new-yorks-art-deco-masterpiece.  

Above the Cloud Club, on the 71st floor, was a public observatory giving views into neighbouring states across fifty miles in each direction [http://flappergirlcreations.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/the-chrysler-buildings-long-lost-observatory].  This closed after the Second World War and is now the offices of an architectural practice [see http://chryslerbuilding.circa68.net/cloudclub.html].

Though the Chrysler Building nominally has 77 floors, in fact there are more levels, each tapering within the spire, lit oddly by the shark’s tooth windows.  The 74th floor contains a derelict radio station.  Above the 75th floor the windows have never been glazed, so it’s exceptionally draughty, even on hot days.

Beyond the final floor, 77, a further seven levels accessible by ladder lead eventually to an area about a yard square, which gives access to a trapdoor through which, once a month, an engineer checks the base of the lightning conductor.

There is a detailed description of this by David Michaelis at http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2002/03/inside-the-needle-the-chrysler-building-gets-lit.

Another enjoyable essay on the building is by Claudia Roth Pierpont, ‘The Silver Spire:  how two men’s dreams changed the skyline of New York’, which appeared in The New Yorker, November 18th 2002, and can be found at http://jayebee.com/discoveries/criticism/silver_spire.htm.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City’, please click here.

 

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