An Art Deco Shining Star

Battling Skyscrapers

At the end of the 1920s and in the early 1930s, New York was a city of battling skyscrapers with architects racing to erect the "tallest building in the world." One skyscraper, the Chrysler Building, would become an Art Deco masterpiece and an unforgettable New York City icon! The new skyscrapers would dwarf the 30-story Park Row Building (1899) and the 22-story Flatiron Building (1902).

At the front of this race to the sky were two architects: William Van Alen, designer of the Chrysler Building, and H. Craig Severance, designer of the 40 Wall Street/Bank of Manhattan Company building. The architects were former business partners and fierce rivals. They were also playing tricks on each other. To increase the height of 40 Wall Street/Bank of Manhattan Company building and surpass that of the Chrysler Building, Severance added a flagpole. Van Alen responded by secretly fabricating a 185-foot vortex spire inside the interior of the Chrysler Building and quietly hoisting it to the building's top. The Chrysler Building at 1,046 foot & 4.75 inches tall officially became the tallest building in the world on May 20, 1930. Van Alen won the title both men coveted, but, it was a short-lived victory. A brief 11 months later in 1931, the Empire State Building became the tallest skyscraper in the world and remained so until the opening of the original World Trade Towers in 1973.

The Chrysler Building is one of the most admired buildings in the world and a favorite of worldwide architects, New Yorkers, and many Americans. However, neither rave reviews nor great enthusiasm initially greeted this building. Its design was called "gimmicky" and "freaky" and was compared to something from Florenz Ziegfeld's follies. But, some New Yorkers were amazed at the skyscraper's height and astonished that it was actually taller than Paris's Eiffel Tower.

The building's facade is constructed of white brick mixed with dark gray brickwork. An Art Deco 185 foot spire is made of polished nickel chrome stainless steel which reflects sunlight well. The spire's design blends terraced crowns with seven radiating terraced arches, and a number of triangular shaped windows. The design was inspired by the radiator grill of the Chrysler automobiles and the eight stainless steel eagle head gargoyles (on the 61st floor level) by the car's hood ornaments.

The lobby of the building has a Belgian black granite entrance with Moroccan marble walls and yellow Siena marble floors. The ceiling mural is a painting of the outside of the Chrysler Building. Originally, there was a dining room (the Cloud Club), a visitors’ center and an observation deck. During World War II, all observation decks at NYC buildings were closed and after the war, the Chrysler Building's observation deck never reopened.

The Cloud Room, located on floors 66 to 68, had cloud motifs and was for men only. It has recently been re-envisioned by designer, Ken Fulk, and was scheduled to reopen in 2021. The new design employs a futurist style for the dining room, a Tudor style for the lounge, and an Old English style for the grill room. The observatory deck, the Celestial, on the 71st floor has also reopened.

The Chrysler Building was commissioned by William H. Reynolds the developer of Coney Island's Dreamland amusement park. Reynolds dropped out of the project due to financial reasons and disagreements with Van Alen about the skyscraper's design. Automobile maker Walter Chrysler took over the funding of the building.

Van Alen, the architect of one of the world's most beautiful skyscrapers, was never fully paid for his services. His reputation was forever ruined by Walter Chrysler who accused him of accepting bribes. Van Alen sued Chrysler and won, but sadly he became unemployable as an architect. He ended his career by teaching sculpture at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in Manhattan. The organization was renamed the Van Alen Institute in 1995 and is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating "equitable cities through inclusive design."

The Chrysler Building is an exquisite jewel and both a National Historic Landmark (1976) and a NYC Landmark (1978). At night, its elegant and beautifully lit stainless steel Art Deco vortex is an unmistakeable silhouette on New York City's skyline.