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History of Walter P. Chrysler and the Chrysler Building

1928 was a year of many significant firsts.  3M launched Scotch tape, George Eastman showed the first color motion pictures, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and New Yorkers were enthralled with Babe Ruth and the Yankees, the first team to sweep two consecutive World Series. Baseball wasn’t the only competition in town; a competition to build the world’s tallest skyscraper was beginning in earnest.

Chrysler Building spire, 2009

Even as he created the Plymouth and Desoto Motor Corporations, and completed the purchase and merger of Dodge Brothers, Walter P. Chrysler was finalizing an ambitious plan to build the world’s tallest building.

The design, by architect William Van Alen, was originally created for building contractor William H. Reynolds. It was intended only to be a speculative office building, but the design was ultimately sold to and revised for Walter P. Chrysler. A classic example of Art Deco architecture, the Chrysler Building would be one of the first to extensively use stainless steel over an exposed building surface; it would also be the world’s tallest steel-supported brick building. Optimistic and reflective of the Jazz Age, the tower rises seventy-seven stories and culminates in a beautifully tapered, stainless steel crown supporting a spire that pierces the sky and raises the height of the building to 1048 feet. It is considered by many to be the world's quintessential skyscraper design.

Construction of the Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building spireThe groundbreaking, at the intersection of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, was held on September 19, 1928. Even though Walter P. Chrysler intended the building to be Chrysler Corporation’s headquarters, the automaker had no ownership in the building — but it would have a role to play.

The first air-conditioned office building in the United States opened in San Antonio, Texas in January 1928. Mr. Chrysler wanted a more streamlined and less costly system for his tower. He enlisted the Chrysler Engineering staff and Charles Neeson, who invented a high-speed radial compressor that made the Chrysler Building the first fully air conditioned skyscraper, and was to be the dominant design for decades afterwards. Airtemp was incorporated in October 1934 to sell the new technology; through its innovations, Airtemp assumed a position of sales and engineering leadership in air conditioning.

While the Chrysler Building moved forward, H. Craig Severance, a former partner of William Van Alen, was working to complete a rival skyscraper, the Bank of Manhattan Trust building at 40 Wall Street. Now known as the Trump Building, it was originally designed to be 68 stories (840 feet), making it two feet taller than the rival Chrysler Building. The plans were changed to 71 stories, bringing it to a height of 927 feet on its completion in May 1930, after only 11 months of construction.

Starting later than those two rivals was the William F. Lamb-designed Empire State Building, which broke ground on January 22, 1930. Walter P. Chrysler was not to be outdone;  construction proceeded at an average rate of four floors per week.

Given the competitive nature of these projects, secrecy regarding construction details was important.  As completion neared, the Manhattan Trust and the Chrysler Building were virtually even in height, but Van Alen and Mr. Chrysler had clandestinely arranged the off-site construction of the building’s 185-foot spire, which was delivered in four sections and secretly assembled inside the building. On October 23, 1929, the bottom section of the spire was hoisted to the top of the building's dome and lowered into the 66th floor of the building. The remaining sections of the spire were hoisted and riveted in sequential order in just ninety minutes, eclipsing the finished height of the Manhattan Trust Building by 121 feet and securing the Chrysler Building’s position as the world’s tallest building.

Surprised and disgruntled by that late development, the Severance camp challenged the claim based on the lack of functionality of the crown and spire, but developments in the near future would soon render the argument moot.

Opening ceremonies for the Chrysler Building were held on May 28, 1930. Despite a frantic pace, no workers had died during the construction of the skyscraper.

Chrysler Building in New York City

The completed Chrysler Building

The completed tower has 3,862 windows; 20,961 tons of structural steel, 391,881 rivets, and 3,826,000 bricks. Walter P. Chrysler had succeeded in building the tallest skyscraper in the world, but his accomplishment was short-lived.

Less than a year later, officially opening on May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building surpassed the Chrysler Building as the world’s tallest skyscraper. With 102 stories and a height of 1,453 feet, the Empire State Building was to hold that distinction for more than forty years – ending with the construction of New York’s World Trade Center in 1972.

There was more acrimony. William Van Alen had failed to enter into a formal contract for his fees, which were 6% of the project’s construction budget of $14 million. Mr. Chrysler refused to pay those fees and accused Van Alen of accepting bribes from sub-contractors. Van Alen sued and eventually won his case, but his reputation suffered. The case, combined with the Great Depression, effectively ended his career and he turned to teaching sculpture.

The Chrysler Building received mixed reviews from critics at its opening, but is a beloved landmark and considered by many contemporary architects to be one of the finest buildings in New York City. Visitor continue to be dazzled and intrigued by the structure’s terraced crown and the ornamentation on its shaft and setbacks that reference decorative and functional details of Chrysler’s 1929 automobiles.

chrysler building

The eagle “gargoyles” which adorn the corners of the 61st floor and the crown brightwork above the 61st floor are made of corrosion-resistant Nirosta, the trade name for an alloy of chrome-nickel steel ("Enduro KA-2") that was developed by Krupp. The eagles are replicas of the 1929 Chrysler hood ornaments and the ornaments adorning the corners of the 31st floor echo Plymouth’s 1929 radiator caps.

Chrysler Building Ownership

New York CityWalter P. Chrysler maintained his personal offices in the Chrysler Building, and the first floor originally featured a Chrysler automobile showroom. The private Cloud Club, popular during Prohibition, occupied a three-floor high space from the 66th to 68th floors and had a hidden room, but it was closed in the late 1970s and converted to office space.

The Chrysler family sold the building in 1947, and ownership of the building has changed several times. In 1979, under the ownership of Canadian entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke, the lobby was refurbished and the facade renovated. In the 1980s, the original distinctive lighting scheme for the tower’s crown was rediscovered and installed.

In 1998, Tishman Speyer Properties and the Travelers Insurance Group bought the Chrysler Building and the adjoining Kent Building in 1997 for about $220 million from a consortium of banks and the estate of Jack Kent Cooke. They kept it for a brief time, selling a 75% stake to TMW, the German arm of an Atlanta-based investment fund, for $300 million, gaining $80 million in just four years — and without selling their whole stake.

In June 2008, the Abu Dhabi Investment Council bought TMW's 75% interest and a 15% interest from Tishman Speyer Properties, along with a share of the Trylons retail structure next door, for $800 million, making the Abu Dhabi Investment Council the 90% owner of the Chrysler Building.

With the passage of time, the Chrysler Building has continued to garner praise and honors, as noted by John Julius Norwich in The World Atlas of Architecture: "Art Deco in France found its American equivalent in the design of the New York skyscrapers of the 1920s. The Chrysler Building ... was one of the most accomplished essays in the style."  

The Chrysler Building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976; its distinctive profile has influenced skyscraper design worldwide, as illustrated by architect Helmut Jahn’s One Liberty Place in Philadelphia.

In the summer of 2005, New York's Skyscraper Museum asked one hundred architects, builders, critics, engineers, historians, and scholars, among others, to choose their ten favorites among twenty-five New York towers. The Chrysler Building came in first place, with 90% placing the building in their top ten. In 2007, it was ranked ninth on the List of America's Favorite Architecture by the A.I.A (American Institute of Architects).

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