Chrysler Building, New York City, at night

Classic Projects: the Chrysler Building, New York City

New York's landmark Chrysler Building was erected in just 14 months at a rate of four storeys a week, even though its distinctive stainless steel crown was custom-made in the on-site workshops.

One of the most recognisable landmarks in New York, the Chrysler Building on the corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue is so conspicuously elegant that it looks as though it is visiting from a planet more sophisticated than our own. There’s a reason for this. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, when New York’s architects were embroiled in a bitterly competitive ‘race for the sky’, most buildings were modular with component parts literally ordered from catalogues. Yet the Chrysler Building was virtually sculpted by hand and even had its own workshops for creating each unique stainless steel panel for the world-famous dome. It may have only been the tallest building in the world for 11 months before being surpassed by the Empire State Building, but for sheer aesthetics, with its Art Deco radiating arch crown, the Chrysler Building has yet to be beaten.

Although named after the American automotive tycoon Walter P Chrysler, the building historically has had little to do with the car corporation. Although it was originally intended to be the car-maker’s headquarters, Chrysler (the company) remained resolutely in Detroit, leaving Walter to bankroll the $20m project out of his own pocket so that his children could inherit it. The man behind the building occasionally lived in a lavish private apartment close to the top and would boast that he was the owner of the highest-altitude toilet in Manhattan and, consequently, the world. The Chrysler family eventually sold the building in 1953. After passing through several hands, it now belongs to the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, which controls a 90 per cent share, leaving the remainder in the hands of an American property organisation that manages it on the council’s behalf.

Construction took a remarkably short 14 months, with the building rising at a rate of four storeys per week. No one was killed during the project, although architect William Van Alen may well have felt like committing murder when Chrysler refused to disburse the final balance payment after accusing him of fiscal sharp practice.

Despite being out of pocket, Van Alen had triumphed in artistic terms. His magnum opus still sends architectural critics into rapture. None fail to mention the eccentric crescent-shape steps of the spire, creating a stylised sunburst motif, beneath which sit steel gargoyles depicting American eagles (on the corners of the 61st floor). In a nod towards Walter’s automotive background, corner ornaments on the 31st floor are modelled on the Chrysler radiator cap.

Over the years, the Chrysler Building has had more than its share of challenges. Quite apart from falling occupancy during tough times (in the 1970s it was barely a fifth full), the building has also suffered from physical decline. The stainless steel dome may be a joy to behold from the ground, but it has been riddled with structural problems, the most persistent being that it leaks.

David Stravitz, author of ‘The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon Day by Day’, says that over the past decade there have been some “serious repairs” and that “finally, they’ve got it under control. It’s taken a very large and costly effort.” He adds that one of the main reasons for the leak is that the stainless steel crown was custom fabricated from two sheet metal workshops inside the building.

“Every cut of the stainless steel was done by hand and nailed onto the structure and over time they leaked. Correcting this required a huge undertaking. This masterpiece of design needed serious attention.”

The Chrysler Building

Date: 27 May 1930
Architect: William Van Alen
Unit cost: US$20m (US$275m in today’s money)

Chrysler Building facts and figures

  • Date: 27 May 1930
  • Architect: William Van Alen
  • Cost: US$20m ($275m in today’s money)
  • The Chrysler Building was the tallest structure in the world for only 11 months.
  • Currently the 66th tallest building in the world.
  • Erected at the rate of four storeys per week.
  • First man-made structure to stand at more than 1,000 feet.
  • Named after automobile tycoon Walter P Chrysler.
  • 750 miles (1200km) of electrical conductor cable were used in construction.
  • An enduring urban myth says the dome is made from car hubcaps. It isn’t.
  • The terraced crown is made from Enduro KA-2 austenitic stainless steel.
  • The ‘public’ viewing gallery on the 71st floor has been closed to the public since 1945.
  • During the economic recession of the 1970s, only 17 per cent of the building was occupied.
  • The tenant in the highest habitable floor is a dentist, known as ‘the dentist in the sky’.
  • 3,826,000 bricks, 391,881 rivets, 20,961 tons of structural steel.
  • 32 elevators in 4 banks of 8.

 

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