(formerly the Chrysler East Building)
405 LEXINGTON AVENUE (Chrysler);
666 THIRD AVENUE (Kent)
Developer: Walter P. Chrysler
Architect: William Van Alen (Chrysler); Reinhard,
Hofmeister & Walquist (Kent)
Erected: 1930 (Chrysler); 1951 (Kent)
By Carter B. Horsley
With its spectacular, stainless steel, stepped-dome
top surmounted by its spear-like spire, the Chrysler Building
is easily the world's most identifiable skyscraper.
For a few months, it was the world's tallest
until it was surpassed by the Empire State Building.
Other towers may lay claim to being taller
now or being more innovative, but the Chrysler top is a magical
sorcerer's wand, a phantasmagoric pinnacle worthy of the land
of Oz. There were the pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, the great
Medieval and Gothic cathedrals of Europe and in "modern"
times only the Eiffel Tower, the Woolworth Building and the Chrysler
Building: man-made monuments that transcended the parochial vision
to inspire delirium and fantasy.
The project was initially undertaken by William
J. Reynolds, a former New York State Senator whose major prior
achievement in real estate had been, appropriately, "Dreamland"
in the Coney Island amusement district in Brooklyn. In the late
1920's, New York became obsessed with breaking records for the
world's tallest building. It was the Golden Age of Art Deco skyscrapers,
heroic in conception and romantic in execution. A 1,600-foot tower
was planned for lower Broadway and a 1,200-foot tower on 42nd
Street between 8th and 9th Avenues on the present site of the
former McGraw-Hill Building, but they did not come to fruition.
Reynolds leased the site of the Chrysler Building
from Cooper Union and hired architect William Van Alen, who had
gained favor for a building he had recently completed for the
Childs restaurant chain on Fifth Avenue. Van Alen had formerly
been a partner of architect H. Craig Severance, who was designing
with Yasuo Matsui, what was then planned as the world's tallest
building for the Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall Street.
Van Alen originally had planned a 56-story
tower to beat out the proposed 55 stories of the Lincoln Building
at 60 West 42nd Street. When J. E. R. Carpenter, the architect
of the Lincoln Building project, upped his project to 63 stories,
Van Alen went back to the drawing board and proposed a 65-story
tower that soon became a 67-story, 808-foot-high tower with an
observatory with a rather squat glass dome that was to be illuminated
from within at night. The Lincoln Building project ultimately
decided to only build 54 floors.
Walter P. Chrysler, the automobile magnate,
decided that his company could benefit from developing the world's
tallest building and he took over Reynold's plan and Van Alen's
designs. According to Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and
Thomas Mellins in their excellent book, "New York 1930, Architecture
and Urbanism Between The Two World Wars," (Rizzoli International,
1987), Chrysler did not did not instruct Van Alen to radically
change the building's form, but to increase its height to 925
feet and add some decorative touches to herald his cars. When
word got out that the Bank of Manhattan tower was being redesigned
with the addition of a flagpole atop its lantern-bedecked pyramidal
roof that would be two feet tower than his project, Chrysler gave
the go ahead to Van Allen to not only prevail against his former
partner's project, but to surpass even the 1024-foot-high Eiffel
Tower, the world's tallest structure at the time. Stern, Gilmartin
and Mellins note that Chrysler subsequently had second doubts
about the wisdom of such an ambitious plan during construction,
In what was certainly one of the greatest secrets
and publicity coups in Manhattan real estate history, the stainless
steel top was installed to the public's, and the Bank of Manhattan's,
utter surprise in about 90 minutes in November, 1929. The tip
of spire was 1046 feet high. The stainless steel cladding had
been hidden in five pieces within the building's shell and was
hoisted out of the top of the building and riveted into place.
What is remarkable about the stainless steel
cladding is how much of the top it covered and, more importantly,
how original, striking and exotic was its intricate design. The
stainless steel cladding was ribbed in a radiant pattern and had
many triangular windows that followed the parabolic curves of
the seven narrow steps of each of the crown's four facades. The
general massing of the building's base and shaft is rather unremarkable,
but the building's apex is breathtakingly brilliant.
"The most extraordinary transformation
was the evolution of the building's crown into a fantastic, terraced
dome, an invention almost as allusive, bizarre, and sculpturally
complex as a church finial by Borromini. Van Alen's design was
a sort of cruciform groin vault sliced in seven concentric segments
that mounted up one behind the other. The whole complex swelled
upward toward the center, and as they did their shapes were progressively
distorted from a pure semicircle at the bottom of the finial to
a thin parabola that stretched toward the vertex," (Van Alen's
word for the spire), Stern, Gilmartin and Mellins noted.
Van Alen's original facade treatment called
for a Middle- or Far Eastern-like patterning of its white, gray
and black brickwork. The final design of the main shaft is particularly
effectively in its corner banding patterns that while horizontal
accentuate the 77-story tower's verticality and gives it shaft
considerable rhythmic energy.
Chrysler had Van Alen incorporate some decorative
designs associated with automobiles on the facades, namely simulated
hubcaps near the top of one rung of setbacks and great stainless
steel eagle gargoyles, two at each of the shaft's four major corners.
Margaret Bourke-White, the photographer, had a studio on the building's
61st floor and posed atop one of the eagle gargoyles in a famous
photographer. At a lower setback, stainless steel Chrysler-like
hood ornaments serve as ceremonial winged urns.
The hubcaps, eagles and hood ornament decorations,
however, are barely noticeable from the street and the building's
base is surprisingly spartan. The main entrance is on Lexington
Avenue, but there are also entrances on 42nd and 43rd Streets,
all of which open onto the building's surprising, triangular lobby.
The street entrances are recessed in angled openings that many
critics noted were decidedly funereal in tone and almost coffin-shaped.
There is no denying that the building's exterior,
apart from its glorious top, is very bland, almost dreary, from
the sidewalk or nearby streets.
The interiors, on the other hand, are another
Despite its magnificent marbles and interesting
ceiling murals, the lobby was very dark for decades until the
building's new owner, Tishman Speyer Properties, undertook a major
restoration that was completed in 1999 and revealed the rather
fascinating murals, as shown below.
It is illuminated with some simple Art Deco
light fixtures whose emanation is amplified by reflections along
its exceedingly luscious red Moroccan marble walls, yellow Siena
marble floor and amber onyx and blue marble trim. The large lobby
ceiling is covered by a mural, entitled, "Energy, Result,
Workmanship and Transportation," by Edward Turnbull. The
elaborate and confusing mural contains a large image of the building,
a plane, workers, and decorative patterns. As much of the ceiling
has recessed lighting and the overall illumination in the large
space is quite low, it is very difficult to appreciate the mural
on which the artist allegedly used some of the building's construction
workers as models. The 100 by 76 foot mural was covered in the
1970's with a coating that darkened it and and spotlights were
cut into it. As part of a $100 million renovation project by Tishman
Speyer Properties, that included the reclading with glass of the
white-brick annex office tower at Third Avenue and the creation
of angled, prismatic structures in the low-rise spaces between
the annex and the Chrysler Building, the mural was restored in
1999 by the EverGreene Painting Studios.
The elevator banks, however, are well lit and
have bedazzling elevator doors with rare wood marquetry, as shown
at the left. These doors are Art Deco masterpieces. The lobby
was restored in 1978 and JCS Design Associates and Joseph Pell
Lombardi were the architects involved in the restoration.
A stairwell to the mezzanine and basement levels
has a very attractive Art Deco chrome banister and walls similar
to the lobby. It is a much more effective space than the lobby,
perhaps because of its smaller size and the tactile act of using
the banister on the stairs. The act of climbing up or down in
this stairwell is somewhat akin, if one doesn't mind reverse psychology,
to wearing a fur coat inside out; the sensuality of the fabulous
marbles is overwhelming and refreshing.
The Chrysler Building had a great interior
public space, its small observatory whose walls, not far beneath
the base of the spire, slanted inwards daringly. Sadly, the observatory
has long been closed to the public. Also sadly, the building's
famous private luncheon club, known as the Cloud Club, has been
shut for many years. Its Art Deco decor, however, was slight and
The building was eventually bought by Sol Goldman
and Alex Di Lorenzo and then was acquired by the Massachusetts
Mutual Life Insurance Company and subsequently sold to Jack Kent
Cooke, a Washington, D. C. investor.
A Chrysler East building at 666 Third Avenue
was built in 1951 at the eastern end of the same block, but the
intervening low-rise, mid-block properties were never assembled.
The Chrysler East building, designed by Reinhard, Hofmeister &
Walquist and now known as the Kent Building, was the second worst
office tower to be built in Manhattan after World War II. It is
a cream-colored, 32-story box that bears no trace of a relationship
with the Chrysler Building and has absolutely no distinction.
In 1997, Tishman Speyer Properties, which purchased it and the
Chrysler Building announced that it would be reclad and the low
rise-buildings between the two tower redeveloped in a design by
Philip Johnson and other architects.
The recladding of the East Building on Third
Avenue was attractively finished in green glass although its contextural
relationship to the Chrysler Building is rather ambiguous. The
new facade is handsome, and the new "pylons" designed
by Philip Johnson as the centerpiece of the block's 42nd Street
retail frontage is appropriately dramatic and recalls some of
the daring of the top of the Chrysler Building. In mid-2003, the
central space had not yet been leased. The base of the angular
pylons has a narrow, small pool fronting on the sidewalk. The
overall effect of the new retail pylons is nice, but not sensational,
but they are nonetheless welcome.
Chrysler refused to pay Van Alen his fees because
he believed he had entered into some dubious financial arrangements
with some of the building's contractors. Van Alen sued but the
matter was dropped.
Van Alen's design had become world famous,
but he encountered another problem, the Depression, and never
worked on another major project.
The Chrysler Building disappoints you when
you walk by and exhilarates you when you view it from a distance.
In the 1980's, the triangular windows were illuminated at night,
making it New York's answer to a rocket liftoff at Cape Kennedy.
Van Alen would be happy.