The Tale of Two Skyscrapers
The Chrysler and Empire State Buildings
The tale of two skyscrapers shows how pride, ego and art drove Manhattan skyward with unforgettable monuments. Today’s motives are different. Will featureless glass towers smother the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings?
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By David Stone
Can One Building Define a City?
Working on lower Madison Avenue, I crossed Madison Square Park after leaving the subway.
Freed at 5:00, I walked up Fifth to meet my wife near 42nd Street. It was usually dark by then because we moved in the fall.
For blocks, the Empire State Building soared above everything else ahead of me, defining midtown. Weaving through rush hour crowds, I still felt like a tourist, looking up from the hustle of others eager to get home, to dinners and to happy hour.
A Tale of Two Skyscrapers from My Angle
The press loved him. He was a showboat, but the run up in crime in his administration was astronomical. His refusal to recognize the emerging AIDS epidemic remains unforgivable.
The giant at 34th and 5th 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 having a Matisse on my living room wall.
What’s the Big Deal with the Empire State?
For one thing, it survived being tagged “the Empty State Building,” in the beginning.
Finished at the nadir of the Great Depression, in 1931, it was officially opened by the Depression’s accidental architect. President Herbert Hoover turned on the lights on from a button in the White House.
Even then, there was hope. The Empire State’s tower lights were first lit when Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Hoover the next year.
It’s a long stretch back to when an art deco building — or anything else artsy — was the pride of the United States.
The Empire State Building lifted spirits when economic times were at their worst. But as beautiful as it was tough, the Empire State Building was unprofitable for 20 years. There were not enough tenants until 1951.
But it stood for something. It stood for American prowess, brilliant domestic engineering and faith in the future.
Can we say anything like that about the glass towers going up in our cities today?
Today’s idea seems to come from viral capitalism without culture.
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? How many windows are dark?
Meanwhile, the Empire State Building stands tall, a diamond among costume jewelry.
The Tale of Two Skyscrapers Takes Shape
For forty years, the tallest building in New York was the Empire State. Before, thanks to crafty innovation by Walter Chrysler, the winner was the Lexington Avenue skyscraper that bears his name.
The Empire State is the crown jewel of under appreciated New York architecture, I thought, the Chrysler Building its wrist bracelet, stunning but no match.
That’s wrong because the comparison is false.
The Empire State was built from the idea of strength and durability. Although both buildings are art deco in design and thrust skyward out of the 1920s American boom, the Chrysler is more artful . As you can see from Deborah Julian’s photo, it has curves and icons jutting outward from ascending decks.
The image of Margaret Bourke-White, taken by an unknown photographer, as she ventured out over the edge of the city is classic. It’s also breathtaking. Not just for the daring but the fierce gargoyle. You can’t appreciate it from the street.
White ventures out on a gargoyle to document the emerging modern world.
Headquarters for the car maker, the Chrysler Building salutes the machine age.
Chrysler Built on Ego
History races, speeding up as populations swell.
One reason the Chrysler Building is outstanding is because Walter Chrysler paid for the building out of his own pocket. No corporation picked up the tab.
Not just that, he participated in the design too. But he refused to fully pay for it in a dispute with the architect, William Van Alen.
Lost in the beauty of its design is the fact that the Chrysler Building is the world’s tallest brick building. Prosaic as that is, not so the story of how it became, for less than a year, the world’s tallest structure.
It eclipsed the Eiffel Tower and 40 Wall Street downtown. Then in the finish to the tale of two skyscrapers, it was eclipsed by the Empire State Building.
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.
It was then hoisted onto the 68th floor in four pieces. Flummoxing the builders of 40 Wall Street required 90 minutes.
Consulting architects for 40 Wall Street, Shreve and Lamb, fumed in a newspaper article. They said theirs had the highest occupied floor and more, but to no avail.
The Chrysler Building was the world’s tallest until the Empire State Building opened. It’s still admired for its design while its Wall Street competitor is remembered for not much.
Concluding the Tale of Two Skyscrapers
Glass towers with different virtues compete to throw both into shadows now.
It’s a story about America and, probably, the world. Sleek and investment worthy tops art and history.
“Built to last” is a cliche from the machine age dominated by American ingenuity.
What will we remember, if much of anything about today’s new skyscrapers? Their heights and tiny footprints?
The competition to throw the longest shadow across Central Park?
Which has the most oligarchs?
But in truth, the Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings were as much about their times as the buildings dwarfing pedestrians along 57th Street are today.
The past is remembered by exaggerating its best while diminishing its worst.
That’s true. But it’s also hard to imagine we haven’t lost something important in the push forward.