Beyond the Village and Back: The Chrysler Building
In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.
In 2007 the Chrysler Building was ranked ninth on the list of America’s Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects. Built in 1928-30 and designed by William Van Allen, it is a beacon in our rapidly changing New York City skyline, and in many ways the embodiment of the Art Deco style and the Roaring 20s’ exuberant building boom before the Depression. In 1976 the building became a National Historic Landmark, and in 1978 the building was designated an individual New York City landmark and its ground floor lobby was designated an interior landmark. As stated in the New York City landmark designation report, it “embodies the romantic essence of the New York City skyscraper.”
But what does a soaring skyscraper at 405 Lexington Avenue have to do with our neighborhoods? The building might never have existed were it not for a venerable local institution. And that institution in turn would likely not exist today, at least not in its current form, were it not for the Chrysler Building.
The iconic landmark was built by Walter P. Chrysler (1875-1940) of the Chrysler Corporation, a self-made man who worked in the railroad business before joining the Buick Motor Company (which was later absorbed by General Motors) in 1912. He left Buick and became president of the ailing Maxwell Motor Company, which he was hired to turn around. In 1924 he introduced the car that bore his name which featured such innovations as four-wheel hydraulic brakes and a high compression motor. So successful was the Chrysler car that by 1925 Maxwell was absorbed into the newly created Chrysler Corporation, and its old makes and models were largely phased out. By the time Chrysler retired in 1935 as president of his eponymous corporation to become chairman of the board, the company was second in the industry in terms of volume of production.
Just three years into the Chrysler Corporation’s creation Chrysler was planning to construct a new headquarters in New York that would define both the company, the New York skyline, and the very notion of a “skyscraper.” Perhaps surprisingly, Chrysler’s brainchild was constructed without funds from the Chrysler Corporation; according to his autobiography, Chrysler built it as an investment for his sons to oversee. But Chrysler was also aware that the building would become a symbol and the image of the Chrysler Corporation, and he details in his autobiography that we worked closely with the architect William Van Alen on the design.
William Van Alen (1882-1954) attended the Pratt Institute and continued his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He returned to New York City in 1912 and is credited with introducing the concept of “garden” apartments. In the 1920s he made a name for himself with his innovative shop-front designs for the Child’s restaurant chain. During the 1940s, he served as the director of sculpture for the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design and was a member of the American Institute of Architects and the National Academy of Design.
In the 1920s, Van Alen was increasingly interested in the tenets of modernism which were gaining prominence in Europe and, more slowly, in the United States. For the Chrysler Building, Van Alen was able to apply these to the design at a scale he and few others had ever been able to before. Prior to the First World War, traditional styles were typically applied to tall building design. Following the war, architects began to embrace industrial materials in their designs, and the Art Deco style — a bridge of sorts between modernism and some prior architectural styles — worked quite well within that approach. The Chrysler Building illustrates this boldly — at 77 stories in height, its most iconic and recognizable features are its steel-clad arches at the top with triangular windows.
At the time that the Chrysler Building was being constructed, there was a race among architects and developers to create the world’s tallest skyscrapers. The Chrysler building was in direct competition with the Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall Street, designed by a former partner of Van Alen’s, H. Craig Severence. Severence added a 50-foot flag-pole to his design making it top out at 927 feet, with the understanding that the Chrysler Building was only supposed to be 925 feet. However, Van Alen had secretly designed a 121-foot long spire off-site and delivered it surreptitiously to the site in five sections. It was clandestinely assembled at the 65th floor, and in November 1929 to the world’s surprise it was raised into place through a fire tower at the center of the building. Topping out at 1,046, the Chrysler building became the world’s tallest building and the first building to surpass the height of the Eiffel Tower. It only held onto that title for about a year, however, until the completion of the Empire State Building in early 1931 (an iconic New York Skyscraper with its own ‘Beyond the Village and Back’ story).
So what’s the connection to our neighborhoods? The land upon which the Chrysler Building sits is owned by the Cooper Union, which was donated to the institution to endow it with funding to support its mission, and in fact the income generated by the land — and its use by the Chrysler Building — substantially subsidizes the education of Cooper Union students.
Cooper Union was founded in 1859 by inventor, entrepreneur, and industrialist Peter Cooper, whose goal was to provide education to young people free of charge. In order to achieve that goal, he donated the majority of his wealth, mostly in the form of real estate holdings, to the creation and ongoing funding of Cooper Union.
But even that was not sufficient to allow Cooper Union to maintain its mission to provide a free education. So in 1902, Andrew Carnegie and the Cooper and Hewitt families (relatives of the Coopers) donated land on the northeast corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue to Cooper Union specifically for the purpose of endowing the institution. This was a canny purchase, as New York’s center of business was gradually migrating north to what we would today call Midtown. Additionally, the New York City subway system would soon open with service on its first line to 42nd Street; in just over a decade, today’s Grand Central Station, one of New York’s two great transit hubs, would open just a half block to the west of the lot; the grand main branch of the city’s new public library system would open just a block and a half further west; and within a year the New York Times would build its new headquarters on 42nd Street just a few blocks further west, prompting the renaming of Longacre Square as Times Square, and the migration of the center of New York’s media and entertainment industries to Midtown around 42nd Street.
While the city initially attempted to place the property on the tax rolls, the courts ultimately ruled that given Cooper Union’s unique state-granted charter which exempted it and all endowments from taxes, and that the property was specifically purchased to endow the university, it could not be subject to taxation. Instead, the Chrysler (and both his successors and predecessors in leasing the property) pay the equivalent of their property taxes to Cooper Union to continue to subsidize the education for the school’s students., which especially after the construction of the Chrysler Building amounted to a considerable payment. That income helped keep the school’s tuition free until just a few years ago, and even after Cooper Union began charging some students tuition, has helped keep those costs free or very low for many of its students.
One additional historic curiosity about the Chrysler Building: you might notice that that lot upon which if sits, and therefore the base of the building, is defined by straight right-angled lines on three sides, but the eastern boundary of the lot and the base of the building is oddly crooked.
That’s because the lot dates back to before the establishment of the Manhattan grid, and reflects the path of the old Boston Post Road through the area, which once ran along what would be the eastern edge of the Chrysler Building. So while this road, one of the oldest in America, is long gone from the area, the Chrysler Building’s lot and the oddly-shaped base of the building still reflects its pre-grid route through Manhattan.