George Lyons Dr. Sinkevic
FYS: Monuments 12-7-00
The Chrysler Building and Empire State Building:
Monuments to History and Culture of New York
At the turn of the 20th century, New York City was expanding tremendously in size, commerce, and power. Lower Manhattan was over crowded and new buildings were being constructed in the middle of the island. Land was running out and the only way to expand more was by building up. The mass production of steel made it an affordable material. Consequently, taller buildings could be constructed without having to add support on the sides or increasing the size of the base. In fact, the very first building that used steel, the Flatiron Building, was constructed in 1902 in central Manhattan. At a height of nine stories (285 feet), this was the tallest building in the world when it was finished and was called the world’s first skyscraper. Harvey Wiley Corbett, an architect, said skyscrapers were America’s great gift to architecture because they are the first new structural form since the ancient Romans invented the arch. In the next few decades, there was a “skyscraper war” taking place in New York City to see who could build the largest buildings in the world. Around 1930, two of the most important skyscrapers, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, were erected. Over time, they became monuments representing the culture and traditions of New York City; enduring symbols attesting to the city's tremendous influence throughout the world.
There are the three main reasons that the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building stand as monuments. First, these skyscrapers are centers of commerce. In the 1920’s, the stock market soared higher and higher. Millionaires were turned into billionaires and even the average person was given many loans to buy stock. In 1929, there were plans filed for the construction of 709 new buildings in New York City. Real estate skyrocketed and it seemed the most valuable buildings were the tallest because they could fit the most offices. Both the Chrysler and the Empire State Buildings became the centers of attention, not just because they were office buildings, but because they were impressive to the public. A second reason these buildings are monuments is that they display the culture of New York City around the 1930’s and are represented by various forms of culture such as movies or historical documents. A third and final reason these skyscrapers are monuments is that they are symbols of New York City. Even the names Chrysler and Empire States Building have become synonymous with New York. These buildings allow New Yorkers to find their direction more easily. The Empire State Building dominates 5th Avenue at 34th Street so anyone coming out of a subway station below 34th can find north by locating the massive Empire State Building (Burns, Sanders, and Ades 367-369).
The Chrysler Building’s main purpose was to serve as a new headquarters for the Chrysler Corporation, but the ego of Walter P. Chrysler and the architect, William Van Alen, led it to become the tallest building in the world. At the time van Alen was designing the Chrysler Building, his onetime partner and archrival, H. Craig Severance, was designing a building at 40 Wall Street in lower Manhattan. It was designed to be about 200 feet taller than van Alen’s building. William van Alen was instructed by Mr. Chrysler to construct a building taller than the Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world at that time. He was determined not to let his hated enemy beat him in the race for the tallest building. He quickly changed his plans and added more stories to his structure. As the construction of the Chrysler Building and the building at 40 Wall Street went on, those working on both projects could easily see each other from the tops of their buildings to learn who was moving faster. The building at 40 Wall Street was completed in the fall of 1929 and stood 927 feet after a lantern, ten penthouse floors, and a 50-foot flagpole were added. It seemed as if the Chrysler Building only be the world’s second tallest building. On October 16th, 1929, however, van Alen took 90 minutes to raise up a 185 foot steel spire which had been secretly assembled inside the building. This surprise shocked New York and made the Chrysler Building the tallest building in the world at a height of 1,046 feet, exactly 117 feet taller than the building on Wall Street. This surprise victory made midtown the new and most important center of business and commerce (Burns, Sanders, and Ades, 367-369).
As midtown Manhattan became a dominant center of business, corporations around the country tried to get a piece of the Chrysler Building. The building itself was an advertisement for Chrysler Motors. Walter Chrysler told Van Allen to incorporate decorative designs associated with automobiles on the facades, such as hubcaps near the top of one rung of setbacks and great stainless steel eagle gargoyles located at the 61st floor (Horsley). Contrary to popular belief, gargoyles were generally not added to buildings to ward off evil spirits, but rather to serve as decorative rainspouts. The Chrysler Building’s gargoyles, however, do not serve either purpose. Instead, they were a display of Chrysler’s enduring superiority over the ever-growing world of business (Zimmerman). This is evident in the numerous attempts by other businesses to profit from the prominence of the Chrysler Building. Companies such as Zippo made lighters with an imprint of the Chrysler Building in it and postage stamps were made with an image of it. Texaco and Yale & Towne Manufacturing Co. used it as an advertisement. It was pictured in comic books and movies used it in their main posters. Even novelty saltshakers were made in the shape of it, and the cover to a guide of New York showed a photograph of it. All of these items show how important the Chrysler Building was at the time of its construction.
Part of the greatness of the Chrysler Building lies in its massive size. There are 20,961 tons of structural steel, 3,826,000 bricks, and over 35 miles of pipes. Fifteen miles of brass strip serve to joint the terrazzo floors. A total of 10,000 electric light bulbs along with 750 miles of electric conductor wire are used to illuminate the building. Fifty-two thousand square feet of exterior marble and 3,200,000 ft2 of painted surface help to decorate the structure. The Chrysler Building also has great interior public space with its observatory whose walls are not far beneath the base of the spire (Horsley). In addition, this building was the first to use stainless steel. In fact, the entire spire is made of it. 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 overall design of the building is called Art Deco which means that its top has rectangular solids, arranged into a complex pattern. Sometimes the solids have sides cut off at a 45 degree angle, producing an octagonal effect (Grost).
About eight blocks from the Chrysler Building lies the Empire State Building. It was built with tremendous speed to become the new tallest building in the world. The designing of the Empire State Building started in September 1929 and management set May 1, 1931 as the opening date. The building rose with an average speed of one story per day after initial construction began (Tauranac 154). After it was completed, the building stood 102 stories (1250 feet). With the television antenna, the final height came out to be 1454 feet (Tauranac 15). Within two years, the height of the tallest building in New York City rose from under 1,000 feet to almost 1,500 feet. In 1942 the Empire State’s mooring mast was higher than any office building in Europe. The new building attracted business and commerce, further securing New York City’s status as the most important city in the world. During the building of the Empire State Building, however, the stock market crashed and changed the outlook of Manhattan entirely. Those who had been made billionaires by the stock market were now broke and the financial outlook for most New Yorkers was bleak. These problems, however, did not the cause a delay in the production of Empire State Building. In fact, construction was sped up to cut the costs of labor since the economy was stumbling. The crash also caused a drop in the cost of materials which made the overall construction of the building cheaper. This was the building that should never have been built – rising in the wrong place, at the wrong time (Burns, Sanders, and Ades 376).
Much like the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building rose to become the tallest building in the world because of ego. John Jacob Raskob was the man behind the construction and his main reason for building a skyscraper was to settle an old score with Walter Chrysler. The Chrysler Building was modeled after the Eiffel Tower and Raskob did not like that fact that the French influenced the world’s tallest building. At the time when the stock market hit its peak, Al Smith, who was hired by Raskob, announced to the public that the Empire State Building would be 85 stories high (1,050 feet) and hold more than 2 million square feet of office space and a daily population of 60,000. Raskob decided that he needed to add more height to the building so he designed a 200 foot tall tower for the top which was suppose to outdo the Chrysler Building’s spire. The press was stunned to learn of the purpose for Raskob’s tower. It was to serve as a landing for steel-framed dirigibles, or zeppelins, from Europe. These dirigibles could attain a top speed of 80 mph and could cruise at 70 mph for thousands of miles without refueling (Tauranac 185). This was never accomplished but the idea drew much attention and this innovative design displayed that culture of the late 1920’s (Burns, Sanders, and Ades 377-378).
The Empire State Building was not simply taller than the Chrysler Building. It was also wider and held more office space. A total of 57,000 tons of structural steel was used, three times as many in the Chrysler Building. There are exactly 1,860 steps from the street level to the 102nd floor. The inside of the building contains a total of over 37 million cubic feet inside and the entire building weighs 365,000 tons. This weight came not only from steel but from other materials as well. There are 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana Limestone and10,000 square feet of Rose Famosa and Estrallante marble. There are also 300,000 square feet of Hauteville and Rocheron marble for elevator lobbies and corridors on the office floors. The Empire State Building contains 6,500 windows. It holds 73 elevators that operate at speeds from 600 to 1,400 feet per minute and 2,500,000 feet of electrical wire conveying 40 million kilowatt hours used by the building and its tenants each year (Troncale).
As impressive as the other features are, none are as remarkable as the building’s tower. One of the most impressive parts of the tower is the exterior highlight lighting system. The lighting can be seen by residents in Manhattan, Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The system consists of three different rows that can be arranged in different color schemes for various holidays. This makes it the most noticeable building at night in the New York skyline. The most useful feature of the tower, however, is not the lighting but the antenna. Metro Networks monitors traffic conditions in the metropolitan New York area by way of two broadcast cameras and microwave antennas on the east and west sides of the Building. The traffic information gathered is then broadcast throughout New York City. Radio and television stations also broadcast from the tower. On December 22, 1931 National Broadcasting Company (NBC) presented the first experimental transmission. Many other television stations soon followed and broadcasted from the Empire State Building. Currently there are 14 radio stations and several TV stations that transmit from the Empire State Building (Troncale).
Just as the Chrysler Building was used to sell products, many companies also used the Empire State Building. An endless array of merchandise has been created over the years for this building including scale models, plastic toys, saltshakers, pens and pencils, shirts, and hats. It has been in literally dozens of movies such as King Kong, Sleepless in Seattle, and Guys & Dolls. The building has also attracted famous people from around the world, from world leaders to cultural icons. Fidel Castro, Nikita Krushchev and Queen Elizabeth have all visited the Empire State Building, as have KISS and Pele (Troncale).
The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building marked a new era for New York. This was the first time any building was constructed over 1,000 feet in height and over 100 stories. These two monuments shifted the center of business and commerce up to midtown Manhattan, forever changing New York. Their presence has also enhanced the city both culturally and financially. These two massive yet intricately designed structures have become representations of New York City as a whole. They are monuments to a city that is ever-changing yet still deeply rooted in tradition.
Burns, Sanders, and Ades. “New York.” New York: Random House, Inc., 1999.
Grost, Michael E. “Eras of Art Deco in the USA.” 25 November 2000
Horsley, Carter B. “The Chrysler Building/The Kent Building.” 24 November 2000
Tauranac, John. The Empire State Building The Making of a Landmark. New York:
Troncale , Anthony T. . “ Construction of the Empire State Building.” 27 November 2000
Zimmerman, Emily. “ Building of the Chrysler Building.” 25 November 2000