Can One Building Define a City?
When I first moved to New York City, the Empire State Building seemed the landmark fate intended me to orient around. I worked on lower Madison Avenue, one entrance to our building opening onto Madison Square Park.
Freed at 5:00, I walked up Fifth to meet my wife near 42nd Street. Because we arrived in autumn, it was usually dark by then. For blocks, the well-lit tower soared above everything else, defining midtown. Weaving through rush hour crowds, I still felt like a tourist with this building, looking up in the bustle of others eager to get home, to dinners and to happy hour.
What the Empire State Building stood for was a kind of power, a New York certainty, important then during the last days of Ed Koch‘s disastrous reign as mayor. (I know. The press loved him. He was a showboat, but the run up in crime in his administration was astronomical and his exacerbation of the emerging AIDS epidemic, afraid apparently that he’d be exposed as gay himself, remains and always will be unforgivable.) The giant told us it wasn’t going anywhere. It and we would weather the storm.
One cold day that winter, somewhere around 28th Street, I remember looking up at its illuminated pinnacle and thinking: God, don’t let this ever seem ordinary. It was privilege to be here. I got to see this art deco masterpiece every day. It was like living with a big Matisse on my living room wall.
For three glorious days, until plans changed, my company situated me in an office with a window filled with it. Right behind my desk, the Empire State Building herded the masses of smaller structures in midtown.
What’s the Big Deal with the Empire State?
For one thing, it survived the distinction of being known originally by many as the “Empty State Building.”
Finished just in time to match the worst of the Great Depression, in 1931, its opening signaled by the Depression’s accidental architect, President Herbert Hoover sparking the lights on from a button in the White House. Even then, there was hope. The Empire State’s tower lights were first lit to recognize Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s defeat of Hoover in the next year’s presidential election.
It’s hard to make the stretch backward to a time when an art deco building – or anything else artsy – symbolized the singular pride of the United States. It lifted spirits when economic times were at their worst. And as beautiful as it was tough, the Empire State Building remained unprofitable for 20 years, until enough tenants filled the floors in 1951.
But it stood for something. It stood for American prowess, for brilliant domestic engineering and for faith in the future.
Can we begin to say anything like that about the buildings throwing glass walls ever higher, mostly without distinction, in our cities now? Today’s idea seems to come from viral capitalism without cultural contamination. The taller the structure, the more expensive real estate gets added to Manhattan’s wealth. Scan the nighttime skyline and see how many are actually lived in much of the time. The newer buildings are investments on a par with works of modern art, bought by oligarchs and fund managers, indifferent to the work’s value as a creation, whose abiding criteria is speculative investment.
So, the Empire State Building stands tall, a diamond among costume jewelry.
The World’s Tallest Building
For forty years, it was the Empire State. Before, thanks to a crafty innovation by Walter Chrysler, the winner was the Lexington Avenue skyscraper that bears his name.
Rightly or wrongly, I’ve thought of the Empire State as the crown jewels of undervalued New York architecture and the Chrysler Building as its companion wrist bracelet, stunning but no match.
That’s wrong, of course, because the comparison is false. The Empire State was built from the idea of strength and durability. Although both buildings are basically art deco in design and thrust skyward out of the 1920s American boom, the Chrysler is more artful by at least half. As you can see from Deborah’s photography, it has curves and icons jutting outward from ascending decks.
The startling image of Margaret Bourke-White, taken by an unknown photographer, as she ventured out over the edge of the city is classic, not just for its breathtaking view, but also for the extraordinary building element that’s impossible to appreciate from the street.
White ventures out on a gargoyle, doing what the generation of photographers did then – document the dynamically emerging modern world.
As a monument to and headquarters for the automobile manufacturer, the Chrysler Building is a salute to the machine age, as powerful a driving element in America then as the digital age is recently.
History races, speeding up as populations swell. Imagining a time when cars really were the tools that reset Americas definition may be hard, but this building tells you it’s so. It also tells us that buildings can be artful or elegant, just as the goods created by the machines that paid for them were, an idea of sinking value now, when buildings square off like glass boxes, echoes of worker housing from the communist era, and originality is defined as a curve in the facade.
Part of the reason, the Chrysler Building is so outstanding is that Walter Chrysler paid for the building and its design personally, not the corporation it symbolized. Not just that, but he participated in the design too. He actually refused to fully pay for it though in a dispute with architect William Van Alen.
Lost in the beauty of its design is the fact that the Chrysler Building is, to this day, the world’s tallest brick building. As prosaic as that is, not so the story of how it became, for less than a year, the world’s tallest structure of all, eclipsing the Eiffel Tower in Paris and 40 Wall Street downtown.
As both New York buildings neared completion in 1930, the 125 foot spire that now seems a natural part of the Chrysler Building’s design was secretly built inside the nearly completed structure, then hoisted onto the 68th floor in four pieces. Flummoxing the builders of 40 Wall Street took only 90 minutes.
Consulting architects for 40 Wall Street, Shreve and Lamb, fumed in a newspaper article, pointing out that their building had the highest occupied floor and more, but to no avail. The Chrysler Building, recognized as the world’s tallest, until eclipsed by the Empire State Building, will be admired for its design while its erstwhile competitor will be remembered for not much.
It’s an exercise in nostalgia to look at these buildings today as glass towers with entirely different virtues compete to throw them into shadows. And its a story about America and, probably, the world today. Sleek and investment worthy tops art and history.
Built to last is a cliche from the machine age dominated by American manufacturing ingenuity. What will we remember, if much of anything about today’s newest skyscrapers? Their austere heights? The competition to throw the longest shadow across Central Park? Which has the highest density of Russian oligarchs?
These speculations are intended to sprinkle some humor on an impossible comparison. The Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings were as much about their times as the buildings dwarfing pedestrians along 57th Street are. As the past always is remembered fondly by exaggerating its best while diminishing its worst, I find it hard to imagine we have not lost something important in the push forward.