The Chrysler Building: A Flamboyant Fantasy

I’ve lived in midtown Manhattan for over 10 years. When I tell people this, I’m self-deprecating:
“Mmm hmm. Yep. I live with all the other dorks and nerds in Turtle Bay/Sutton Place. That’s right. You heard me. You got a problem with that?”
I do this because I know my neighborhood is not cool.
In fact, I’d say it’s the opposite of cool. Which almost makes it cool, but not quite.
There is an Irish Karaoke bar around the corner from me where U.N. Diplomats belt out tone-deaf renditions of Hootie and the Blowfish songs, so I think you get my point.
The strange thing is…The coolest building in all of New York City can be seen from my bedroom window.
And that building is the one and only Chrysler Building. I see it every day and every day I am astonished by its Art Deco glory.
Built between 1928 and 1930, “the design, originally drawn up for building contractor William H. Reynolds, was finally sold to Walter P. Chrysler, who wanted a provocative building which would not merely scrape the sky but positively pierce it. Its 77 floors briefly making it the highest building in the world—at least until the Empire State Building was completed—it became the star of the New York skyline, thanks above all to its crowning peak. In a deliberate strategy of myth generation, Van Alen planned a dramatic moment of revelation: the entire seven-storey pinnacle, complete with special-steel facing, was first assembled inside the building, and then hoisted into position through the roof opening and anchored on top in just one and a half hours. All of a sudden it was there—a sensational fait accompli.”

— Peter Gossel and Gabriele Leuthauser. Architecture in the Twentieth Century. p209.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve attempted to capture its majesty, particularly in the fog when it looks so incredibly “Gotham City”. This is my latest attempt, and it won’t be my last: Chrysler

It’s quite fitting that we wound up living next to each other, the Chrysler building and me. I’m pretty sure I’d get along well with the Brooklyn-born architect of the Chrysler, William Van Alen. He was called “flamboyant” (which I’m personally going to interpret as “gay” but I could be wrong) and the “Ziegfeld of his profession”. The Chrysler itself was derided as “A stunt design” with “no significance as serious design.”

Naturally, this makes me love the building even more. The gargoyles are actually modeled after Chrysler hubcaps, and the lobby reflects the late 20’s mania for all things Egyptian. Plus, Van Alen had a flair for the dramatic:

In 1931, a Beaux-Arts costume ball was held wherein architects dressed up as the buildings they’d designed. Van Alen was mocked. But looking at this photo of the event, I’d say he has the last laugh. The rest of the architects look uncomfortable and stupid. Van Alen looks fantastic:

Not having signed a contract with Walter Chrysler before the building was constructed, Van Alen had to fight for his rightful 6% payment after the fact. He won the lawsuit, but at the cost of his reputation within the industry. Walter Chrysler sullied his name and Van Alen never designed anything on par with the Chrysler again. You don’t sue Time Magazine’s 1928 Man of the Year without repercussions.

But the way I see it, when you’ve designed something as extraordinary as this, nothing else really matters…


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