Roaring 20s Skyscrapers The Jazz Age

The Chrysler Building and the Great Skyscraper Race

The Chrysler Building remains one of America’s most beautiful skyscrapers and a grand evocation of Jazz Age New York. But this architectural tribute to the automobile is also the greatest reminder of a furious construction surge that transformed the city in the 1920s.

After World War I, New York became newly prosperous, one of the undisputed business capitals of the world. The tallest building was the Woolworth Building, but the city’s rise in prominence demanded new, taller towers, taking advantage of improvements in steel-frame construction and a clever ‘wedding cake’ zoning law that allowed for ever-higher buildings.

Into this world came William Van Alen and H. Craig Severance, two former architectural partners who had unamicably separated and were now designing rival skyscrapers. Each man wanted to make the tallest building in the world.

But Van Alan had the upper hand, backed by one of America’s most famous businessmen — Walter Chrysler. His automobiles were the coolest, sleekest vehicles in the marketplace. His brand required a skyscraper of radical design and surprising height.

Stages in the design for the Chrysler building, 1929 (courtesy NYPL)

In 1930, the Chrysler became the tallest building in the world, a title it held until the Empire State Building.

Just ten years ago, the Chrysler Building was the fourth tallest in New York City. Today, however, it’s the thirteenth tallest building in the city. And that’s because of a new skyscraper surge shaping the city’s skyline, with supertalls making the skyscrapers of old feel very small in comparison.

It can be bewildering to see the skyline change so rapidly. But that’s exactly how New Yorkers felt exactly one century ago.


Midtown Manhattan, 1930s, around Grand Central, courtesy NYPL
A view of the Chrysler Building from the RCA Building, 1946, courtesy NYPL
The Chrysler Building as seen from the Third Avenue El, 1952, courtesy NYPL
From Popular Science Monthly 1930
40 Wall Street, from a postcard illustration, courtesy Skyscraper Museum
….and another.
40 Wall Street in 1930 from the Seaport, photo by Ewing Galloway, courtesy NYPL



American Rhapsody : Writers, Musicians, Millionaires, Movie Stars and One Great Building / Claudia Roth Pierpont
Billionaires’ Row: Tycoons, High Rollers, and the Epic Race to Build the World’s Most Exclusive Skyscrapers / Katherine Clarke
Capital of the World: A Portrait of New York in the Roaring 20s / David Wallace
The Chrysler Building : Creating a New York Icon, Day By Day / David Stravitz
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City / Neal Bascomb
Skyscraper: The Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century / Benjamin Flowers
Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America / Donald Miller

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