The story of Chrysler Building blends stories of the auto industry with the contributions that Walter P. Chrysler, as well as the Chrysler Corporation made on different aspects of Americana. You are about to know the 15 top secret stories of an American icon.
The Chrysler Building
By Lucas Compan, a guest storyteller
During a time of competition among industrial corporate titans and an evolving landscape in architecture, Walter P. Chrysler guided the design and construction of one of the most stunning buildings in the NYC skyline. This story gives access to a Chrysler experience that connects the style of the era as well as the lifestyle of Walter P. Chrysler. The story of the Chrysler Building offers insights into the family legacy that Walter P. Chrysler desired to leave. It also recognizes the significance of the building as a symbol of unique art deco American architecture that has captured the attention of designers, architects, tourists, entrepreneurs and others who appreciate the art deco effects that only welded steel and gargoyles against a setting of ornate murals and intricate designs can convey.
The Chrysler Building was completed on May 28th, 1930. The Building was designed by architect William Van Alen, but it really was industrialist Walter P. Chrysler that pushed the building to what it became. Chrysler saw an opportunity for the area to grow substantially, but mainly he wanted the building to be a personal monument to himself.
The Chrysler Building is an example of a building caught up in the quest to become the tallest in the world, which it obtained briefly for 11 months before it was surpassed by the Empire State Building. But because of its iconic and beautiful design, the height of the building never really mattered. A classic example of Art Deco architecture, the Chrysler Building is considered by many contemporary architects to be one of the finest buildings in the world. In 2005, New York's Skyscraper Museum asked one hundred architects, builders, critics, engineers and historians to choose their 10 favorite New York towers. The Chrysler Building came in first place with 90% of people ranking it #1.
What stories would be hidden within the walls of The Chrysler Building? We asked ourselves this question. And started to dig deep into the history of this iconic landmark. Here is a list of 15 top secrets that are not usually known:
Top Secret #15
There Was Once a Water Bottling Plant in the Basement
In the lower level (basement) of the Chrysler Building, there was a water bottling plant. In the book The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon Day by Day, there is an old film negative labeled as the “hydro zone water bottling” unit. Author David Stravitz says, “Tap water was filtered through an intricate system and then bottled for water coolers to be distributed to tenants in the building. The large room was magnificent, with fabulous tiling throughout. Quite exotic for some space most people never saw.”
Tenants could cross under Lexington Avenue directly to the Lexington Avenue subway system. This was designed for convenience to avoid traffic, rain, snow, etc., when coming and going to and from the subway.
Top Secret #14
It’s made of nearly four million bricks
The nearly four million bricks that compose the Chrysler Building were all laid out by hand. To be more exact, 3,286,000 bricks, 29.961 tons of steel, 5,100 windows (Source: New York Architecture). Several of its elements were also designed at Chrysler’s automobile empire. Parts of the building are composed of hubcaps, fenders, and radiator caps. The building’s famous gargoyles even resemble an old Chrysler hood ornament. The building is also decked out with 3,862 windows from which to gaze at the city.
Top Secret #13
The Top of the Chrysler Building is NOT Made From Hubcaps
There is a popular urban myth that Chrysler Building spire is made from actual hubcaps but it’s actually of stainless steel. According to Stravitz, the material was "produced in sheet stock called Enduro KA-2 from Germany. It was then hand-fabricated on site from two upper floors in the building. Imagine the precision on those intricate compound angles."
The spire was Walter P. Chrysler idea, and it's made of special stainless steel. It shines so intensively, that it can be seen from miles by ships at sea.
Top Secret #12
The Chrysler Building Was a Customized Building, Hand Crafted in Sheet Metal Shops on the 65th and 66th Floor
Below the 61st floor, the Chrysler Building was a fairly conventional office tower, with a shape that followed the setback formula required by the city's zoning law. Above the last setback and the stainless steel eagle-head gargoyles, though, both the program of the interior spaces and the architectural ornament entered the realm of the eccentric.
On floors 66 to 68, below the public observation deck (the second level of triangular windows), was the Cloud Club, a private dining and lounge space for executives who paid a $300 annual fee for membership to enjoy either the double-height dining room with Art Deco details or a more cozy Tudor lounge and “Old English” bar and grill. Walter Chrysler kept a private dining room with black etched-glass panels that looked north to Central Park. His offices in the tower, though, were outfitted in a baronial style of wood paneling and upholstered furniture.
Top Secret #11
There Used to Be A Three-Level Members Club and Speakeasy Near the Top
The romantically named Cloud Club was created partly at the behest of Texaco, or the Texas Company as it was called then, which before leasing 14 pricey floors in the new building, insisted that there be a suitable restaurant for its executives. The Cloud Club occupied the 66th, 67th and 68th floors of the Chrysler Building, and opened its padded leather doors in July 1930 to a membership of 300 movers and shakers, including E.F. Hutton, Condé Nast and the boxer Gene Tunney.
The New York Times calls The Cloud Club “the inspiration for many of the others,” such as The Rockefeller Center Club, on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza; the Hemisphere Club and Tower Suite, on the 48th floor of the Time-Life Building; the Pinnacle Club, near the top of the 45-story Socony-Mobil Building; and the Sky Club, on the 56th floor of the Pan Am Building.
The Cloud Club had an eclectic mix of design, ranging from Futurist in the main dining room, Tudor for the lounge, and an Old English grill room. Perhaps because of its decor, or its original function, it never became hip and stylish like the Rainbow Room but it did have amenities like a barber shop and locker rooms that were used to hide alcohol during Prohibition. The club closed in the late 1970s, the spaces gutted for office tenants.
Top Secret #10
A Public Observatory on the 71st Floor Is No Longer Accessible to the Public
In 1931 when the Chrysler Building opened, you could go up to the 71st-floor observatory (in the spire) and take in views of the city from all four sides for US0.50. The small triangular windows that were the result of the dome's design, however, created odd angles for viewing the city below. The Empire State Building, completed a year later, with its outdoor spaces and unobstructed vistas, became the more popular elevated experience, and the Chrysler Building's observatory continued to operate for just fourteen more years.
The celestial-themed observation deck closed down in 1945 and according to Moses Gates in his book Hidden Cities, it's now occupied by a private company.
However, the incredibly classic and beautiful Chrysler Building lobby is open to public visitation. More info at the footer of this story.
Top Secret #9
There Were A Couple of Apartments Hidden Inside The Building
On the top floor, Walter P. Chrysler had a private apartment and office and was said to boast of having the highest toilet in Manhattan. But LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White, well-known for her images on skyscrapers in the 1920s and 30s, lived in another apartment on the 61st floor. It was on this floor that Bourke-White herself was photographed atop one of the gargoyles in 1934. The lease was co-signed by Time, Inc. because the building wouldn’t rent it to a woman, despite her wealth and fame. She paid US$387.92 per month to live there, a good amount of money at the time. In today's money, it would be US$ 6,949.35.
According to The New York Times, Bourke-White hired “her good friend, John Vassos, an industrial designer, to create an Art Moderne stylish interior, with extensive built-ins, subdued palette, woods and metals. There was a main sitting area, an alcove for her desk, stairs that go out to the terrace. The superintendent reminded Bourke-White that her lease did not include access to the terrace, and she wrote back, “Of course.” But she invited businessmen whom she wanted to befriend to have cocktails on the terrace.”
Another highly distinguished resident of Chrysler Building was Walter P. Chrysler. "He kept an office as well as an opulent huge private apartment on the top floor. The quarters had a lavish dining room, and at the time, he was proud to boast of having the highest toilet in Manhattan. It was his intention to have the Chrysler Building, at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, become headquarters for the car company, but that never did happen. In fact, he seldom visited the apartment and remained mostly in Chrysler’s headquarters in Detroit," tells David Stravitz.
Would you climb the gargoyle to kiss her head? Watch this video to get inspired : )
Top Secret #8
There was a secret private bar during the Prohibition Era
During the Prohibition Era, The Cloud Club was also a speak-easy bar, available to its private member, equipped with secret coded-lockers to stash away their favorite liquors.
Top Secret #7
There Used to Be An Auto Showroom on the First Two Floors
While the original purpose of the building as the headquarters for Chrysler never materialized, an automobile showroom was located in the lobby of the building. The New York Times reported in 1997 that the showroom actually once occupied the first two floors of the lobby. The lobby, made with Moroccan marble walls, yellow marble floors, chrome steel ornamentation, was a tribute to the primacy of the automobile at the time – as you can see on this video.
Top Secret #6
The spire of the building has had serious waterproofing problems
The structure at the top of the Chrysler Building has had serious waterproofing problems over the years. While the stainless steel looked great from below, it had it's fair share of water problems. In the past years, there's been some serious repairs to the ever-leaking problems. Finally, they got it under control. It should be noted that the stainless steel crown was custom fabricated from two sheet metal shops right inside the building. Every cut of the stainless steel was done by hand and nailed onto the structure, and over time they leaked. Correcting this required a huge undertaking. Tis masterpiece of design needed serious attention. In the end, it was worth it. (NYT).
How about a tour inside the building on the highest actual floor? Click on the video below and enjoy.
Top Secret #5
The Spire Was Installed in About 90 Minutes
To compete with 40 Wall Street, then also under construction, for the title of World's Tallest Building, the spire was constructed secretly inside the building. On October 23, 1929, four separate pieces of the spire were lifted onto the dome of the building and riveted to each other. The spire was a total of 197 feet (61 meters), and weight 300 tons.
Top secret #4
Walter Chrysler insisted on having the highest bathroom in the world
Walter Chrysler succeed for six months. Was there a higher bathroom in the Empire State Building? Must have been. So for at least six months until perhaps the early part of 1931, his throne was the highest in the world. His throne was unseated (pun) after 15 minutes (six months) of fame.
Top Secret #3
Meet The Dentist In The Sky
Dr. Charles M. Weiss was known as The Dentist in The Sky. He worked in his dentistry office, where he created innovations in dental implantology. Dr. Charles Weiss was born in 1927, worked in the Chrysler Building since 1962, in the crown (on the 69º floor) since 1969, until 2012, when he died.
The office still there, in the sky, where Dr. Charles M. Weiss generously and eagerly shared his passion with generations of young dentists. Some of whom practiced with him in his Tower Dental suite – at the top of the Chrysler Building. He authored innumerable articles in dentistry, and with his son Adam Weiss wrote the definitive textbook on dental implantology entitled "Principles And Practice of Implant Dentistry."
Top Secret #2
The Chrysler Building exists because Dreamland burned down
Without the freak show-riddled Coney Island amusement park Dreamland (pictured below), the Chrysler Building would never have existed.
When Dreamland was decimated in a fire in 1911, its owner William Reynolds felt he needed a new, high-profile project to which he could dedicate his time.
As a result, he entered the “Tallest Building in the World” race, and commissioned William Van Alen. When Reynolds defaulted on the lease, Walter P. Chrysler purchased the property and design for $2 million.
Top Secret #1
Chrysler refused to pay Van Alen
Van Alen, the architect of the Chrysler Building, was so keen on beating George L. Ohrstrom in the race for the tallest building that he never signed a contract with Walter P. Chrysler.
After the building was erected, Van Alen asked Chrysler for 6% of its $14 million cost, but Chrysler refused to pay him. He believed Van Alen was working with building contractors on shady financial arrangements, and refused to be a part of it.
Van Alen sued. He did eventually get his money, but not until after his reputation was tarnished.
Basically, suing Time Magazine‘s “1928 Man of the Year” made it extremely difficult for Van Alen to win commissions.
Bonus – Fun Facts About The Chrysler Building
Year Started: 1928
Year Completed: 1930 ( Fourteen months )
Height (Roof): 925 ft
Height (Antenna Spire): 1,046 ft.
Floor Count: 77 floors
[ 1 ] Though the interior skeleton of the building is steel, the exterior is brick
[ 2 ] The Chrysler Building is still the tallest brick building in the world
[ 3 ] The Chrysler Building was the first man-made structure to be taller than 1000 feet Though William Van Alen designed the building, Walter Chrysler was the driving force behind the design alterations that made it the tallest building in the world. (Van Alen’s original design was 807 feet. When Chrysler entered the picture, it was adjusted to 925 feet, and then 1046 feet.)
[ 4 ] 391,831 rivets were used in the construction of the building.
[ 5 ] Though the building was done very quickly, with an average of 4 floors per week built, no one was killed during the construction.
[ 6 ] New York’s Skyscraper Museum polled 100 architects, engineers and historians in 2005, asking them to choose their favorite buildings in New York. The Chrysler Building came in first. Ninety percent of those polled placed in on their top-ten list.
[ 7 ] Television station WCBS transmitted from the top of the Chrysler Building in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. They later moved to the Empire State Building.
[ 8 ] The lobby of the Chrysler Building contains the world’s very first digital clock.
[ 9 ] The ceiling of the lobby is painted with a mural by Edward Trumbull entitled “Transport and Human Endeavor.”
[ 10 ] The mural depicts scenes from Chrysler’s own assembly line, Charles Lindbergh flying The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic and The Chrysler Building itself.
[ 11 ] There are 32 elevators in the Chrysler Building – four banks of eight elevators. They are beautifully inlaid with intricate designs.
[ 12 ] The Chrysler family sold the building in 1953. Though the building still bears their name, they do not own it.
[ 13 ] The Cooper Union, a private university in New York, owns the land that the building sits on, and their name is on the deed for the building itself. There is a 150-year lease for the land and building currently in place.
[ 14 ] There are 3,862 windows on the façade of the building.
[ 15 ] The building is referenced in the Broadway musical “Annie,” when Miss Hannigan tells the orphans to clean the floors “until they shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.” The musical is set during the Great Depression, and the Chrysler Building would have been a relatively recent addition to New York.
[ 16 ] Van Alen was much acclaimed after the building was finished. His life quickly took a downward turn, however. He had failed to enter into an official contract with Chrysler when they began working together. After the building was completed, Van Alen requested a fee. He wanted 6% of the building’s $14 million construction budget ($840,000). This was the standard fee at the time. Chrysler refused payment, and van Alen ended up suing him to be paid. He won the suit, but his reputation was severely compromised. That coupled with the onset of the Great Depression effectively ruined his career as an architect.
Chrysler Building segment from "New York: A Documentary Film"
Watch this incredible video, where you can see details of the Chrysler Building construction:
You may be craving to see it all in person, and to immerse yourself into this masterpiece of architecture and cultural icon. So check out the info below.
Chrysler Building Visitors Guide
Visitors can see the building from the outside, as well as visit the lobby to examine the Art deco details and a beautiful ceiling mural by Edward Trumbull, but the rest of the building is leased to businesses and not accessible to visitors. You can also book an escorted tour with a multiligual tour guide.
Chrysler Building Basics:
- Admission: Admission to the Chrysler Building is free, but keep in mind that you are visiting the lobby of a building that is used for business -- not just a tourist attraction. There is no access beyond the lobby for visitors to the Chrysler Building.
- Hours: The Chrysler Building lobby is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday (excluding Federal Holidays).
- Address: 405 Lexington Avenue (42nd/43rd)
- Nearest Subway: Trains 4/5/6, 7 to Grand Central
When you are in New York (or planning to come to the city) let us know if you need some help to explore all these treasures.