Ties to Tradition

The skyscraper inspired both fear and awe.
( Rendering from the 1920's by Hugh Ferris)

The glories of the machine age were not accepted unconditionally. Some beheld the changes with misgivings and even fear. For many, the world was moving too fast, and they struggled to come to terms with the changes and recapture a sense of continuity with the past. To make sense of the skyscraper and the machine age, writers of the time tried to historicize and humanize the tall structures by placing them within an ancient tradition and emphasizing the contributions and skill of the individual laborer.

Some writers of the 1930's did not treat the skyscraper as a break from the past, but as another step in a continuing architectural tradition. These comparisons not only calmed those that were afraid of the speed and size that the modern age brought, but also justified the corporate gluttony of the skyscraper in a time of economic depression.

"Were not even the cathedrals extravagant, fantastic, and a little insane? Were they not built less for use than in order that the proud citizen might show what his community could do, and may not we be permitted to fling our towers into the sky with the same wanton exuberance?" ("Skyscrapers")

"Just as the rulers and great nobles of Europe, the princes of India, and the long line of Chinese dynasts, used architecture to exalt themselves in their publics' eyes, and as the surest monument to their achievements, so do our industrial rulers act today" (Dewing, "Towers" 593).

"If the race itself is a competition in advertising, so, in a manner of speaking , have been all the competitions in tall buildings from the time when Pharaoh vied with Pharaoh matching tomb against tomb, to the pious rivalry of the cathedral builders, each seeking to raise a pointed arch or a spire nearer to God" (Brock).

Alongside these attempts to root the skyscraper in the past and justify its extravagance was an even greater effort to humanize the skyscraper, to make it a product and symbol of the people. In his essay "The Relation of the Skyscraper to our Life" Barclay-Vesey Building architect Ralph Walker believes that the difference between the great structures of the past and the tall buildings of the twentieth century was the human factor. "Where we have a tall structure that has no relation to death like the pyramids, or to religion like the Parthenon, which was placed on a high elevation to emphasize the position of a goddess we have something of a human need."

The emphasis on the worker is found consistently in the writings about the Chrysler Building. In the promotional brochure the story of Walter P. Chrysler is told as the idealization of the American dream, the rise of the common laborer through hard work and ingenuity to the top of America's fastest growing industry. More important than story of Chrysler is the importance of the workers captured in the mural on the ceiling of the lobby painted by Edward Trumball.

"Here was the base and also the central theme: brawny man power, symbolic of the vitality and the force typical of our age. Here, too, at the root of the mural was the symbol that Mr. Chrysler wished to dominate the whole: The power of the individual worker who labors with his hands, the muscled giant whose brain directs his boundless energy to the attainment of the triumphs of this mechanical era in that never-ending struggle to bend the elements to his will" (15).

In Fortune's four part special report called "Skyscraper" an entire section was devoted to the workers and their tools. The articles assure the reader that the worker has not been lost, just changed and that "these are the new artisans."

"The trouble with all the talk about the decay of artisan ship is that it is true. It has always been true. It was true when the last wattle-weaver died and they took to building houses of brick. And it will be true when the tools and machinery of the contemporary arts are replaced by atomic explosions...The master-workmen of our time drive steel to steel with hammer strokes of air. But they still depend upon the judgment of hand and eye. And their necks are still breakable" (27).

According to Fortune, the lives of the steel workers were exciting, and dangerous. Most of the writings created a portrait of the fine life of the American steel worker. The following pictures were run with a full article on riveting, quoted below.

"The gang photographed on page 90 is Eagle's Gang, a veteran of the Forty Wall Street [Manhattan Bank Building] job, reputed in the trade to be one of the best gangs in the city. The gang takes its name from its heater and organizer, E. Eagle, a native of Baltimore. It is the belief of timekeepers, foreman, and the leaders of other gangs that Mr. Eagle is a man of property in his home town and indulges in the sport of riveting for mysterious reasons. There are also myths about the gun-man and the bucker-up, brothers named Bowers from some South Carolina town. They are said never to speak. Even in a profession where no man is able to speak, their silence stands out. The catcher is George Smith, a New Yorker. There are no stories about George" (28).

Writings about the skyscraper also attempted to include not only those who worked on the skyscraper but those who worked in and around it.

"The skyscraper, ever concentrating more people above the same areas of ground, gives the tenancy incalculable momentum and on the public's content with this new way of living the success of the skyscraper depends" (Dewing, "Towers" 590).

In a series of articles in the North American Review of 1931, Arthur Dewing discussed the public's architectural rights in relation to the skyscraper. For the most part Dewing is against the skyscraper as "an elevation of industry above mankind." However he also argues that every citizen owns part of the tall buildings on the logic that if the corporations mortgage the building from a bank and the bank depends on thousands of common people with savings accounts then we all own some little piece, however small, of the skyscrapers and should have a say in their construction. It is a rather ridiculous argument by today's standards, but it is representative of the conscious effort to empower the people in the face of the rapidly expanding urban jungle.

Perhaps nowhere is the effort to qualify and humanized the skyscraper more clearly illustrated than in the display on the observation deck of the Chrysler Building. Here the Chrysler Building is part of the past, rising up out of a goat farm with the help of the hand made tools of Walter himself. It is a fairy tale, told to those that needed to cling to the traditions and ways of the past to usher in the marvels of the machine.

"One of the features of the observation floor will be an exhibition at the entrance which will include a picture of the Chrysler Building site as it was slightly more than fifty years ago--a goat farm, and another of the old four-story buildings which were torn down to make way for the present structure. Between these two pictures will be displayed the mechanics' tools which Mr. Chrysler made with his own hands, and above this, as if rising out of the tool box, will be a drawing of the new building" ("Finishing Touches").


The fairy tale of individualism wrought by the machine carries over into the marketing of Chrysler's automobiles. The ads emphasize the mythic American individual, asking the prospective buyer to ignore the reality of thousands of identical Chryslers rolling off the assembly line day after day. (Click on the ads to see them enlarged.)