The Chrysler Building: An Auto Mechanic's Dream
In order to properly give scope to this iconic New York landmark a little bit of history is needed. At the turn of the 20th century the term ‘automobile’ was not even part of the lexicon and the average person was still using horses and trains to travel. By the year 1910 there were over 450,000 of the new contraptions making their way down the often feeble roads scattered across the States. By 1920 there were over 9 million cars taking Americans through their daily lives and that number would triple by 1930. In a very short span of time the automobile had ingrained itself into American life and had made millionaires out of mechanics.
One of those mechanics was a man named Walter Percy Chrysler, a master machinist in 1912 who saw the future and decided that the automobile was going to be a big part of it. By 1925 he was the head of a multi-million dollar company that bore his name, The Chrysler Corporation, and by 1927 the mechanic-turned-entrepreneur from Michigan was ready to build a giant headquarters in the heart of New York City.
From the very start Mr. Chrysler wanted a bold, modern structure that would be a symbol of the modern age. What eventually came to be was the tallest building in the world (for a short time) that was built out of an architectural feud between American titans that puts even the best movie plots to shame.
The Chrysler Building was originally planned as an office project. Designed by architect William Van Alen, the seventy-seven-story (1,046 feet) art deco building was to be topped by a glass dome that would be lit from within like a giant glowing diamond in the New York sky. The Great Depression scrapped those plans and Reynolds sold the unfinished building to Chrysler, who financed it out of his own pocket.
The need to have boasting rights to the ‘tallest building in the world’ was so great that Van Alen and Chrysler kept secret their plans for 185-foot, seven-story spire that would sit atop the building and make the Chrysler taller than the Empire State Building that was in its final planning stages. The spire was clandestinely assembled from the sixty-fifth floor, its five parts lifted by derrick to the top from within a fire tower built in the center of the building. Even though the Chrysler Building had to give up its title of tallest in the world to the Empire State Building only a few months later, the silver tower has remained a powerful icon to the ideologies and values of the early part of what would come to be called the American Century.
The Chrysler Building is certainly unique. In 1930 it reflected a merger of the new and the old with shiny Nirosta steel that clad the sunburst tower and its gleaming Gargoyles that had never been used in any American skyscraper before. Unlike the gothic gargoyles of the Woolworth Building these were the icons of the Chrysler automobile, one of the many wonders of this machine age and the contraption that had changed the world. The internal structures of the Chrysler Building also reflected advanced mechanics of the modern age in its decor, construction, operation and most of all in its spirit--something that Walter Chrysler had himself consciously created.
His dream almost immediately became the stuff of 42nd Street legend when pioneering photographer Margaret Bourke-White crept out to take a picture of the city from the vantage point of the building’s Gargoyles. Ms Bourke-White, who occupied an office on the sixty-first floor, was actually having photographs taken for a different event but ended up making Chrysler's unique ornaments world-famous. Chrysler famously is said to have requested that the toilet in his office be the highest in Manhattan so that he could ‘sh*t on Henry Ford’. Considering that there’s no Ford Building in New York I’d say that he got his wish.