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42nd Street: At the Crossroads

(Page 5: Chrysler Building)

An excerpt from "Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics
at the Crossroads of the World
"
by Marc Eliot

IN 1930, AS WALKER'S STAR was fading and the grim reality of the nation's economic collapse began to set in, one of America's premier industrialists, Detroit's Walter P. Chrysler, aware of the falling price of 42nd Street's already commercially cheap and available space, decided to build to the east, believing he could transform that part of the street the way Adolph Ochs and his tower had Times Square. Chrysler was not alone in recognizing the potential of the East Side. A generation had already passed since the 1916 opening of the glamorous Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street at Park Avenue, after which the glory of the city's economic upswing followed Walker back over to the razzle-dazzle of the anything-goes West Side. Walter P. meant to take advantage of this stalled decade of East Side development by putting his money into a new, eponymous building that would dominate that side of 42nd Street.

The Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, on the site of one of the city's once most recognizable structures, the all-but-forgotten turn-of-the-century Bloomingdale Brewery, at the time the city's largest beer-maker. The skyscraper that replaced it remains to this day one of the magnificent monuments of the style introduced at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, popularly known as Art Deco. Its geometrical roots came from Vienna—an acute German expressionist angularity, setback collisions from cubism, a lobby of red Moroccan marble, elevator doors inlaid with Japanese ash and American walnut, a ceiling mural 110 feet long and 76 feet wide by Edward Trumball depicting the building, airplanes in flight surrounding it, and scenes from the automaker's factory assembly line, an exterior skin of aluminum applied with the mind-brush of Frank Lloyd Wright, thirty elevators, doors of wood veneer on steel, and a line of idealized automobiles in white and gray brick with mudguards, hubcaps, and winged radiator caps of polished steel in the wall frieze above the twenty-sixth floor of the facade.

Chrysler building vintage postcard
Vintage postcard of the Chrysler Building from the collection of Alan Ladd. Click here to e-mail this as a virtual postcard.

Originally planned as an office project and designed by architect William Van Alen for former New York State senator turned real estate developer William H. Reynolds, the seventy-seven-story (1,046 feet) structure was to be topped by a glass dome, lighted from within, to give the effect of a giant glowing diamond in the New York evening sky. Unable to complete it because of the financial downturn, Reynolds sold the unfinished building to Chrysler, who financed it out of his own pocket, boasting that no corporate funds would be used, thus ensuring that his sons would one day inherit his personal monument to his own greatness. Fearing that the Empire State Building, then in its final planning stages, might be redesigned to stand higher than theirs, Van Alen and Chrysler kept secret for as long as possible the addition of the fifty-foot flagpole that would sit atop a 185-foot, seven-story spire, itself clandestinely assembled from the sixty-fifth floor, its five parts lifted by derrick to the top from within a fire tower built in the center of the building.

The completed Chrysler Building immediately became the stuff of 42nd Street legend. The pioneering photographer Margaret Bourke-White occupied an office on the sixty-first floor and made Chrysler's gargoyle ornaments world-famous when she crept out on one to take a picture of the city from that vantage point, even as she was having another taken of the event. A young James Agee, after having had a few, was said to have dangled by his hands from the fiftieth-floor office of Fortune magazine, another of the building's tenants, "for the fun of it." And Chrysler himself kept private quarters at the top, an office suite and an apartment that had a lavish dining room ringed with a frieze of autoworkers in polished black glass on a field of frosted blue. He had instructed his builders to make sure his was the highest toilet in Manhattan, so that he could look down upon the city from his porcelain throne and, as one observer wryly put it, "shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world."

In the end, Chrysler never actually moved his corporate headquarters from Detroit to 42nd Street. Choosing instead to keep his auto company in Michigan and, except for a private apartment, rented the Chrysler Building's office space out to others. Nevertheless, he saw the building as a self-righteous glorification of his own achievements. No longer simply a building, it was, as architect Philip Johnson once suggested, built to bring its owner close enough to touch the face of God.

A year later the Empire State Building officially replaced it as the tallest building in the world.

Copyright © 2001 by Rebel Road, Inc. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of http://www.twbookmark.com.

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