A Proud and Soaring Thing

All great ages have left a record of themselves in their styles of building. Why should we not try to find a style for ourselves.

—Karl Schinkel

In the first week of November 1928, when Van Alen started the sketches for Chrysler’s skyscraper, the land at Forty-second and Lexington was worth more than two hundred dollars a square foot. Only a block away, the Grand Central Terminal was fast becoming the crossroads of the world. Tall buildings shot up like weeds after a fresh rain. It was the perfect spot to build a monument to Walter Chrysler, the master of motion and industry, and Van Alen was eager to see his designs of a towering skyscraper set in steel and stone. After years of indentured servitude as an office boy and draftsman, study at the world’s best architecture school, and a partnership settled in lawsuits, he was ready.

There were few set rules to follow in skyscraper design, particularly in 1928. Past skyscrapers included twenty-story palazzos or buildings with Greek temples set at their crown. Van Alen scorned these attempts to use classical architecture on modern structures. It was high time, as he said, “to recognize that in steel-frame construction lies the basis for an entirely new, effective and beautiful style of architecture,” one absent of the cornices, pediments, and columns that defined buildings made from masonry.

The road to the future looked bleak. Pioneers like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius urged utility, straight lines, and engineering. To Van Alen and many of his cadre in New York, this radical European movement, of buildings stripped of any clothing or decoration, was tantamount to losing architecture’s soul to the devil. As one architect said at the time, skyscrapers must not be reduced to the “stark nakedness of silos and grain elevators.”

Instead of mimicking the past or leaping into an uncertain future, Van Alen was looking for “an architectural character that is effective, beautiful, expressive of the purpose of the building, of our method of construction and of the spirit of the times.” It was Louis Sullivan, with his Wainwright and Bayard buildings in the late nineteenth century, who first gave expression to the kind of design Van Alen wanted to pursue. To Sullivan, a skyscraper needed to embrace its vertical quality. “It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing.”

In the last decade American architects like Van Alen had begun to embrace Sullivan’s words, searching for the skyscraper’s true expression. In competitions and sketchbooks, they experimented with obelisks, clock towers, ziggurats, pagodas, and Mesoamerican temples. Some buildings had the shape of a staggered mountain, like a wedding cake; others looked like a “frozen fountain.”

Having stripped away the features of classical design, Van Alen and others searched for new methods to dress their buildings. For inspiration, they examined stage and film designs, attracted to the dramatic play of light and color in the sets. Most importantly, they drew upon ideas from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, which promoted a movement of interior design and furniture, style moderne as it was initially called—later Art Deco—that gave designers the textures, floral patterns, colors, geometric shapes, and materials like rare woods, glass, metal, glazed tiles, and polychromatic terra-cotta to bring their buildings alive.

Not only was Van Alen free to shape his skyscraper in a new way, but he might avail himself of Art Deco designs that could entertain, captivate, evoke emotion, and inspire the imaginations of those on the street. Chrysler wanted such a building. With such freedom and wealth of designs from which to choose, Van Alen took the advice of his Beaux-Arts school and decided to follow his instincts. He started with the sketches he had created for Reynolds. Later the details would change, but the general lines remained the same.

On the initial design of the Reynolds Building in 1928, he had drawn his sketches with a hurried hand, as if getting out his ideas before they vanished. He drew on the tracing paper four step-backs from the street level and then a long tower that terminated in a pyramid. To distinguish certain windows he squiggled dark circles. To allow for light and air he recessed one axis. Then right above the entrance up to the top of the building, he sketched long vertical lines in the center of the tower face. His hand moved up and down over the paper in a flurry, giving the skyscraper its expression of height. Then on each side of that center, he penciled horizontal lines, sometimes so quickly that his hand strayed over the edge of the tracing paper. The lines were uneven and spaced awkwardly, but they managed to emphasize the vertical movement of the building’s tower while distinguishing each floor. In the balance of these vertical and horizontal movements, the tower would rise effortlessly to the sky.

The next sketch was absent the nervous doodles to the side of the building that Van Alen had made on the first sketch. Van Alen drew a more cohesive vision of the ground floor and entrance, and in the first setback, he sketched straight lines that crossed one another to identify windows. The long vertical lines in the center of the tower face were now separated into three distinct columns, and the pyramid crown had more distinction. Over the next two years he redesigned the crown with Byzantine domes, curved corner windows, a “top piece which looked for all the world like Governor Smith’s famous brown derby,” arched entrances, and many brick textures. Still the rough expression of form and height remained.

From these early sketches, he began the plans for the Chrysler Building in November 1928, only days after his meeting with the automobile magnate, wasting no time on traveling to Europe as Chrysler suggested. He had studied enough and now needed to execute. In his Madison Avenue office, he shaped models in clay to get a sense of the proportion and details. His first designs, ones good enough to send to Chrysler, concentrated on the skyscraper’s lower floors. Because of city regulations requiring buildings to step back from the street the higher they climbed (so that pedestrians didn’t have to walk in dark, crowded canyons), Van Alen accepted that his skyscraper would have a tower that rose out of the massive rectangular base. The key to these “lower masses” was providing tenants proper light and air through light courts and carefully arranged setbacks, organizing the entrances and elevators for efficient access, and designing the façade, primarily through the treatment of the windows, so that these floors gave a sense of stability to the tower above. He planned to achieve this latter element with a gridiron pattern of windows, accentuated by the surrounding brickwork.

As early as November 12, Van Alen began submitting the floor plans for his lower masses, which included the lot dimensions as well as the placement of the windows, elevators, and stairwells. He started with the sixteenth floor and, over the next week, worked his way down to the plan of the basement and cellar. It was a rapid-fire sequence of delivered plans, no doubt many taken in part from his blueprints for the former Reynolds Building.

Starting on November 22, Van Alen and his draftsmen worked out the next eleven stories to the twenty-seventh floor. For the next eight weeks, this was as far as he went in designing the skyscraper, at least in terms of sending blueprints of floor plans or the skyscraper’s elevation, which would have provided an idea of the building’s overall shape. Short of one attempt in late December, Van Alen had stopped at the point at which the tower would begin to ascend from the lower masses. This was a critical juncture. For Van Alen, the tower—how it rose from the base, how its surface treatment expressed both vertical and horizontal movements “giving life and interest,” and how it terminated at the apex—was everything. He still needed time to finalize the design from his early sketches.

That was not to say he was idle. There were many meetings with Chrysler and his right-hand man on the project, Frank B. Rogers. After Van Alen delivered the plans for the lower floors at the end of November, Chrysler began requesting revisions, often several times a day. In December, Van Alen made changes to the floor plans for every one of these lower floors, on everything from the position of the service elevators and stairs to the lot dimensions, floor levels, and placement of the exterior columns. Every decision involved a multitude of elements, whether zoning laws, office-unit layouts, construction costs, service facilities, flow of people into and about the building, and structural and mechanical factors—not to mention aesthetic concerns. Both Chrysler and Van Alen were excited by the work, and they got along well.

In January, the deluge of blueprints tapered off; perhaps Van Alen needed some time for reflection. Come the last week of the month though, Van Alen began a six-week burst of creative output on the Chrysler Building that must have taken his client by storm. One could imagine the late nights and early mornings he spent at his drafting board, drawings scattered across the room and his staff peering over his shoulder or waiting outside the door to see what he had done. Van Alen was always relentless and obsessed with his work. If he had time for meetings at his architectural clubs or dinners with his wife Elizabeth, it was limited, and he rarely spoke of what he was doing outside the office.

During this month and a half, he changed nothing on the lower masses. It was all about the expression of the tower. On January 26, he sent over the floor plans for the fifty-first through the sixty-seventh floors, identifying how the tower made the transition into a multitiered dome. This was followed at the first of February by plans for the twenty-eighth through the fiftieth floors, showing the tower rising clear from the final setback at the thirty-first floor. The following week Chrysler was given a look at the brick automobile friezes that wrapped around the floors before this setback as well as how the corners of the building at this level were punctuated by enormous winged gargoyles. The automobile man became obsessed as well, his office strewn with sketches and models of his skyscraper.

By March 4, Van Alen knew how his skyscraper would look from afar. Blueprints were delivered in one-quarter scale for the Lexington Avenue and Forty-third Street elevations, as well as more detailed drawings for the upper part of the tower and the dome. The tower, with its long vertical stretches of windows in the center, looked similar to his earliest skyscraper sketches for Reynolds, though now more detailed. The bands of dark brick around the corners also recalled his previous designs. The key difference was the design of the skyscraper’s dome. Van Alen had eliminated the awkward glass dome (“a great jeweled sphere,” one critic commented) that interrupted the building’s leap into the sky. In its place, he designed a dome above the tower that was shaped in a series of six arches on each side of the building that curved toward one another at the top. The architect never left record of what inspired the design. Some said it spoke to the Singer Building’s crown; others thought Van Alen must have drawn the idea from Asian stupas or the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Italy. Kenneth Murchison, the architect’s colleague and unofficial chronicler of the skyscraper race to follow, said that Van Alen returned from a trip to Cuba with the shape of the “neck of a demijohn of Bacardi” in mind.

Whatever the inspiration, Chrysler approved the inventive design for his skyscraper’s crown and, by March, was resolved on most of the building’s key elements. In the automobile man, Van Alen had indeed found the client of a lifetime. Chrysler pushed him, much as he did his car designers. Chrysler requested hundreds of revisions to the architect’s first designs. He knew what he liked when he saw it and would pay whatever it cost, but Van Alen had to come up with the ideas.

When the architect presented Chrysler with the lobby design, showing him a plaster model with walls painted Morocco-marble red, Chrysler said, “It looks a little cramped, to me.”

Chrysler pointed to one of four columns in the toy-sized lobby. “A terrific load is carried by those columns in the plans as drawn,” said Van Alen.

“But when people come into a big building, they should sense a change, get a mental lift that will put them in a frame of mind to transact their business—how about this?” He reached his fingers into the toy-sized ground floor lobby and hesitated.

“Pull it out,” said Van Alen. “That’s just a piece of cardboard, pegged in there.”

He yanked a cardboard column from the model. “Could it be done?”

Van Alen drew some hurried lines on an envelope with his pencil and then turned it over for him to see. “It could be done this way.”

Chrysler smiled. It was all about impressing the millions of people who would walk through the triangular lobby of his building, costs be damned. Van Alen was with him every step of the way.

Once the architect settled on each design element, then came the working drawings and specifications, copies of which were sent to Rogers, the builder Fred Ley, and his subcontractors. These drawings included floor plans, sectional designs, and elevations from every side of the skyscraper. Enough paper passed back and forth to require “several van loads,” a member of Chrysler’s team quipped.

Throughout this process, materials to be used in the construction also were reviewed and appraised for cost and quality. Van Alen continued to work tirelessly. All his efforts and those of his draftsmen, specification writers, office boys, and secretaries were focused on the Chrysler Building. It must have dominated every conversation. The structural engineer, Ralph Squire, frequently consulted with Van Alen on the size of the columns, beams, and trusses as well as the foundation requirements. The mechanical engineer, Louis Ralston, worked with Van Alen and Squire to draw up plans and estimates for the elevators, plumbing, electricity, and ventilation.

Some of this work, at least the general requirements, had already been mapped out the previous year. This allowed builder Fred Ley and his team to ready the site for the skyscraper to rise according to Van Alen’s vision.

Nearly from the moment Chrysler took possession of the five-story building at 405 Lexington Avenue, and more importantly, the land underneath, demolition crews hit the site. As the architect, Van Alen oversaw the construction. Beyond providing the plans, Van Alen was responsible for supervising the work, ensuring that Fred Ley was fulfilling his duties on schedule and at the cost that his client had agreed to contractually. His firm answered questions about the architectural plans and specifications and inspected the progress. But for the most part, the builder ran the show.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1872, Fred Ley started his career in the construction industry at fifteen years old. He worked for the city engineer, earning a dollar and a half a day, while he learned the basics of surveying. Only six years later, having saved up five hundred dollars, he launched a contracting company, which, except for a brief period when Ley served in the Spanish-American War, grew unimpeded for the next thirty-six years. By the time Chrysler hired him to build his skyscraper, Ley boasted several hundred million dollars of construction projects, some as far away as South America. In New York, he had built the Fisk Building on Fifty-seventh Street and the Liggett Building on Forty-second Street and Madison, only a block away from where he was now engaged. By 1929, business was so good for Fred Ley & Company that he had bought land on Thirty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue to construct his own skyscraper.

The Chrysler Building dwarfed his other jobs, and he quickly set to the task. By the third week of October 1928, he was in the process of demolishing the five-story office building, which Reynolds had blanketed with advertisements for his beachfront development, Lido Beach. Sometimes these operations could take months. Across the street, the builder of the Chanin Building first had to tear down an old storage warehouse of brick masonry whose walls had been built, in the wake of the city’s infamous draft riots, to withstand cannon fire. Ley managed his wrecking job in less than four weeks.

Nonetheless, it was a dirty and noisy operation. Wreckers utilized the “plug and feather” method to take the walls apart. A wedge was stuck between a pair of iron semicylindrical guards, the “feathers,” and driven into the masonry to break it loose, a quarrying technique dating back to the Romans. Wreckers also drilled into the top of the wall and pried off sections—the “growler” method. In tougher spots they used quicklime to prompt the expansion of gases and heat to break apart the rock. Chutes carried the old walls down into the trucks. Bricks, glass, stone, pipes, and other junk metal were salvaged for resale; the rest was carried out in barges and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. The air around the demolition site stank of rotting old lumber and dust stung the eyes. Everything from crowbars to pneumatic drills to acetylene torches were needed to do the job. It took more than a hundred and fifty men from the Albert Volk Company, a demolition subcontractor, working in double shifts to get the site clear enough for the excavators to begin their digging on November 11.

The excavation for the foundations always made for a great street spectacle. People lined the site perimeter and cab drivers slowed to watch the crew dig into the earth. Ley hired the Godwin Construction Company for this task, and over the course of the next four months, they used six steam shovels, twenty drills, forty trucks, and four derricks to chew down sixty-nine feet below the street where the skyscraper’s foundations would be set. Laboring night and day, they carried away the debris of the basement walls and floor, plus the fifty-one thousand cubic yards of earth and rock.

Most impressive on the site was the steam shovel, a monstrous machine that belched steam as it clawed and tore its way down below the street. Its shovel carved out a yard and a half of earth at a time. Each rig cost $14,500, and Godwin charged roughly $3.50 per cubic yard of removed earth to a five-foot depth. This escalated to $13.50 once he reached thirty feet from street level. Boilers on the back of the boxcar provided the power. An engineer and helper made up the shovel crew. The former sat in the boxcar behind the shovel and maneuvered the rig, which was unusually agile for its girth. One writer of the time said it could “move in every direction save skyward.” Through judicious use of the levers, the engineer moved the shovel forward on its caterpillar treads to where his helper directed, dropped the boom, drew the shovel forward, scooped up his next load, raised the boom, rotated the car (which was saved from tipping over by a five-ton counterweight), and carried it to a dipper lowered from a derrick that then hauled the earth and rock away. The six shovels on the Chrysler Building site repeated this process thousands of times to reach bedrock, and spectators rarely tired of the show.

Unseen by those passing on the street was the tremendous amount of work being done outside of Manhattan Island to prepare for the building to rise. As Van Alen settled on the design as well as specifications for materials, Fred Ley began making the orders, working closely with the manufacturers so that product quality and timely delivery were guaranteed. A skyscraper the size of the Chrysler Building required worldwide efforts. Oak planks would come from West Virginia, spruce from Canada, finer woods from Cuba, Japan, and South America. Brass pipes and copper rods would arrive from Connecticut, aluminum from Tennessee, and asbestos fittingly from Asbestos, Quebec. Quarries from as near as New Hampshire or as far as Italy or Sweden would provide granite and marble. Cement for the foundations usually would arrive from Pennsylvania, while brick came from Michigan. Pennsylvania also would provide much of the steel. Belgians made nice plate glass, and the Portuguese a fine insulating cork. There were thousands of items to purchase, tens of subcontractors to consult for decisions, and millions of dollars in contracts to let.

By the end of February, many of these materials had been ordered and the excavation was nearly completed. Over fifty thousand feet of lumber shored up the walls surrounding the giant chasm that was now 405 Lexington Avenue. Foundation engineers directed the men as they laid the spread footings upon which the columns would stand. These footings distributed the tremendous weight bearing down on each column. Resting on a concrete pier that went down to bedrock, the footing was made of stacks of steel beams placed side by side. Each layer of beams was turned perpendicular to the one below. Once set, the foundation workers constructed wooden frames around the steel and poured concrete inside to weatherproof it. This steel and concrete box weighed over thirty-five tons and could bear a load ten times that weight. It wouldn’t be long now before the first columns of the Chrysler Building were raised on top of these footings. Ley was on schedule to live up to the promise of the billboard hung at the edge of the site: “Chrysler Building—Being Erected on this Site—Ready for Occupation Spring of 1930.”

And yet with all of this construction and design work over the four and half months since Chrysler had bought the property and declared he wanted the world’s tallest building, there was no word of what kind of skyscraper would rise on the land at Forty-second Street and Lexington. Only those involved in the project knew how New York’s skyline was about to change forever.

Finally on March 7, 1929, Chrysler released the plans and rendering for Van Alen’s design to the press. “World’s Tallest Edifice to Cost $15,000,000—Topped by Artistic Dome,” proclaimed the New York Times and “Chrysler Building Will Be City’s Highest Tower,” promised the New York Herald Tribune. Journalists detailed a sixty-eight-story tower of 809 feet, with a total volume of 13.5 million cubic feet and 900,000 square feet of rentable floor space, calling it the “giant of giants” whose neighbors were “such pygmies as the 52-story Chanin Building, the diminutive Graybar Building and the barely perceptible New York Central Building.” The skyscraper would house eleven thousand people, run thirty elevators, and have 3,750 windows that needed to be washed on a regular basis. Tunnels would connect the building with Grand Central Terminal, the subway, and the Hotel Commodore. The grand entrance would open into a lobby one hundred feet long, with a dome in the center over three stories tall. The New York Sun reported: “At night the tower will be flood lighted with banks of lights on each of the four corners of the terrace at the fifty-sixth floor and another set on the top of the dome to light the pinnacle of the tower. The pinnacle will be in the form of a thirty-pointed star set up on end. It will be of case aluminum and mounted on a figure sixteen feet high.” It was a grand announcement, and newspaper editors reproduced the image of the future Chrysler Building on their front pages.

News of “world’s tallest” skyscrapers always made for eye-catching headlines, even if most came from developers hoping to spin their hold on a particular spot of land into millions—as Reynolds had done previously for the same site. It had been sixteen years since Woolworth claimed the title, and the possibility of another skyscraper rising higher stirred great interest. The city’s height race had been at a slow simmer too long. In 1926 the architect and engineer John Larkin first stirred the pot when he announced a one-hundred-and-ten-story, 1208-foot-tall “super-skyscraper” to dwarf the Woolworth Building. The New York Times proclaimed it would make “the Tower of Babel look like a child’s toy.” Although Larkin failed to meet his promise of world’s tallest (ground had yet to be broken by 1929), the possibility was enough to fire imaginations. Others announced plans for towering structures; even the dictator Mussolini promoted a tower for Rome of eleven hundred feet with forty-five hundred rooms, one hundred halls, and a gymnasium for Olympic athletes. But nothing had yet come to pass.

Van Alen, and likely most of the city, knew Chrysler had the will and the money to see his skyscraper soar above any other. The announcements made it clear the Chrysler Building was a personal investment. Now in a decade obsessed with farthest, fastest, and tallest, with the stock market booming and real-estate values climbing, the question was who would challenge the automobile giant and his architect. The answer came soon enough.

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