Laying the Foundation
History and Introduction to the Site

At the turn of the century, the automobile was still largely on the drawing boards. By 1910, there were 458,500 of them sputtering down the rutted American roadways. In 1920, there were 9,239,000 and in another decade that would triple. The auto had become an integral part of American life. Walter P. Chrysler was a mechanic smart enough to see the future of the automobile. He was a master machinist and in 1912, he became works manager at Buick Motor Corporation. Ten years later, Chrysler was the head of his own company. In 1927, the mechanic-turned-entrepreneur from Michigan was ready to build a giant headquarters in the heart of New York City. He commissioned William Van Alen as the architect for the job. From the start, Chrysler wanted a bold structure, declaring the glories of the modern age, but it was ultimately an architectural feud that drove the Chrysler building to be the tallest in the world.

Walter P. Chrysler
During the construction of the Chrysler Building, Van Alen's former partner and new rival, H. Craig Severence, was completing the 66-story Bank of Manhattan Tower at 40 Wall Street, which topped out at 927 feet. Van Alen had publicly announced the intended height for the Chrysler Building at 925 feet, but he and Chrysler wanted to claim the title of world's tallest structure so badly they planned and secretly assembled the 180 foot needle-like finial inside the tower. When the building was nearing completion, the finial was hoisted into place, making the Chrysler Building the world's tallest and leaving 40 Wall Street in its dust by 172 feet.
Two early designs and
the final product.
 

The Chrysler Building is certainly unique and in 1930, it reflected a merger of the new and the old. The shiny Nirosta steel that clad the sunburst tower and gleaming Gargoyles had never been used in America before ("New German Steel", New York Times). These were not the gothic gargoyles of the Woolworth Building, but the icons of the Chrysler automobile, one of the many wonders of this machine age. The internal structures of the Chrysler Building also reflected the advanced mechanics of the modern age. Alongside these innovations were staid light brick cladding, and the tower form, both conventional by 1930. See the The March of the Skyscraper for a closer look at skyscraper designs of the 20's and 30's.

Along with this juxtaposition in design was a juxtaposition in meaning. Even though the Chrysler Building had to give up its title of tallest in the world to the Empire State Building only a few months later, the silver tower remained a powerful icon, standing at a crossroads of ideologies in the 1930's. Some saw the Chrysler Building as wholly new, the symbol of the beauty and bounty that would come to be called the modern age. At the same time, others tried to place the building in the context of past decades and centuries. With one eye, America was looking forward to the new and exciting prospects that the innovations in technology provided. With the other eye, America looked backward, trying to find a useable past, a continuum in which the Chrysler Building was just another inevitable event. This site examines these issues in the sections Icon of the Modern Age and Reinventing the Past. There were also those who saw the skyscraper as an aberration to our civilization and who looked for alternatives (Tearing Down the Towers).