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Thread: Chrysler Building - Race to the Sky

  1. #1

    Default Chrysler Building - Race to the Sky

    USNews article...
    .................................................. ......

    Race to the sky

    By Jeff Glasser

    One day in April 1929 an agitated Walter Chrysler called elite architect William Van Alen into his Manhattan office. "Van, you've just got to get up and do something," said the auto magnate, according to a contemporary account. "It looks as if we're not going to be the highest after all."

    Chrysler's bid to put up the tallest building in the world, a monument to himself and American capitalism, was in jeopardy. In the canyons of Lower Manhattan, George Ohrstrom, a 34-year-old banker dubbed "the kid," was vowing to set the record at 40 Wall Street.

    "Think up something," Chrysler harangued his architect. "Your valves need grinding. There's a knock in you somewhere. Speed up your carburetor. Go to it!" The great skyscraper race was afoot.

    At 40 Wall Street, the cold calculus of money was paramount. Ohrstrom, the investment banker, chose Craig Severance, Van Alen's estranged former partner, to be the architect. The building took form from the inside out, according to Bascomb. Severance figured out how many offices he could fit on a floor, then placed the elevators and the steel columns to determine the shape of the building, which would rise 67 stories and reach 840 feet.

    Construction started in May 1929, under deadline pressure. In those days, all New York office leases began on May 1. To finish 40 Wall Street by that date in 1930, workers laid foundations for the tower even before they had finished wrecking the old building on the site.

    In August 1929, Bascomb writes, rumors reached Severance that Van Alen had tweaked the Chrysler Building to exceed the official 808 feet. Severance made his building's pyramidal top steeper and added a 60-foot steel cap to push 40 Wall Street to 925 feet.

    With three shifts working seven days a week, builder Paul Starrett met the May 1930 deadline and set a speed record for completing a skyscraper.

    But Ohrstrom, Severance, and Starrett had jumped the gun in claiming the height prize. In November 1929, with the interior still unfinished, they invited the downtown elite to a ceremony. "The World's Tallest Building Raises the Stars & Stripes to the New York Heavens," said the headline in the New York World. Unbeknownst to those assembled, Chrysler and Van Alen had outfoxed them.

    First Van Alen added an arch to the ornate steel dome, bringing the Chrysler Building to 860 feet. Then he ordered workers to assemble a 27-ton steel tip deep within the construction site. A few weeks before the Wall Street event, workers hoisted the spike--called a "vertex"--to the top. The Chrysler Building gained 186 feet instantly; at 1,046 feet, it surpassed 40 Wall Street and the Eiffel Tower, for 40 years the world's tallest structure. No one noticed until the story broke four days after the downtown ceremony.

    Gimmicks. Ohrstrom and Severance led a campaign to condemn Chrysler's dirty trick. George Chappell, the New Yorker's architecture critic, denounced Chrysler's building as "a stunt design, evolved to make the man in the street look up." In response, Chrysler hired famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White to climb 1,000 feet and take sweeping photos of his building.

    Chrysler was soon overshadowed by Raskob, who had hired Al Smith, the former presidential candidate and New York governor, as a front man. In December 1929, Smith announced to his old pals in the press that the Empire State Building would rise 202 feet taller than the Chrysler Building. Most of the elevation would come from a mooring mast for zeppelins. It soon became clear that zeppelins could not land at 1,250 feet, 102 stories above the street, because of crosswinds. That didn't faze Raskob: Topping the others was what counted.

    Raskob and Smith hired Starrett, who embarked on a second all-out construction push. Another rental deadline loomed, 11 months away. To finish by May 1, 1931, he couldn't afford to let his 3,500 men come down from the higher floors for lunch, so he built them restaurants in the unfinished building. The Empire State Building opened on time in 1931, at less than half the projected $50 million cost.

    It hardly mattered: By then the nation was mired in the Great Depression. With a 77 percent vacancy rate, critics began to call the world's tallest building the Empty State. One half-seriously suggested turning it into a hotel for New York's 1 million homeless.

    Starrett suffered a nervous breakdown, Ohrstrom lost his stake in 40 Wall Street, and Van Alen never worked on another big commission. "Another Louisiana Bubble had burst, but at least something more than paper and forlorn dreams were left," Starrett later wrote in his autobiography. "The tall buildings remained. They would stand for a long time."

  2. #2
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    Nov 2002
    New York City

    Default Chrysler Building - Race to the Sky

    I've never seen any pictures of the Chrysler before its vertex was added, to tell you the truth.

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