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An enduring hood ornament | The San Diego Union-Tribune

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An enduring hood ornament

Chrysler Building celebrates 75-year marriage to New York skyline

By Michael J. Lewis

June 19, 2005

BRAD BARKET / Getty Images

Most buildings acquire a certain musty ridiculousness after a generation, but the Chrysler Building does not seem ridiculous. It does not even seem old. In an odd way, it is as contemporary a building as New York City has, the product of a society that was blissfully throwing off rules and discovering itself, of modern America being born.

The Chrysler Building embodies, as no other building does, the America of the 1920s. At no other time in the nation's history – not even the 1960s – did social change and technological change converge so dynamically.

One of the most fateful technological influences was the steep rise in automobile ownership: From 1919 to 1929, the number of people who owned automobiles rose to more than 23 million from less that 8 million.

It's therefore fitting that the most poetic expression of that influence was built by Walter P. Chrysler, an automobile manufacturer. He was not the nation's top seller of cars – those on top do not need to strut so conspicuously. The Chrysler Building is the act of an upstart, cockily challenging the supremacy of General Motors and the Ford Motor Co. Unable to best those companies on the streets, Chrysler took them on at the skyline.

The timeline

1888 – The 11-story Tower Building doubles the four-story skyline of New York City.

1903 – The 22-story Fuller Building, later known as the Flatiron Building, is built at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.

1908 – With 44 stories (twice as tall as the Flatiron Building) the Singer Building is erected, only to be passed 18 months later by the Metropolitan Life Building at 50 stories.

April 1929 – Auto manufacturer Walter P. Chrysler urges architect William Van Alen to build the tallest building in the world at 405 Lexington Ave. He's competing against George Ohrstrom, who's building the 927-foot Manhattan Bank Building at 40 Wall St.

November 1929 – At a press conference, Ohrstrom proclaims his building the world's tallest, although the interior hasn't been finished.

4 days later, 1929 – News breaks that by elongating the dome and adding a steel tip, the 77-story Chrysler Building becomes the tallest building in the world at 1,046 feet. Exterior stainless steel makes it unique among other buildings of the time. Gargoyles, eagles and hubcaps decorate the Art Deco facade.

1931 – The Empire State Building opens with 102 floors and becomes the tallest building in the world, topping the Chrysler Building by 202 feet thanks to a mooring mast for zeppelins at the top. The mast is never used because of strong winds.

1931 – Photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who moved into an office on the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building the previous year, shoots a photo of the building that is one of the most famous photos ever taken. A picture of her perched on one of the gargoyles high above the city is equally well-known.

Aug. 18, 1940 – Walter Chrysler dies.

1947 – The Chrysler family sells the building.

1978 – The Chrysler Building lobby is refurbished by JCS Design Associates and Joseph Pell Lombardi. The Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. is now the owner.

1979 – The Cloud Club, a top-of-the-building private lounge, is closed. During Prohibition, the club had a hidden room, and Chrysler had his own private room.

1980s – The building's triangular windows are lighted so that the exterior is as spectacular at night as in the day.

1999 – A new owner, Tishman Speyer Properties, completes another major restoration, restoring the murals in the lobby.

2005 – The Chrysler Building celebrates its 75th anniversary.


The genius of Chrysler and architect William Van Alen was not in making a carlike building. (Their whimsical frieze of hubcaps, which wraps around the building midway up, was along the lines of an in-joke.) Instead, their building was about the idea of the car, and its associations: speed, excitement, liberation.

To do this, a new architectural language was required. Most skyscrapers, shaped by New York's zoning codes of 1916, which required setbacks at prescribed heights, were bulky ziggurats. Van Alen's building, by contrast, was a missile, its energies surging up rather than down.

The final ecstatic leap of the spire is no afterthought but is implicit almost from the sidewalk. The gargoyles are placed where the building tapers, flaring out as the walls tuck in. It is as if the building is jettisoning weight and picking up momentum as it rises.

At the top

The culmination of the building is its crown, a superb allegory of mobility, not merely of cars but of all mobile modernity: passenger liners, dirigibles, even Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. The crown is composed of seven radiating arches outlined with zigzag patterns, that creates an effect like a cascade of fireworks, mounting upward in quick succession.

Although these zigzags are ornamental, they also serve to mask triangular windows. The combination of fluid curves and sharp angularity – the two favorite devices of Art Deco architecture – is handled with consummate grace. Its sense is one of discordant elegance, and perhaps comes closer to what George Gershwin achieved in music than any of Van Alen's contemporaries, a rhapsody in chrome.

The building, in short, was brilliant, but the timing was not. Even as Van Alen raised his spire, the country was sliding into the Great Depression, the worst imaginable moment for capitalist bluster. By the time the Chrysler Building opened in May 1930, the civilization for which it was built had ceased to exist. It was lovely indeed, but it was a cut flower.

The forms of the Art Deco skyscraper were indelibly tainted with the failure of businessmen. This was not the first time a style fell because of its psychological associations. The sprightly architecture of Louis XVI, for example, was instantly rendered unacceptable by the French Revolution. The Art Deco skyscrapers were not discredited by the fantastic mooring masts at their summits but by the bankers and the brokers leaping from their windows.

Corporate competition is the nature of American architecture, and after World War II, real estate speculation resumed its Darwinian battle. In their way, the flat-roofed steel-and-glass skyscrapers of the 1950s, like the Seagram Building and Lever House, were as assertive and arrogant as their counterparts of the 1920s. But they presented an entirely different image of capitalism. The earlier towers had a striking sense of personality – idiosyncratic individual personality. Indeed, their patrons were larger than life: Chrysler, Frank W. Woolworth and Col. Robert McCormick of The Chicago Tribune. The building of each was in the nature of a billboard for a family business.


The postwar towers, by contrast, projected a kind of sleek anonymity, that of the modern efficient and rational boardroom. This was the impersonal capitalism, shaped in part by a wartime management style in which flamboyant individualism was not encouraged to run rampant (and certainly not with chrome or concrete).

By this time, the Chrysler Building was old enough to seem quaint, but as the critical hostility faded, the physical neglect began. The spectacular T-shaped mural of the lobby ceiling, in which Atlas himself seems to bear the weight of the building, vanished under layers of soot and tobacco smoke. The sumptuous elevator cabs, with their Egyptian lotus patterns inlaid in contrasting-colored woods, were stripped of their fittings. The final indignity came in 1979, when the Cloud Club was closed and its fittings began to vanish, presumably – one hopes – to enjoy a second life somewhat closer to the ground. But by now the critical judgment had reversed itself.

In 1997, a survey of New York architects found that the Chrysler was far and away their favorite building. It was now seen as the single most important emblem of architectural imagery on the New York skyline. A 2001 poll of critics rated it the third best building in the country.

The building came into the possession of its current owners in 1998 and underwent a scrupulous restoration. Only now, 75 years after its construction, are the building and the public fully prepared to receive each other.

The psychological rehabilitation of the Chrysler Building began with the postmodern architects of the 1970s and 1980s, who admired its eye-catching acrobatics and unabashed commercialism. In a sense, the striped and perforated towers of Michael Graves and Helmut Jahn are sublimated Chrysler Buildings (and in the case of Jahn's Liberty Towers in Philadelphia, not very carefully sublimated). Even the grand gesture of Philip Johnson's AT&T Building, a broken pediment at its zenith, shows a yearning for the definitive finale on the skyline.

None of these buildings, however, capture the emotional life of the Chrysler Building. One can copy its lines precisely, replicate its materials and its textures, calibrate every detail with a micrometer, and in the end one would have only the strut and swagger, and nothing of its joyous freedom.

In the era of Prohibition, the entire nation was engaged in a mighty act of collective rule-breaking. This is the soaring lift of the Chrysler Building. And too many rules have been broken since then for rule-breaking to ever seem so exhilarating or delicious again.

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