The Chrysler Building could only have been constructed in the competitive climate of Manhattan in the 1920s. The American economy was flourishing, and there was not enough office space to go around; urban builders were encouraged to aim high. In
1926, Walter P. Chrysler, one of the wealthiest men in the automotive industry, entered his bid in the unofficial competition to build the tallest structure in New York City. He wanted an office building exalted enough to symbolize his own astounding ascent
in the business world. Brooklyn-born architect William Van Alen, who had a reputation for progressive, flamboyant design, met Chrysler’s challenge with a seventy-seven-story building, the first in the world to exceed a height of one thousand feet.
The pyramidal form of the Chrysler Building was dictated by a 1916 zoning ordinance requiring buildings to be stepped back as they rose to allow sunlight to reach the streets. This restriction allowed architects to take a more sculptural approach to urban design. Instead of the tall, bland, rectangular boxes that had begun to colonize the city, inventive
and dynamic forms began to lend interest and variety to the Manhattan skyline. The ordinance also focused attention on the summit of a building. Atop the Chrysler, seven overlapping arches diminish toward the top to create the illusion of a building even taller than it is. The distinctive decoration, a pattern of narrow triangles set in semicircles, has been likened to a sunburst, but it might equally recall the spokes of a wheel.
Van Alen’s signal contribution to American architecture was to apply to modern skyscrapers the visual vocabulary of Art Deco, an international decorative style that emphasized streamlined motifs and often employed nontraditional materials.
To make the Chrysler Building distinct from others of its kind, Van Alen chose motifs appropriate to the machine age, particularly the automobile. The spire’s gleaming stainless steel cladding calls to mind the polished chrome of a brand new car. Stylized American eagle heads protrude from some corners of the building in playful reference to the gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals. Other corners are embellished with the winged forms of a
Chrysler radiator cap. One ornamental frieze incorporates a band of hubcaps.
If the exterior ornament enhances the modernity of the skyscraper, the interior was designed to recall the distant past, and positions the Chrysler Building among the wonders of the world. The most spectacular features of the grand lobby are the elevator doors, adorned in brass and marquetry (decorative inlays on a wood base) with the lotus flower motif. The discovery in 1922 of King Tutankhamen’s tomb had unleashed an enthusiasm for archaic and exotic cultures, and the Chrysler Building was designed at the height of this mania for all things Egyptian. In addition to the lotus decoration, the public rooms display a range of ancient Egyptian motifs intended to suggest the building’s association with the great pyramids of the pharaohs. The paintings on the lobby ceiling record the heroic
progress of the tower’s construction, as if the monument to Chrysler had already assumed a place in history equal to that of the Great Pyramids.
Both Chrysler and Van Alen were intent upon making this building the tallest in the city, but toward the end of construction there was uncertainty over whether it could indeed hold that distinction. A rapidly rising office tower in Lower Manhattan had already reached 840 feet, and its architect, Van Alen’s former business partner, who acknowledged competition from the Chrysler, pushed his building even higher by adding a sixty-foot
steel cap. Not to be outdone, Van Alen had his workers secretly assemble a twenty-seven-ton steel tip, or vertex, which was hoisted at the last minute to the top of the building as a magnificent surprise to the city. With that, the Chrysler not only exceeded the height of its Wall Street competition, but surpassed even the Eiffel Tower in Paris. As it happened, that hard-won prize would be lost within the year to the Empire State Building, which is 202 feet higher.
William Van Alen’s reputation suffered after the completion of his most famous building. Accused by Chrysler of taking bribes from contractors, the architect never received full payment for his work. The effects of the Depression on the building industry further added to his woes. Today, Van Alen, with no major studies dedicated to his work, is little known in the history of architecture. On his death, the New York Times failed to even publish an obituary.
March 27, 2012 PowerPoint WILLIAM VAN ALEN The Chrysler Building
Mark your calendars. As requested, we will be going to the Ringling Museum on April 16, 2012. We are so fortunate to have the State of Florida’s art museum in our town! We will meet at the visitors center at 1:00pm to begin our tour. Please confirm that you will be attending.
Have a great week. – Mrs. S
“I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart.” John 14:27