THE CHANIN BUILDING
122 East 42nd Street
Developer: Irving S. Chanin
Architect: Sloan & Robertson
This 56-story tower, whose slab runs parallel to Lexington Avenue, is a little grotesque, like an attractive lady with too much make-up.
Despite its relatively small size in terms of total square footage, this tall building boasts some of the most exuberant and lavish decoration in the city aound its base. Indeed, its ornate bronze lobby grills and lower facade decoration are the finest expression of Art Deco in the city, but their impact is lessened by the relatively humdrum nature of the tower's shaft and the rather understated treatment of the handsome through-block lobby.
The bronze bas-reliefs and grilles were designed by René Chambellan, an architectural sculptor whose work is also on display at Rockefeller Center, and Jacques I. Delamarre, who was head of Chanin's architecture department. They are dazzling and electric, but are surprisingly underplayed, especially given the flamboyance and boldness of the facade's second-story decoration. The bronze trim and lighting fixtures are appropriately Art Deco, but one wishes that the facade's decoration had been repeated in smaller scale and perhaps applied to the top of the lobby's walls where they could be appreciated even more. Such petty griping aside, however, this building has much to be proud of and the level of craftsmanship is distinguished. Furthermore, Chanin, who also built several important theaters as well as one near the top of this building for the use of his tenants, understandably had to be wary of being too theatrical in the commercial office market.
The original brochure for this tower described it as the "mise en scène" for the romantic drama of American business," 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 Inc., 1987).
These authors also noted that the Chanin tower's "translation from base to slab was unusually subtle" with projected piers at the corners of the main shaft of the tower and buttresses at the top.
"Above shop fronts sheathed in bronze and black Belgian marble, a bronze frieze narrated the story of evolution, beginning with the lower marine forms and then bursting forth with fish and birds. This formed a plinth for a two-story colonnade of massive Norman piers whose squashed cushion capitals were carved with writhing sea monsters. The fourth story was sheathed in terra-cotta panels rendered with a bold overall pattern of abstract floral patterns," the authors observed.
They also quoted Matlack Price that the large patterns were not so much "'a dangerous architectural adventure from the point of view of design as one of the astonishing changes that twentieth-century design brings with it.'"
Chanin built the famed Roxy Theater as well as the Biltmore, Royale and Majestic theaters, the Majestic and Century apartments on Central Park West and the Green Acres residential enclave in Valley Stream, L.I.
The multi-piered crown of the 680-ft.-high tower on the former site of Manhattan Storage Warehouse was originally dramatically lit at night, but,, unfortunately, has been marred by the addition of an air-conditioning tank that disrupts its dynamic energy. Indeed, it is surprising that that dynamic was not extended down into the lobby, whose layout is conventionally rectilinear. Stern, Gilmartin and Mellins noted in their book that the architects sculpted this tower "in a manner reminiscent of [Eliel] Saarinen's second-prize entry in the Chicago Tribune [Building] competition."
The building had an open-air observatory on its 54th floor that has been closed for decades. Chanin maintained his own suite of offices on the 52nd floor that were noted for its ornate Art Deco design. A 200-seat theater for use by tenants was on the 50th and 51st floors, but was subsequently filled in for office space.
The theme of the lobby decor was "City of Opportunity" and reliefs over the exit doors depict future skylines and individual reliefs highlight the "Active Life of the Individual" and "Mental Life," presumably to demonstrate the potential of the city to permit people to achieve greatness through the use of their mind. One writer, Rayne Adams, observed that Chambellan's intention was to explore "the significance of geometric lines and their capacity to symbolize emotions and abstractions of thought and deed." While they recall some of Kandinsky's great abstract flourishes, Chambellan's grill designs here are extraordinary monuments in the history of modern art and an astounding precursor of Deconstructivist design.
In his book, "The Architecture of New York," Donald Martin Reynolds describes Chanin's design program for the building's decoration:
"The formal inspiration was derived from the prevailing Art Deco style, whose roots in Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism are evident in the translation of multiple views of three-dimensional forms into flattened images, and in the use of strident, active shapes and energetic compositions. A series of eight plaster reliefs painted with a dark bronze patina, showing powerful, animated figures above polished bronze convector grilles, greet the visitor at the three entrances to the building. Six of these represent the physical (effort, activity, endurance) and mental (enlightenment, vision, courage) means by which the other two are gained (achievement and success). Each personification is set against a geometric pattern of coils, rays, or blocks that is repeated in the grill below it. Scrolls represent the birth of ideas, rays stand for the emancipation of the spark of genius, and the block-like forms signify the act of building."
The Chanin Building was erected before the Chrysler Building diagonally across from it at the intersection of 42nd Street and Lexington. At the beginning of the 30's, 42nd Street was the city's prestige office address and the midtown skyline was dominated by its spindly towers, which also included the Lincoln Building, 500 Fifth Avenue and the former McGraw-Hill Building. While these buildings have survived, the forest of midtown development has obscured much of their once seemingly stratospheric glory.
It is interesting to note that the Chrysler Building has the city's greatest crown but a rather prosaic base. Imagine if it had the base of the Chanin Building, or vice versa?