THE CHRYSLER BUILDING/
THE KENT BUILDING
(formerly the Chrysler East Building)
LEXINGTON AVENUE (Chrysler);
Developer: Walter P. Chrysler
Architect: William Van Alen
(Chrysler); Reinhard, Hofmeister
& Walquist (Kent)
Erected: 1930 (Chrysler); 1951 (Kent)
Angled windows at top are illuminated at
night. Photo by Carter B. Horsley
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
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, but persevered.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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 below. 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 not significant.
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
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.
Chrysler Building East, right, was reclad in green glass and Philip Johnson designed cluster
of glass pylons midblock on 42nd
Street as centerpiece of new retail section
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. 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
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
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