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Chrysler history: the Chrysler Building

Sept. 28, 1929 marked an important moment in Chrysler Building history

On on September 28, 1929, what was described by its designer as “a high spire structure with a needle-like termination” emerged from the top of the dome of the Chrysler Building “like a butterfly from its cocoon.” The spire, 185 feet high, eight feet square at the base, and weighing 27 tons, was the capstone which would make the mid-Manhattan office tower the tallest man-made structure in the world. And it was a complete surprise to all but the two principals, the industrialist who commissioned the building project, and its architect, William Van Alen, along with the workmen who performed the feat.

These two views show how the Chrysler Building continues to be a
recognizable symbol of New York City. (John Lee photos)

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Walter P. Chrysler, who directed his Detroit-based auto manufacturing empire from his office on Madison Avenue in New York City, had taken over the building project begun by another developer who was unable to assemble the capital to complete it. With his personal fortune, Chrysler could assure that the project would be carried through. After the prominent automobile industrialist made numerous changes in the original design and plan, including adding nine stories to make it New York’s tallest building, groundbreaking was held on September 19,1928. A month later, the W. P. Chrysler Building Corp. was formed to build and own the structure. Not a project of Chrysler Corp., this was, instead, a personal venture intended to leave sons Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., and Jack Chrysler, Sr., a business to operate.

Projected to rise 16 feet higher than the Woolworth Building, which had been Manhattan’s tallest since 1913, the Chrysler Building plan called for shops on the ground floor on 42nd St., offices in the tower, and a duplex apartment on the upper two floors. There would also be an observation dome with a spire above. According to Chrysler biographer Vincent Curcio ("Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius"), “It was the direct and concentrated personal involvement of Walter Chrysler that was instrumental in giving the building its final form, inside and out.”

Chrysler contributed many decor ideas, such as gargoyles, which are gleaming symbols of the automobile industry. The eagles that grace the corners of the 61st floor, for example, are replicas of the 1929 Chrysler radiator ornament. One of the first extensive applications of metal decoration on the exterior of a large building also includes hubcap, car fender, and hood ornament designs.

A structure of such imposing height would not have been possible without the development of the technique of building around a steel skeleton structure. Amazingly, not a single worker’s life was lost in putting up the steel structure, due in no small part to safety measures insisted upon by Chrysler himself. The normal expectation at the time would be one lost life for each story above 15, or 62 lost lives in this case.

The tower form of the building was conventional for the time, as was the brick cladding, but the tapering dome, sheathed in stainless steel plates, made it modern and distinctive. Interestingly, floodlights installed to light the dome at night were never turned on when the building was new, because it would have been considered pretentious in the depths of the Great Depression. The original lighting wasn’t turned on until the building changed owners in 1979 and Jack Chrysler, Jr. showed the new owner where the switches were!

As the structure was reaching its projected height, a rival of architect Van Alen announced that the office tower he had designed for the Bank of Manhattan would be taller than the Chrysler Building. Van Alen and Chrysler had not come this far to be suddenly shoved into second place. The 185-foot spire structure atop the dome would assure their sky-scraping advantage.

According to Curcio, the spire was fabricated in five sections, which were quietly delivered to the building, raised to the 65th floor, and assembled there into one monumental piece. It was hoisted into place on the morning of September 28, and workmen riveted it into place in 90 minutes. Walter Chrysler watched the procedure from across the street. The feat caught the news media and all of New York by surprise.

The building was a commercial success from the beginning. Chrysler Corporation headquarters moved in as a rent-paying tenant, and Texas Oil Co., later to become Texaco, occupied the 16th through 19th floors. The building was 65 percent occupied within the first year.

One commentator has noted that the Chrysler Building changed the thinking of a skyscraper as not merely a building, but a city. Chrysler liked this idea of his building and promoted it in a brochure as “a city within a city — a community with its Schrafft’s restaurant and its Terminal barber shop, its stores and beauty parlor, its two gymnasiums and its two emergency hospitals.” According to Chrysler, size and technology had met to create the community of the future.

Walter Chrysler had a grand office on the 65th floor and a duplex apartment in the tower. Both his sons had offices for their own businesses in the building. A two-story-high salon on the street level was a showcase for Chrysler products.

Representatives of the 42nd St. Merchants Assn. were on hand at the grand opening on May 27, 1930, to present Walter Chrysler a plaque in appreciation of his accomplishment, which still hangs in the lobby.

Shortly after the spectacular spire-raising, on November 23, 1929, the Empire State Building was announced. It would tower 102 stories high with a mast on top reaching to 1,246 feet, 200 feet higher than the Chrysler Building. But in spite of the fact that it had been surpassed in sheer height, the Chrysler’s dome and the needle atop it quickly made the structure famous as a symbol of New York City.

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