Hey, look. I managed to get a post up last weekend after all.
Friday night I built a model of the Chrysler Building. (Don’t get too excited. It’s pre-cut pieces punched out of foam core — an idiot could have done it (case in point).) And as I sit looking at it on the table in front of me now, I realize three things.
1) It’s cold in my kitchen.
2) The model of the Empire State Building, made by the same company, was better than this one.
3) I really love the Chrysler Building.
Truly, it is one of the most beautiful buildings of the 20th century, if not of all time. What’s more, it has a really fascinating history. I could write a whole book about the building, except I’d have to do a lot of research first, and that’s … y’know … work. So instead, I’m going to explanationize about the coolest and most unusual part of the Chrysler Building Story.
But first, some background.
From 2700 B.C.E. through about 1300, the tallest structure in the world was one or another of the pyramids in Egypt. From 1300 until 1884, the tallest structure in the world was one or another of the gothic cathedrals in Europe. In 1884, the Washington Monument set the record, which was broken in 1889 by the Eiffel Tower. By 1930, the Eiffel Tower was still the only structure on Earth more than 300 meters (986 ft) tall.
In the second half of the 19th century a number of events — Elisha Otis’s invention of a safety brake that kept elevator passengers from plunging to their deaths if anything happened to the cable (1853), Henry Bessemer’s development of a method to produce steel economically (1855), and the Chicago Fire, which necessitated rebuilding an entire city (1871), paved the way for the development of the skyscraper. The Tacoma Building, built in Chicago — not Tacoma — in 1889 was only 13 stories and 165 feet tall, but it was the first building ever built whose weight was supported by a steel frame rather than by masonry.
Taller and taller buildings were built, and in 1913, New York City’s Woolworth Building became the tallest building (not structure — the tallest structure was the Eiffel Tower, remember?) in the world, at 57 floors and 792 feet (241 m).
On September 9, 1928, contractor William Reynolds broke ground for a new skyscraper at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street. The original plans had called for it to have 56 stories, one more than the Lincoln Building that was going to be built directly across 42nd Street. The architect of the Lincoln Building hadn’t liked that and so he’d redrawn his plans to include 63 stories. In response, Reynolds had had his architect redesign his building to 67 stories, topped by a glass dome that would be lit from within at night.
During construction, the building was leased to the Chrysler Corporation, and the architect added some decorative elements to the design to reflect the new tenant. Still, the building’s planned height — 838 feet (255 m) — wasn’t changed.
Meanwhile, down at 40 Wall Street, another skyscraper was already under construction. The Bank of Manhattan Trust Building was planned to be the tallest building in the world, at 68 stories and 840 feet (256 m). As you can see, the Chrysler Building was supposed to be a scosh shorter, but I guess the folks at BoMT didn’t want to take any chances. (Another factor may have been that the architect designing the BoMT Building was the ex-partner of the architect who was designing the C Building, but I don’t know for sure whether base emotions were involved or not.) The plans were revised on the fly, and the BoMT Building was completed in May of 1930 with 71 stories and a height of 927 feet (283 m).
However, the Chrysler Building also opened in May of 1930, and it was 121 feet taller than the Manhattan Trust Building. How had that happened???
To find out, let’s flash back to October 23, 1929. Structural and external work on both buildings has been completed, and now the crews are busy putting in interior walls and toilets and acoustical-tile ceilings and things. The Manhattan Trust Building is 927 feet tall. The Chrysler Building is 838 feet tall. At the top, a series of arches step inwards to form a small dome.
But not for long.
You see, inside that dome is a 185-foot spire that had been constructed off-site and shipped onsite and assembled in secret. Now the dome is cranked back and, in just 90 minutes, the spire is hoisted into place. And the Chrysler building is 1,023 (312 m) tall — the tallest structure in the world.
I’m going to leave you with an article from the August, 1930, issue of Popular Science that explains how the spire was raised, plus a couple of more pictures of the decorations. If you want to see even more pictures — including photos of the amazing lobby — you could go here and here. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the words on either site, but the pictures are spectacular.