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The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History

Postcard from the past: When the Singer Building was the world’s tallest (NYPL)

PODCAST One World Trade Center was declared last year the tallest building in America, but it’s a very different structure from the other skyscrapers who have once held that title. In New York, owning the tallest building has often been like possessing a valuable trophy, a symbol of commercial and social superiority. In a city driven by commerce, size matters.

In this special show, I give you a rundown of the history of being tall in New York City, short profiles of the 12 structures (11 skyscrapers and one church!) that have held this title.  In several cases, these weren’t just the tallest buildings in the city; they were the tallest in the world.

At right: The Metropolitan Life Building, the tallest building in the world in 1909

Skyscrapers were not always well received.  New York’s tallest building in 1899 was derisively referred to as a “horned monster.”  Lower Manhattan became defined by this particular kind of structure, creating a canyon of claustrophobic, darkened streets.  But a new destination for these sorts of spectacular towers beckoned in the 1920s — 42nd Street.

You’ll be familiar with a great number of these — the Woolworth, the Chrysler, the Empire State.  But in the early days of skyscrapers, an odd assortment of buildings took the crown as New York’s tallest, from the vanity project of a newspaper publisher to a turtle-like tower made for a sewing machine company.

At stake in the race for the tallest is dominance in the New York City skyline.  With brand new towers popping up now all over the five boroughs, should be worried that they’ll overshadow the classics? Or should the skyline always be in a constant state of flux?

ALSO: New York’s very first tall buildings and the ominous purpose they were used for during the Revolutionary War!

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The Bowery Boys #169 The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History

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CORRECTION: Ack, I keep saying Crystal Palace Exposition when it’s actually Crystal Palace Exhibition! I mean, they basically mean the same thing, almost, right?

Photo courtesy Huffington Post

The current tallest buildings in New York City are

1) One World Trade Center — 1,776 feet
2) 432 Park Avenue — 1,394 feet
3) 225 West 57t Street — 1,394 feet
4) Empire State Building — 1,250 feet
5) Bank of America Tower — 1,200 feet
6) Three World Trade Center — 1,171 feet
7 tie) Chrysler Building — 1,046 feet
7 tie) New York Times Tower — 1,046 feet
9) One57 — 1,005 feet
10) 4 World Trade Center — 977 feet

It should be noted that eight of these buildings didn’t exist 10 years ago

Statistics courtesy the Council On Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

The sugar houses owned by the Rhinelander family. Others owned by the Van Cortlandts and the Livingstons would have all been the tallest structures in the city.

Trinity Church in 1889, the final year that it was the tallest permanent structure in New York City. (NYPL)

Trinity would be unparalleled in the New York skyline by any permanent buildings for almost 46 years.  But the Latting Observatory at the Crystal Palace Exhibition for a short time allowed New Yorkers the highest vantage on the island.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building, in context with its surroundings, including its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. This location would be its undoing, as the building was demolished later to make way for an automobile ramp.  (Courtesy Rotograph Project)

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building became a new neighbor for Trinity Church in 1894.  Its lantern top served as a lighthouse and an office for the New York Weather Bureau. (NYPL)

The Park Row Building, the original ‘twin towers’ of lower Manhattan, was criticized for its two-dimensional design but it’s managed to survive into modern times.  It used to host J&R Music World on its ground floor until that business closed last year.

The extraordinarily unusual headquarters for the Singer Sewing Machine Company.  The Singer Building has the rare distinction of being the tallest building every purposefully torn down when it was demolished in the 1960s.

Madison Square was already graced with both the Flatiron Building (below) and Madison Square Garden when it finally got its tallest skyscraper….. (NYPL)

…the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, pictured here with an early airplane above it, in a postcard produced by Underwood & Underwood. (NYPL)

The Woolworth Building (featured here on a cigarette card) is one of the greatest extant examples of pre-zoning law construction with no setbacks along the front side.

The Manhattan Company Building (or 40 Wall Street) sat among a host of other skyscrapers and was only briefly the city’s tallest building until Walter Chrysler and William Van Alen debuted their surprise uptown.

The Chrysler Building in 1930 with its spire freshly attached to the top, making it (for a little over a year) the tallest building in the world.

The Empire State Building became the tallest building — and the defining symbol of New York City — thanks to a determined executive from General Motors and Al Smith, the former governor of New York.

The World Trade Center returned attention to lower Manhattan and set a new record for height, literally leaving other former record holders in its shadow. (Photo courtesy Life Magazine)


AIA Guide To New York City 2014
Empire State Building: The Making Of A Landmark — John Tauranac
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City — Neal Bascomb
Manhattan Manners — M. Christine Boyer
Pulitzer: A Life In Politics, Print and Power — James McGrath Morris
Rise of the New York Skyscraper — Sarah Bradford Landau
Skyscrapers:A Social History of the Very Tall Building In America — George H. Douglas
Supreme City — Donald Miller
and resources from the Landmark Preservation Commission and the New York Skyscraper Museum

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library

Supreme City: The ascent of Midtown Manhattan in the 1920s

A view of Midtown Manhattan, looking southeast, by the Wurts Brothers (NYPL)

Supreme City
How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America
by Donald L. Miller
Simon & Schuster

Supreme City, by Donald L. Miller, certainly one of the most entertaining books on New York City history I’ve read in the past couple years, is also one of the strangest.  Almost as an obligation, New York’s Prohibition-fueled nightlife and the rowdy administration of Jimmy Walker are conjured up front, and colorfully so, only to then be placed aside.

This is not a book about the standard subjects of the 1920s.  This is indeed an epic about New York City in the Jazz Age, but it’s a wildly different tune than the one in which you’re familiar.

This is a tale of architecture and invention, of a boldness and proportion that New Yorkers take for granted today.  Supreme City recounts the invention of Midtown Manhattan, but it’s also about a spiritual shift in urban life.  This is the story of how New York City became not only a supreme city, but a supersized one.

Miller, a professor of history at Lafayette College perhaps better known for his works on World War II, approaches the sprawl of New York’s most ambitious decade almost like a mathematician. He ties this epic — a swirl of large personalities and impossible ideas — into a specific intersection of time and place.

It’s as though a slew of particles (comprised of ambitions and personalities) just slammed into each other one day, creating a new form of urban environment.

Industrial visions and personal journeys alike culminate in the year 1927, a watershed date for New York history, and arrive within the Manhattan grid system, mostly along 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the nucleus of a new urban vision.  The story ventures out through the entire city of course but always to the beat of this new Midtown.

From here, Miller brings in the components of growth, the great innovators and personalities, plotted in relation to each other and to the great city blossoming under their feet.

These aren’t just the standard innovators, the expected cast — David Sarnoff, Duke Ellington, Charles Lindburgh. Sure, you get a bit Texas Guinan‘s drunken swagger, a little of Jack Dempsey‘s scrappiness.  But Miller gives equal prominence to perhaps less colorful real estate gurus and planners whose contributions created the playing field of modern New York. While it’s always nice to relive the 1920s through a lens of champagne and The Great Gatsby, Miller’s concern is with the players who actually built the city.

The engineer William Wilgus receives deserved placement in Supreme City for his innovations of covering the unpleasant tracks of Grand Central to create acres of new land, “taking wealth from the air” and inventing New York’s ultimate canyon of wealth — Park Avenue.

Architect Emery Roth brought the apartment skyscraper to Midtown and practically invented the allure of the penthouse.  The almost faceless Fred French — his section is actually called “Who on Earth was Fred French?” — turned the apartment complex into a swanky, thematic thrill with such Midtown projects as Tudor City (a 1928 illustration pictured at left).

Of course, it took the wealthiest New Yorkers to fuel these changes. New money sparked the new playing field.  The old families hastened their migration up Fifth Avenue, their mansions abandoned, torn down and replaced with the high-end shops in which they would later shop.

While department store masters like Edwin Goodman swept out the socialites to build his Fifth Avenue temple of commerce Bergdorf-Goodman, the pleasant rivalry between Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden helped generate the avenue’s reputation of social perfection and high glamour.

Sensing the upward surge of Midtown — its almost-amoral infinite rise — impresarios like Samuel “Roxy” Rothefeld, Florenz Ziegfeld and George “Tex” Rickard rose to create venues to corral the masses.  Midtown became home in the 1920s to the industries of entertainment — publishing, radio, television.  Even Seventh Avenue below Times Square found purpose in the swell as America’s Garment District.

As Midtown grew in the 1920s, the instruments of getting there also rose to the challenge, finally conquering the Hudson River, from the Holland Tunnel to the George Washington Bridge.

The story is so big that Miller can’t contain all of it. Supreme City captures that place before the Great Depression, perhaps New York’s single most decadent moment. He does not venture out into the other boroughs and rarely even ventures below 42nd Street. From the vantage of the Chrysler Building — the treasure most indicative of the age — those places are hazy and distant.  By the last page of this heavy tome, Midtown Manhattan creates everything, drives everything, almost entirely is everything.  That energy is certainly infectious, making Supreme City is an rich, propelling read.

The Avengers Disassemble the MetLife Building

Fare thee well, you who we once called the Pan Am. We hardly knew thee. Image from Comic Book Movie

Warning: This story contains light spoilers.

Recent fantasy films and TV shows have found ways to alter New York City through the creation of alternate universes.  On Fox’s Fringe, a parallel world features a New York where the World Trade Center wasn’t destroyed, the Department of Defense is in a newly-bronzed Statue of Liberty, and Robert Moses never drove the Dodgers from Brooklyn. (The show also showed us what the skyline might look like with some Antonio Gaudi architecture.)

Comic book movies delight in showing super villains destroying the city — this summer’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ blows up bridges and ravages Federal Hall, while ‘The Amazing Spider-man’ will trash Midtown — and sometimes they even re-write history itself.

In ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’, the title character, a resident of Red Hook, discovers underground government laboratories in downtown Brooklyn during World War II.  Elsewhere in this Marvel Comics timeline, Moses’ World’s Fair of 1939-40 was such a smashing success that Tony Stark (aka ‘Iron Man’) turns the site into a year-round glittering expo of technology!

The latest Marvel adventure ‘The Avengers’ takes a more proactive approach to revising the city landscape, as though the entire film was a surly New Yorker architecture critic.

Thanks to the Commissioners Plan of 1811, allowing for a grid striped with long uninterrupted canyons, grotesque alien beings from Asgard can fly down the avenues unabated, wrecking havoc through Manhattan — Park Avenue in particular. Fortunately our heroes gather at Grand Central Terminal‘s traffic overpass, a critical location that they turn into a picturesque battleground. (Honorary Avenger Cornelius Vanderbilt, or at least his old statue from St. John’s terminal, stands resolutely in the background, ready to employ his superpower of acquiring railroads.)

But one famous New York building is notably missing from these shenanigans. Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., has constructed an energy-efficient new supertower for Stark Industries right on Park Avenue itself. To build this, he has clearly gotten permission from the city to methodically dismantle the MetLife Building (the former Pan Am Building).

The filmmakers have specifically chosen not to merely erase the MetLife Building, but to specifically display it being taken apart. The building is shown greatly reduced in height, decorated with cranes disassembling it like a tinker toy.

While other buildings enjoy the glamour of being reduced to rubble by gigantic mechanical space fish, the MetLife is ignobly taken apart to be replaced by an even taller, uglier structure. In fact, the dismantling looks a bit like this picture, an image of the Pan Am Building during construction in 1969:

(You can find a few more interesting construction pics here.)

The MetLife Building is easily one of the most disrespected structures in Manhattan and has been almost since the beginnings. Ada Louise Huxtable famously wrote: “A $100 million building cannot really be called cheap. But Pan Am is a colossal collection of minimums.”

According to author Meredith Clausen, “The Pan Am Building and the reaction to it signaled the end of an era. Begun when the modernist aesthetic and the architectural star system ruled architectural theory and practice, the completed building became a symbol of modernism’s fall from grace.”

Its broad-shouldered silhouette calls a halt to Park Avenue in a dated style that hovers between two Beaux-Arts structures (Grand Central to its south, the Helmsley Building to its north). Yet people blame the building for somehow ‘ruining’ Park Avenue — when the two other structures already blocked it — and its sly octagonal shape today makes it one of New York’s more interesting Brutalist-style examples.

Modernism happened, and if you use the same criteria that we might apply to other treasured New York structures, then the MetLife Building is a unique and exemplary building. But can you ever imagine a time when the MetLife Building might ever be landmarked?

This is what I was thinking while Thor and the Hulk were tearing into alien lifeforms.

But ‘The Avengers’ isn’t entirely disrespectful of architecture. In fact, the Chrysler Building is practically fetishized as an ideal view from the newly built penthouse of the Stark Building.

Its antenna spire, which makes it New York’s fourth largest building, is even utilized by Thor in the battle to save the Earth. William Van Alen, the building’s architect, would have been quite amused. This very spire was hoisted to the top of the structure from within the building itself in October 1929, a surprise accessory that allowed the Chrysler to take the title of New York’s tallest building from 40 Wall Street.

For more information on the controversies surrounding the MetLife Building, check out the ‘illustrated’ version of our podcast (Episode #61). Download it from iTunes or directly from here.

Pic above courtesy Bleeding Cool

A new ‘Metropolis’ — for our metropolis — at the Ziegfeld

Fritz Lang claims the Manhattan skyline influenced the look of his film ‘Metropolis’ . In fact, the film’s fantasy city resembles futuristic sketches rendered by American magazine illustrators of the late 19th century.

The giant screen at the Ziegfeld Theatre goes silent this Friday as a two-week run of Fritz Lang’s fantasy masterpiece ‘Metropolis’ opens, featuring the famously restored print — with 30 minutes of newly integrated footage — that presents the most complete version of the movie ever screened in the city. This version originally debuted at the Film Forum back in May, but the Ziegfeld’s massive screen — the largest in the city — and classic cinema setting should make this an unforgettable event.

The Ziegfeld seats a little over 1,100 people. The film made its New York debut on March 3, 1927 on a much bigger screen, the Rialto, on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, which could accommodate over 1,900 filmgoers at one time. (And that was considered a medium-sized theater for its day.) In the days when single films toured to various cities in succession, ‘Metropolis’ was a bonafide box office favorite for New Yorkers, raking in just over $150,000 during a six week run, back when the price of movie tickets ranged from 30 to 90 cents. Below: the Rialto Theatre in 1917

What was shown to audiences in 1927 would have made cineastes wither with shame, a “butchered, disjointed ” version released by Paramount Pictures, with whole reels of the film discarded, “16 reels to 7, resulting in a plot with ‘more holes than a pound of rigatoni.'” (Cesar J. Rotondi).” [source] In place of those reels were a couple shorts, including a scenic documentary called ‘Steamer Day’.

The version of ‘Metropolis’ being shown at the Ziegfeld is the truest to the filmmaker’s original vision. And a perfect home for it, too, as Lang had always claimed that the film was inspired by a journey to New York. On October 12 1924, while being kept in the harbor aboard the vessel SS Deutschland awaiting entry, Lang caught sight of the city skyline for the first time, “completely new and fairy-tale like for a European. I knew then that I had to make a film about all of these sensations.”

As production on ‘Metropolis’ began just five months later, however, there were undoubtedly other inspirations before Manhattan, and many film historians believe Lang told of his New York inspiration as a way to promote the movie.

New York critics were all over the map in their appreciation. “There is altogether too much of Metropolis…too much scenery, too many people, too much plot and too many platitudinous ideas,” proclaimed the critic from Life Magazine. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times was kinder: “Nothing like “Metropolis” has been seen on the screen. It, therefore, stands alone, in some respects, as a remarkable achievement.” Before adding, “It is a technical marvel with feet of clay, a picture as soulless as the manufactured woman of its story.” (They were watching the heavily edited version, so we’ll give them a pass.)

The film had left New York by May 1927 — the era of sound movies would come that summer with ‘The Jazz Singer’ — but it left one spiritual mark on the city: three years later, architect William Van Alen pays the film a subconscious nod when the spire of the Chrysler Building is raised May 20, 1930.

The History of (Destroying) New York City

I apologize for the second post in a row about films, but I had to ask the question, when did destroying New York become hot again?

This Friday is the opening of I Am Legend, an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic thriller about the last non-zombiefied human being alive. In this case, he resides in New York City, the population wiped out by a virus. Nice to know that the last representative of the human race is charming, witty, and a former rapper.

If that’s not enough doomsday for you, JJ Abrams brings us Cloverfield next month, about a sea monster ‘the size of a skyscraper’ ravaging New York. I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I found out that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening releasing next spring, takes out Philadelphia.

Tokyo may be the one with the most movie monsters attacking it in film history, but New York has taken it pretty hard from a variety of fictional sources. Here’s the top ten (I left out films that actually destroy the whole earth):

1. King Kong (1933)
Sure, they destroy more in a run-of-the-mill Fantastic Four or Spider-man movie these days than ole Kong does here, but the sheer novelty at the time of urban carnage was enough to petrify audiences. His attack on the elevated train is still terrifying. Thank God he merely climbs the Empire State Building.

2. Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Atomicly-woken prehistoric beastie with germ-infested blood plays tourist in Manhattan, eventually finding a suitable lodging at a roller-coaster in Coney Island. The movie is flat and plotless, but love that Ray Harryhousen stop-motion monster. If it wasn’t so destructive, the monster might be a little lovable.

3. Planet of the Apes (1968)
By placing it on this list, I suppose I’ve spoiled the ending for you.

4. Escape From New York (1981)
John Carpenter takes a different approach to the Manhattan destruction theme — turning it into a gigantic prison — and along the way, makes a potent comment about New York in the late 70s.

5. Ghostbusters (1984)
New York City has seen its share of monsters. From the skies, we’ve had Q: the Winged Serpent. From below, C.H.U.D. And in our elevators, those damned Gremlins! Even Godzilla‘s taken a snack by the Flatiron Building, years before the opening of the Shake Shack. But no big baddie comes closer to the hearts of New Yorkers than the sugary goodness of this sweet ectoplasmic ogre, successfully dispatched by Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray.

6.Independence Day (1996)
Destroying New York City really came into its own cinematically in the 90s. The unease at seeing our fair city blown to smithereens by alien blasts is offset by the cries of joy of future architects and city planners at the alien’s first target — the Pan Am/Met Life building. It is sort of awful seeing Park Avenue South wiped away by flames. Some great restaurants, gone in a flash!

7. The Siege (1998)
Technically the only movie on the list that really ‘could’ happen, however the filmmakers glee is killing off mass groups of New Yorkers is just plain sadistic. The bombing of a Broadway theater — look, that rich woman is missing her arm! — is of particular poor taste. Maybe it would have been easier to swallow had the movie been actually, you know, good.

8. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Steven Spielberg creates some graceful carnage — waterfalls and flocks of birds among toppled buildings — and includes a vision of a destroyed Twin Towers in a rather unfortunate year of release. Don’t get too depressed however; his recollection of the city is hardly too accurate. One of the buildings is literally just a Apple computer subwoofer dressed up to look like a building.

9. Deep Impact (1998) and Day After Tomorrow(2004)
These two films are pretty abysmal, but the creative ways in which they treat New York City like children’s toys in the hands of natural catastrophe is at least notable. Heck, and even I’ll throw in the meteor madness of Armageddon (1998), which dares to take specific note to flatten the Chrysler Building along with everything else. And for the sheer cheese factor, I cant forget to mention the 1999 made for TV Aftershock: Earthquake in New York.

*sigh* Lady Liberty, just can’t catch a break…

10. King Kong (2005)
In the rather campy remake from 1976, Kong tackles the World Trade Center. By the time Peter Jackson got around to remaking it, he’s back on top of the Empire State and wrecking a bit more havoc than his prior incarnation.

Honorable Mention: New Yorkers should be honored to know that in the Japanese monster classic Destroy All Monsters (1968) set in the future (aka 1999), New York City is in fact destroyed by Godzilla before he gets to Tokyo.

Monster madness at the Chrysler Building

BOWERY BOYS RECOMMEND is an occasional feature whereby we find an unusual movie or TV show that — whether by accident or design — uniquely captures an era of New York City better than any reference or history book.

By the early 80s, New York City has already seen its absolute nadir as a fiscally and morally bankrupt urban center and was fully comfortable with its place in the gutter. The crime rate wouldn’t improve for another decade, but at least Wall Street was picking up the city’s financial fortunes by the lapels. Punk is strangling disco in the back alley, the city struggles through transit strikes, smog and a sudden rise in homelessness.

So it is in that light in which the piece of glorious grade-A schlock “Q: The Winged Serpent,” released in 1982, must be judged.

Chrysler Building architect William Van Alen would be horrified to learn that the graceful tapering top hat of his most famous building becomes home of a loathsome flying dragon and a gigantic nest of eggs. As if possessed with a little of Van Alen’s spite at being quickly overtaken in less than a year by the taller Empire State Building, the first scene of “Q” involves the dragon popping over and snatching off the head of an Empire State window washer.

Q swiftly makes a go at New Yorkers sunning themselves on rooftops or in private swimming pools, an inverted Jaws scenario. As such, her victims are mostly upper class, young and rich. There’s a perverse joy at seeing a montage of New Yorkers staring into the sky and being slathered in fake looking blood.

Q also has a ball hanging around the pyramid-topped Bankers Trust building in the financial district. Curiously, few New Yorkers notice this massive monster jetting between uptown and down.

Just how did a winged serpent (it really looks like a dinosaur from Land of the Lost) get to Manhattan? According to the ham-fisted plot, it involves an ancient sacrificial cult, located at the Museum of Natural History, who have summoned the Aztek god Quetzlcoatl via a trail of skinned, sacrificial bodies.

David Carradine and Richard Roundtree (Kung Fu and Shaft) lead the investigation, in a depiction of the New York police force that is hardly flattering. Michael Moriarty is a sad-sack conman — roughed up down by South Street Seaport — who discovers the serpent hideaway during a completely superfluous chase scene through the Chrysler.

And, oh, did I mention the cop dressed as a mime who stays in makeup for the whole film? Whatever happened to the good old fashioned New York mime, I ask you?

By sheer function of the story, “Q” happens to be one of the best depictions of New York City in the early 1980s. That’s because the ‘serpent’, in all its cheesy stop-motion glory, frequently soars over New York midtown, allowing the viewer to soak in its former splendor. I had a blast freezeframing these scenes and trying to figure out what I was looking at; given the swift makeover of midtown Manhattan, its harder than you think.

Director Larry Cohen, known for other B-movie fare like ‘Black Caesar’ and ‘It’s Alive’, supposedly got the entire idea for the film by looking up at the Chrysler and thinking, “That’d be the coolest place to have a nest.” Probably not the reaction Walter Chrysler wanted when he first commissioned it.

“Q: the Winged Serpent” is currently available on DVD and is probably shamelessly gathering dust at your local video store.

By the way, should we be surprised that the Natural History museum is currently hosting an exhibit called Mythic Creatures that actually features Quetzlcoatl?

PODCAST: The Chrysler Building

Ah, the classic Chrysler Building! She’s got style, glamour and all that jazz. But what magical surprise did she spring on New York in October of 1929? Join us as we tell the story of New York’s most beautiful art deco treasure.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

The picture above is of famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who had an studio on the 61st floor of the Chrysler. Her iconic photographs of the building helped create the building’s mystique as a sleek, magical tower. Of course later, as a correspondent for Life Magazine, she became one of the most intregal documenters of World War II, particularly the bombing of Moscow.

One unusual aspect of the Chrysler building is that it’s ‘something you look up at’. At street level and for several floors up, its a rather drab structure. In fact there are many buildings nearby that exhibit a far more striking art-deco style at street level, including the Chanin Building just across the street, and the Daily News Building a block away.

But the top of the Chrysler more than makes up for it, with its silver spire and repetitions of triangular sunbursts draped in silver nickel steel (a specialty metal called Nirosta designed by the German company Krupp). The real punch of the Chrysler at night comes with these triangular windows, with their almost crown-like appearance, which pierce the night and create truly dramatic scenes on foggy evenings.

Photo at right: Courtesy Frank Jermann, Voelzberg, Germany 

 The Cloud Room, a swanky nightclub and speakeasy in the 30s, occupied the top floors until the 1970s. As with many things in New York at that time, the building fell into disrepair in the 70s and 80s; thankfully much of its luster has been returned thanks to the current owners Tishman Speyer. Given the recent trend of restoring New York landmarks to their former glory, might we see a return of the Cloud Room in the near future?

Van Alen was racing to build the Chrysler Building before his former estranged business partner H. Craig Severance finished with the building down at 40 Wall Street. Severance finished first, but Van Alen stole his thunder by erecting the Chrysler spire which pushed its height above 1,000 feet.

The 40 Wall Street building, still impressive but far less ornate, has had a rather rocky history. Referred to as the “Crown Jewel of Wall Street,” it held the title of world’s tallest building for all of four days. At one time known as the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building, it was hit by a Coast Guard plane in 1946, killing four people. In the 90s it was bought by Donald Trump, who funded extensive renovations and turned it all to commercial space. It’s actually called The Trump Building now. The American Express headquarters is housed here. According to Real Estate Weekly, 40 Wall Street is the tallest mid-block building in the world, which I guess has some sort of cache.

Incidentally, a former 40 Wall Street building which stood in its spot was office to the first president of the New York Stock and Exchange Board when it was first organized in 1817.

As for the Severance’s former partner, Van Alen did bask in a brief fame as architect of the Chrysler, despite Walter Chrysler’s refusal to pay him the remainer of his commission for the project due to bribery. Perhaps strangely, his most circulated photograph actually has him dressed up as the Chrysler Building. The event was the 1931 Beaux-Arts Ball for the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects. Van Alen was a student in Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts and was a regular attendent at these high-class and often rowdy functions. This New York Times article gives a thorough recap of the event. But just to put it in perspective, many architects came that year dressed as the buildings they created, including William F. Lamb as his newly constructed Empire State Building. The jovial bunch is featured below:

And finally, I apologize for giving short shrift on the podcast to the work of Edward Turnbull, who painted the brilliantly colored ceiling mural in the lobby of the Chrysler Building.

A mixture of Sistine Chapel magnificence and perhaps a bit of prescient Communist-esque propaganda, “Transport and Human Endeavor” is actually one of the largest indoor murals in the world, displaying an enthusiasm for American progress and mechanical ingenuity. Lit in the warm glow bouncing off the marbled wall and oak floor, the mural hides many fascinating details full of blimps, airplanes and automobiles. Just make sure you dont stumble over one of the building security guards as you look upwards.

You can find another lovely picture of it here

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