Icon of the Modern Age

"Into the empyrean, the builder has flung his handiwork seeking to pierce the ever-unfathomable blue above"

-Chrysler Corporation's promotional booklet for its new headquarters


Many saw the shiny tower of the Chrysler Building as a symbol of something new, a break from the past. It became part of the zeitgeist of the Modern Age.

"It teems with the spirit of modernism, it is the epitome of modern business life, it stands for progress in architecture and in modern building methods" (Murchison).

"The thing I want to say about skyscrapers is that we are living in an age that is a great deal different from any other age in history" (Walker 689).

By architectural standards of the 1930's, the building was only half modern at best. It did have the unusual top, and the gargoyles covered in a new kind of steel--planished, enduro, or nirosta--depending on which article you read, but the cladding was still brick, and the tower form was conventional. It did not approach the high Modern style of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (1932). However, it was very modern in its decor, its construction, its operation and most of all in its spirit--something that Walter Chrysler had consciously created.
"A thoroughly modern structure in every practical detail, the Chrysler building is also one of the outstanding examples of the application of modern art tendencies to the skyscraper. Its sponsor has expressed the same imagination and the same foresight in anticipating critical public demand that have given the name Chrysler international prestige as the symbol of new thinking and new daring in going beyond the less imaginative" (Chrysler promotional booklet).

The decor of the Chrysler Building was a decided break from the gothic and classical spires that had come before. It still had gargoyles, but these were not the ornate stone sculptures from the Woolworth building, but gleaming symbols of the automobile industry. The corners of the 61st floors were graced with eagles, replicas of the 1929 Chrysler hood ornaments. On the 31st floors were giant radiator caps. The mural on the ceiling of the lobby embodied the idea of "Energy and man's application of it." The style of the mural and the ornate lobby were decidedly Art Deco, a new motif promoted at the 1925 Arts Exposition Internationale Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes in Paris. Characteristic of the designs are very stylized low-relief sculpture and the use of tiles.

One of the elaborate "Art Deco" elevator doors.
"The imposing entrance."

A postcard from the 1930's.

Other buildings had been big, and yet others would be bigger, but the Chrysler Building remained unique because it so frankly and beautifully draped itself in modern style and decor while proclaiming the success of that modern wonder: the automobile.

"Its economic life will be longer than that of the average office building, because some of the appliances and equipment were devised for this particular building and are believed to be advanced ideas" ("Finishing Touches").

Throughout its construction, the Chrysler Building was continually lauded for its efficiency and outstanding safety record. Even the staid New York Times reported that four floors were added weekly and that there had been no fatalities in its construction, a rarity in the 1920's and 30's. The safety record was believed to be a result of the new phone system that was used during the building's construction. When a load of supplies would arrive, the proper foreman would be called on the phone and they would be dealt with immediately, rather than create a hazard on the building site indefinitely.

The completed Chrysler Building reflected a "full recognition of the arrival of the electrical era" (McHugh 268). It housed 32 elevators that were described in Scientific American: "Otis electric gearless, machine type, with full automatic signal control and automatic leveling. This type is practically self operating" (268). They could go up to speeds of 1200 feet a minute, but were curbed to 700 feet per minute by the law of New York City (Murchison 78). The heating system was a new design that was divided into zones so one portion of the building could be heated without effecting the others.

The structure's vast size and technological infrastructure led to new ways of thinking about the skyscraper.

"The thing we have to get in our minds in thinking of a skyscraper is that it is not a building, but a city" (Walker 692). Chrysler liked this idea of his building as a self sufficient entity and promoted it in his brochure: "Here is a city within a city--a community with its Schrafft's restaurant and its Terminal barber shop, its stores, and beauty parlor, its two gymnasiums and its two emergency hospitals for men and for women...Every contribution to efficiency, sanitation, comfort and even inspiration, that human ingenuity can conceive or money can buy is provided" (21). According to Chrysler, size and technology had met to create the community of the future.

The ability to control the environment of this "new city" captured the imagination. One forward thinker discussed the possibility of the development of ultraviolet lamps to provide artificial sunlight and concluded that "In fact windows probably would be eliminated entirely to prevent interference with artificial ventilation which today is providing balmy atmosphere, more constant that the real" (Bareuther 586). Climate control could only be a beginning to bigger and better and often more outlandish ideas: "Architects are beginning to discuss ideas of using modified pneumatic tubes to replace elevators and to shoot persons into skyscrapers" (Bareuther 586).

Even without all the interesting details and modern infrastructure, the Chrysler building would have been admired as an icon of modernism for its sheer size. For 17 long years the neo-gothic Woolworth Building had ruled Manhattan and now it was dethroned by a full 279 feet. The Chrysler Building was only the beginning however. It was first rivaled by the Bank of Manhattan Tower, which was planned to be taller than the Chrysler Building's announced height of 925 feet. While the two were being built, Chrysler architect William Van Alen made undisclosed plans to alter the dome and add a finial to the top. When the thin needle-like ornament was hoisted into place at 1046 feet, the Bank Tower was left 119 feet behind.

Chrysler's reign was short. A few months later the Empire State Building was completed at 1244 feet. There were no more buildings that would rival this one for height, but there were many more skyscrapers of note. (See The March of the Skyscraper.) The obsession with size appears again and again in the writings about the skyscrapers, so much that architects are rarely mentioned. Many of the accounts contain countless statistics of how large the building is, how much space it would take up if it were flat, how many rivets were used, how many workers were needed. The chart below was published in Fortune magazine is probably the best illustration of the craze for size.

The New York Times ran an article on the shift of the highest buildings to central Manhattan. To demonstrate just how big they were, the Times took five skyscrapers-- The Lincoln Building, Chanin Building, Daily News Building, Tudor City and The Chrysler Building--and painstakingly did some figures:

"These five skyscrapers have an aggregate cost of over $61,000,000 and if placed on top of one another would rise to a height of almost 3,000 feet. They will contain 245 floors and have about 3,268,000 square feet of rentable office and store space, exclusive of the Tudor City apartment houses.
If this amount of space was spread out in an open field it would represent about 73 acres, which is more than twelve times as large as Madison Square Park" ("Manhattan's Building Peak").

It is interesting to note that even though it was usurped in its title for highest, the Chrysler Building never lost its popularity. Its bold and quirky design made it endure. It was would always be the first skyscraper to be synonymous with the modern age and it ushered in a decade of reaching for the sky.

The Chrysler Building was a symbol of the modern in the most iconographic of places: the advertisement. In both of these ads from Fortune of 1930 the Chrysler Building is used to signify the modern age. The ads also allude to the secret and technically complicated interiors of the Chrysler Building. Click on the ads for a larger version.