Begin your self-guided tour at the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and East 42nd Street.
For less than a year the Chrysler Building was the tallest structure on earth, 64 feet higher than the Eiffel Tower. It may no longer be the tallest, but it surely one of the most striking buildings of the twentieth century. The glittering chrome steel dome and spire are soldered and crimped like an enormous piece of jewelry.
The doors opened in September of 1929 to delighted visitors and puzzled critics. The acerbic and influential New Republic magazine writer, Lewis Mumford, awarded the building “the Booby Prize for 1930.” Others called it “a tour de force.” Time magazine made its headquarters here along with advertising agencies and, of course, the New York office of the Chrysler Corporation. On the top floors of its 77 stories the city’s movers and shakers found an exclusive men’s club.
The lobby is a Jazz Age fantasy of sumptuous African marble, inlaid exotic woods and chrome steel with New York’s first digital clock. The elegant paneled elevators once whisked visitors up to the observation deck where, for fifty cents, you could see fifty miles in any direction. In the late 1930’s people looked into the lobby with fascination through reflectionless street level windows to see Chrysler’s latest model cars revolving slowly on turntables.
This building was the dream of two men – William Van Alen, a maverick New York architect and Walter Chrysler, an automobile magnate recently transplanted to New York from Detroit. Van Alen was delighted to incorporate Chrysler’s suggestions into the building’s design – resulting in brickwork friezes of wheels, hubcaps and mudguards encircling the upper floors. Chrysler’s radiator caps inspired the giant gargoyles at the corners.
Snazzy Chrysler convertibles no longer revolve on turntables, but the lobby is still well worth a look. The most dramatic entrance is through those revolving doors on Lexington Avenue.
Some History of the Chrysler Building
Until the Empire State Building was completed in 1931 the Chrysler Building was the tallest in the world. The huge gargoyles on the corners were inspired by the radiator cap on the 1929 Chrysler Plymouth. Friezes of Plymouth hubcaps festoon the upper floors. These are clues to the build’s fascinating history. Walter Chrysler, the Detroit automobile magnate, worked closely with maverick architect William Van Alen to build this grand modern icon. Van Alen was a bitter rival of his former partner, Craig Severance. They competed to build the world’s tallest building in 1929 and Severence’s tower at 40 Wall Street topped out at 927 feet while Van Alen and Chrysler secretly constructed a 185 foot spire inside their building’s shining dome. The next morning workmen hoisted the spire through the top of the dome -making the Chrysler Building, for just a year, the world’s tallest structure.
Enter the Chrysler Building lobby at either Lexington Avenue or 42nd Street and walk to the center of the room. This is one of the city’s great interior spaces and the apogee of the French Art Deco style in New York. This remarkable room has, somehow, managed to down to us, virtually intact from 1929. It first doubled as a showroom for Chrysler automobiles. The walls are covered with red-veined Moroccan marble and the floor is yellow Siena marble. Now, look up - to Edward Trumbull’s vast ceiling mural, depicting transportation and human endeavor - construction workers who built the building, the latest modern aircraft and ocean liners - and, as the centerpiece, William Van Alen’s iconic Chrysler Building. Now, notice the spectacular elevator doors - intricate floral designs of inlaid African woods - the very essence of Art Deco design.
A Bit About Walter Chrysler
On a September morning in 1929 Walter Chrysler stood where you’re standing now, looking up, anxiously watching as his workmen hoisted into place bright the vertex - that spire on the top of the dome. When it was finally in place his new skyscraper would be the tallest building on earth. Pretty good for a man who started out forty years earlier as a young mechanic from Ellis, Kansas, wiping down steam locomotives for five and a half cents an hour. He became a pioneer in the automobile industry and he went on to found the Chrysler Corporation. Now he was a builder. In the public observatory of the building he built as a legacy for his sons he would proudly display his own old mechanic’s tool case as a reminder for everyone of how far he’d come.
The “Loo with a View”
The Cloud Club is in mothballs now. Its been closed for years, but its still up there, on the top three floors of the Chrysler Building. In the summer of 1930 that’s where everybody wanted to have lunch - trouble was, you had to be invited. It was a private men’s club. And a sort of speakeasy - members had private liquor lockers (remember, Prohibition was still in force). The dining room had drop-dead views on all sides. It was all done in blue marble and stainless steel with richly paneled walls. The third floor of the club had a gym, a barbershop and a men’s room. The Cloud Club was spectacular but everybody wanted to see the men’s room. Walter Chrysler often said that his favorite thing about his building was the view from that men’s room. And everyone who saw it agreed that it was one of the great views in New York.
William van Alen, Architect of the Building
The Chrysler Building’s architect, William Van Alen was one of the great iconoclasts of American architecture. He began his career with a series of apprenticeships to leading New York architectural firms and after winning the Paris Prize in 1908 set off for France and study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In early 1920's New York he became known for his flashy and startling designs for restaurants, stores and shopfronts. Then Walter Chrysler chose him to design the world’s tallest building. Chrysler had lots to say about the plans and Van Alen was delighted. Together they created this remarkable tower. For the 1931 Beaux Arts Costume Ball at the Astor Hotel - the theme was ”The Future “ - Van Alen came dressed as his Chrysler Building, with an exact facsimile of the top of the building as a headpiece. Everyone was astonished.