On May 27, 1930, 88 years ago today, the Chrysler Building in New York City first opened to the public. At that time it was both the tallest building and the tallest free-standing structure in the world (there is technically a difference), at 1,046 feet surpassing the 40 Wall Street building–which is today named after that odious man with the bad hair–and the Eiffel Tower in each of those respective categories. More important than the stunt of being the world’s tallest building, the Chrysler Building was the most stunning exemplar of Art Deco architecture ever created and an important work of art in its own right. For most of the last century its illuminated silver crown has served as the jewel of Manhattan. Though not quite as tall as the Empire State Building, which opened not long after, the Chrysler Building remains, in my opinion, the most beautiful building in New York City and possibly in America.
Although it’s named Chrysler and was the headquarters of the car company from the 1930s to the 1950s, the Chrysler Building was not owned or paid for by that company. Instead it was the brainchild of the CEO, Walter P. Chrysler, who owned and named it and wanted his children to inherit it. It was designed by Paris-trained architect William Van Alen, one of the fathers of Art Deco architecture, and built on land actually owned by the Cooper Union and leased to Chrysler personally. Construction began in September 1928 in the midst of a huge building boom in midtown Manhattan. That year was the climax of the Roaring Twenties, with the American economy booming in almost every sector, and New York City was in the captain’s chair. Chrysler envisioned a steel building that would embody the spirit of the machine age. In addition to the elaborate crown, Chrysler and Van Alen decided to festoon the top of the building with bizarre steel gargoyles deliberately reminiscent of the hood ornaments of Chrysler luxury cars. Despite its steel exterior the building was constructed mostly of brick.
Then, before the building was finished, disaster struck–not physical but economic. The stock market crash of October 1929 plunged the United States into the Great Depression. The Chrysler Building was almost finished–in fact the top spire was delivered on-site the week before the first of the two great crashes of October 1929–but its prospects were already grim. With so many companies out of business, who could now afford the expensive floor rents? The Chrysler Building’s main rival, the Empire State Building, found itself in a similar quandary; it was in the design phase at the time of the crash. Large stunt buildings like this were suddenly no longer profitable.
Chrysler charged ahead, though. What else could he do? On May 27, 1930, the building opened to the public. Architecture critics were surprisingly lukewarm, some denouncing the bold Art Deco design as a worthless gimmick that would cheapen the New York skyline. Chrysler stiffed Van Alen for part of his fee, and the architect had to sue to get him to pay up. The building was a magnet for the super-rich. The top habitable floors contained the infamous Cloud Club, an all-male members-only restaurant and, before Prohibition was repealed in 1933, speakeasy. In addition to Chrysler, Pan American Airways was also headquartered here, and Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe’s office was near the pinnacle. His office is depicted in the 2004 Martin Scorsese film The Aviator (Alec Baldwin plays Juan Trippe).
Over the succeeding decades the Chrysler Building’s fortunes waxed and waned. The Chrysler Corporation left in the 1950s, and Pan Am in the 1960s to what is now the Met Life Building. In the late 1970s the building was sold to new owners and extensively remodeled; I recall reading that tons of garbage dating back to the 1930s was found in the basement which had just been piling up. The Cloud Club closed permanently in 1979 but sat vacant until the early 21st century. (It must have been spooky and interesting to visit during those empty years). In the 1990s and 2000s new owners and remodels came one after another. Today the company that owns the building is 75% controlled by the Abu Dhabi Investment Council.
But New Yorkers have never lost their affinity for their shining steel jewel, and almost every movie set in New York features it prominently. The boom-time, jazz-fueled Art Deco age of the late 1920s was history even before the building opened, but despite being an anachronism for literally all of its existence, somehow it’s managed to become timeless. Not many of the blocky brutalist monstrosities that now infest Manhattan can make that claim.